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Voting frights

Judging people by a name
By SHAY STEWART-BOULEY  |  April 1, 2009

When I heard about the bill being bandied about in the Maine State House that would allow non-US citizens to vote in local elections, I said to myself, "Hmmmmm."

Actually, I said that several times, but the loudest wasn't in relation to the bill's implications. Rather, it was upon reading some online comments about the story — which, in general, are often more entertaining than the articles they respond to.

What got my attention was when some people wrote that they can't believe they are agreeing with someone named "Mohamud."

You see, in the Portland Press Herald article about this proposal, Mohamud Barre, president of the Somali Culture and Development Association of Maine, expressed concern that many immigrants aren't informed enough to vote.

"They don't know what's going on, they don't speak English," Barre, a Somalian immigrant, told the paper. He noted that when immigrants earn their voting rights through getting citizenship, they will have improved their English and learned about the United States, making them more informed voters, and, he concluded: "They have at least learned what's going on — they can make a decision."

It's not surprising that some people might think similarly. But the fact that some of them "can't believe I'm agreeing with a guy named Mohamud" bugs me on several levels.

One, it assumes that we can — or should — judge people by a name. But it appears we do: I have had experiences where the response changed markedly when I shifted from using my full first name to "Shay." Research studies have shown that "black sounding" or "ethnic" names can cause others to make often negative assumptions.

Second, it seems to play into the whole Islam-fearing notion that lies as an undercurrent in our society. It suggests we shouldn't trust people with Arabic names because they must be Muslim and, therefore, they must hate America. We've carried that feeling too long — since even before the World Trade Center went down in rubble and flames — and we need to shed it.

Finally, these kinds of comments buy into the silly stereotypical assumption that people of a certain group all think alike.

I know some people who say "I can't believe I'm agreeing with a guy named Mohamud" are trying to be light. But it isn't funny. And those who aren't trying to be humorous are plain ignorant and need to expand their minds, whether they are redneck, blue-collar, white-collar, stay-at-home parents, or whatever.

Now that I've ranted, you're probably wondering what I think about this bill. Hell, I would have started with that topic if I didn't already suspect that Al Diamon or someone else is shortly going to address it.

I think it's a questionable and probably bad idea. I'm not a big believer in the "slippery slope" theory. I don't see same-sex marriage being a gateway to legalization of incest, sex with children or animals, or polygamy, as too many folks seem to believe. I don't believe that marijuana leads to people becoming crackheads or crank users or heroin addicts, either. But extending voting rights in local elections probably would one day lead to people saying, "Why not state elections or even federal ones?"

I do believe that if someone is going to live in a country, they should be pursuing citizenship, and I hesitate to have them in the voting both before they have achieved it, for much the same reason Mohamud noted.

So, guess what? A lot of you may be surprised now to find that you not only agree with a guy named Mohamud, but also a loud-mouthed activist black woman with a fake-African-sounding name (and no, I won't tell you what it is).

Shay Stewart-Bouley can be reached at diversecity_phoenix@yahoo.com.

  Topics: News Features , Elections and Voting, Politics, Maine,  More more >
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