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The racial politics behind anti-immigration jokes


When friends joke and laugh together, they share in an age-old practice that generates warm feelings, bringing them closer together. But what happens when 6 million people laugh at a political joke — more precisely, the jokes of late-night talk show host Jay Leno, whose nightly audience is larger than the daily combined readership of the top three national newspapers?

I had never wondered about this question until a student of mine, José E. Flores, asked why such an engaging personality as Leno had alienated many of his Chicano viewers. This was last spring, during the unparalleled nationwide demonstrations that called for greater respect for Latino immigrant workers. And Leno, in his shows, was ridiculing them.

Using a set of well-established semantic tools, I analyzed 32 of Leno’s anti-immigration jokes delivered over six days, from April 24 to May 2. Although Leno satirizes President Bush and Senator Hillary Clinton in some of these jokes, he directly targets immigrants in 18 of them.

Here’s a sample that sent Leno’s audience into titters: “At a speech in San Diego this morning, President Bush said that proposals for massive deportation of illegal immigrants are unrealistic. Unrealistic, he says.… Funny, but isn’t that what Mexico has already done?”

A few days later, Leno exclaimed: “It’s terrible! Gas now costs $3.85 a gallon. You know, it’s cheaper to have illegal immigrants push your car than to fill the tank.”

Most of Leno’s viewers have come across the pitiful sight of someone struggling to move a broken-down car out of traffic. Such a figure gains our sympathy in an instant. Yet the subtext of Leno’s joke is that the value of an unauthorized immigrant is far lower than the family car. Only those who have significant cultural and political anxieties about brown-skinned immigrants can laugh at such a joke.

Leno often invokes false stereotypes for a laugh. Citing the Wall Street Journal, he said in one of his most offensive jokes: “In 1968, the average Mexican woman had seven children. Today, she has two children in Mexico. The other five are in the U.S.”

Of all the possible provocations, the butt of this joke is the Mexican mother, but what’s especially nasty about it is that Leno falsely revives the old stereotype that Mexicans are excessively fertile. After referring to a journalistic authority, he deliberately misrepresents the facts by not mentioning that Mexico’s birth rate has plummeted to its current 2.4 children per woman, which now closely trails the 2.1 rate of the United States. The last sentence of Leno’s joke is, to his shame, a complete fabrication.

Although his jokes are not overtly violent or crude, it’s clear that Leno is a cheerful hatemonger. By laughing at his jokes, his audience claims superiority over an “inferior Other” — the proverbial butt of a joke. Leno’s jokes reinforce social boundaries — at the expense of the nation’s most vulnerable people. Most importantly, his audience can dismiss immigrants’ call for justice while indulging in risk-free laughter with Jay. With his help, millions of Americans regularly sleep the sleep of the righteous.

Santa Ana is associate professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies. This op-ed is based on a “Race, Ethnicity and Politics” workshop he recently held on campus. On Dec. 7 at 4 p.m., he will give a public lecture on this topic at the Charles E. Young Research Library.

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