In 1923, there was a 31-year-old man applying to become a naturalized citizen of the United States. He was college-educated and a U.S. Army veteran. His case ended up going all the way up to the Supreme Court, where his petition for citizenship was ultimately rejected. It was rejected because, even though Bhagat Thind was classified as Caucasian (a racial category used at the time but since debunked), the Court deemed that he was not a white man, and therefore not eligible for citizenship per the laws of that time.
Most of us have heard about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. There’s more to America’s immigration story. After World War I, the National Origin Act of 1924 also sought “to confine immigration as much as possible to western and northern European stock.” As recently as 1954, the Attorney General, Herbert Brownwell, launched a program he dubbed “Operation Wetback,” in which he deported half a million people to Mexico, more than half of them U.S. citizens. This bears repeating: hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens were deported from the U.S. as recently as 1954.
In 1954, our current president was ten years old. The America of 1954 and the America of 2018 are worlds apart. There were no cell phones in 1954, and no internet. The Korean War had just ended and Vietnam hadn’t happened yet, and neither had 9/11. The Montgomery bus boycott was still one year away. But the two Americas are not so far apart that a single lifetime cannot span them. Why does this matter?
It matters because many of us, whether we were alive in 1954 or not, think that we are past racism. We are “post-racial,” we are an advanced and civilized society. The Civil Rights Movement happened, some laws were passed, and we are all good now. We think everyone knows that race is not genetically dictated and does not, in any case, dictate your character or your humanity. (Didn’t know that? Or don’t believe it? I have some good reading to recommend. Or go attend some lectures. Watch some documentaries. However you learn, go educate yourself.) But we are not so far removed from the America of 1954 that its racism does not still run thick through the nation’s veins.
Yesterday, our president used extremely vulgar language to describe immigrants from Haiti and African countries, saying we should instead be attracting immigrants from Norway. Let me be clear: the language wasn’t describing the countries’ governments. If it was, he would have included places like Yemen, or Syria, or Ukraine. The language he was using was describing the people, and specifically, black people. It is shocking and angering, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. His words were vile and offensive, no doubt, but we first have to acknowledge that many Americans still believe that what he said is true (the “at least he says it like it is without being PC” defense). And until we acknowledge that this belief is not Donald Trump’s alone, we cannot address the fact that Trump isn’t “saying it how it is,” he’s saying it how he thinks it is, and so are the people who agree with him. And until we get them to understand that this is not, in fact, how it is, we cannot truly advance as a country.
A lot of ugliness has been unveiled in the last year, and a lot of ignorance. It is disheartening and it is, sometimes, frankly frightening. But it has to be unveiled in order to be eradicated. What gives me hope is that many people have also shown a lot of bravery and a lot of kindness and a lot of intelligence in this past year. And while I don’t claim to have many answers, I have hope in those things. We will never be a perfect country where every person is well informed and well-intentioned, but I believe we can be a whole lot better than we are right now.
Donald Trump’s racism is not just his problem. It is not just his problem for two reasons: the first is that he represents and speaks for all of America, whether we like it or not. The second reason is that he is not the only one who holds these views. So it’s all of ours to work through. And we begin by knowing our history.
Recommendations I think would be helpful:
Books on Immigration, compiled by the Smithsonian
Books on Race, with this second list. Take note of the books that appear on both.
Readings on race and immigration featured on PBS
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-Blindness. The New Press, 2012.
Ian Haney Lopez, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York University Press, 2006.
U.S. COMMISSION ON CIVIL RIGHTS, The Tarnished Golden Door: Civil Rights Issues in Immigration (Sept. 1980).