If you go by certain columnists and news reports, you see a clear dividing line: good hard-working immigrants -- legal, illegal, it makes no difference -- who supported the May 1 Great American Boycott versus conservative white racists, who like cheap lettuce but hate immigrants.
I agree that illegal immigrants are, for the most part, good, hard-working folk, but that's where the truth of the stereotype ends. The hundreds of e-mails I've receive in the last week -- overwhelmingly in support of my opposition to the boycott, even in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area -- belie the propaganda spewed by the boycotters and swallowed whole by too many journalists. The story is not one of good, open-minded immigrants versus bad, closed-minded racists.
For one thing, many legal immigrants opposed the boycott. If you work in California, you probably saw immigrants on the job in your workplace on Monday. Maybe they sympathized with the boycott. Maybe they didn't.
Attorney Manny Madriaga from San Jose, Calif., wrote that he is "a small businessman and a naturalized citizen. I immigrated to the U.S. because it is a nation of laws and it has a vibrant democracy. Any group that shoves signs in our collective faces that they are above the law does not have a place in the United States of America."
Pat, a proud Mexican-American from Orange County, Calif., who didn't want to release her last name, told me she would rather see protests against the high Latino dropout rate or corrupt Mexican government. And, "I have to go shopping after work, my own small contribution to the anti-boycott programs."
A number of readers told of spouses or friends battling with the bureaucracy to win legal status -- they were furious that protesters don't think they have to follow the law.
Non-white Americans have issues, too. A woman from Southern California phoned to tell me she is half African-American and part Native-American, and she is sick of watching trauma centers close because hospitals are going broke caring for the uninsured.
This is not a Republican-Democrat issue, either. The April 12 Field Poll found that less than one-third of voters in left-leaning California -- only 44 percent of Democrats -- back allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.
Supporters of the May 1 boycott often cite racism as the reason Americans want to limit immigration. I am ashamed to say that some people who oppose illegal immigration spout racist venom.
Nonetheless, it is a mistake to see the pro-illegal forces as free of the racist taint. I'm not just talking about Los Angeles marchers seen yelling "hueros" (white people) in front of businesses open on May 1. The very notion that illegal immigrants do the work Americans won't do -- also voiced by President Bush-- is predicated on the unspoken notion that black people won't take jobs illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America grab, while white people don't want to work hard, although they are happy to buy cheap products (as if consumers have a choice).
Beneath the public dialogue is an ugly undercurrent of racism that emerges when people are not speaking for public consumption.
One reader e-mailed that the May 1 marchers "are better Americans than the white trash that dominates our welfare system; they are better than the crybaby black males who are now proclaiming that illegal aliens are the greatest threat to blacks since slavery."
A San Franciscan chided me for being mean-spirited about Latinos -- I wasn't -- when anyone who lives in the Bay Area knows that "Asians have totally taken over this city and surrounding areas with their wealth, greed and filthy personal habits."
There was a time in my career when someone would call me a "racist," and I'd be furious at the facile belief that if you oppose illegal immigration, you are anti-Latino. This week, and not for the first time, I heard from Latinos who oppose illegal immigration but love their heritage. I also heard from illegal-immigration supporters who suggested I was a racist -- but they were the ones spewing hate-filled stereotypes.