I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a common refrain from the last few years, often uttered in response to the latest headline on immigration policy: “This isn’t America.” “This isn’t what our nation is about.” “This isn’t who we are.”
Liberal-minded people said it in the first week of Trump’s presidency when he signed the “Muslim ban” executive order.
They said it the following year when news broke that ICE was not only separating children from their parents but holding them in cage-like facilities.
They continue to say it in response to news about law enforcement officers and agencies cracking down when people protest or provide humanitarian aid.
The thing is—sadly—they’re wrong. This absolutely is America, and is what our nation is about.
I agree whole-heartedly that this isn’t who we are as individual citizens: the majority of Americans today are rightly horrified when they learn about these sorts of xenophobic, cruel, and undemocratic practices.
Horrifying, yes. But why would we find any of this news “shocking” or “mind boggling”? To say that Trump is sullying or fouling or infecting the soul of the nation implies that the nation’s soul was previously clean and healthy. This is not the case. If we individual citizens are surprised at our governments’ practices, and exclaim that Trump has conjured all this in the last few years, I have to wonder whether we know our own history.
It would be nice to believe the myths that most of us were taught in school: that America is a fundamentally liberal, progressive democracy with enlightened attitudes about race and equality and a system that has enshrined liberty and justice for all.
It would be convenient to believe that these current xenophobic, cruel, and undemocratic practices are an aberration, because then we could deal with that aberration superficially and return to being a just society.
The fact is, though: America is a nation established on land stolen incrementally over the centuries in a long, strategic campaign of violence. That campaign was motivated by racist disdain for the people who lived here and a belief in the inherent superiority and entitlement of people from northern Europe.
America is a nation founded on the principle that people from other regions of the world were subhuman and destined to labor in service of the superior race. Their subhuman status is enshrined in our constitution and has since been enshrined in countless discriminatory laws across the states.
America is a nation that has actively restricted immigration from specific regions of the world decade by decade depending on the latest patterns of migration and sentiments of disgust: against the Irish, against the Italians, against people from eastern Europe, against Jews, against people from China and Mexico and, now, Muslims and Central Americans.
America is a nation that incarcerates its own citizens based on their race, from people of Japanese descent in internment camps during World War II to people of African or Latino descent in today’s prison industrial complex.
This is America.
This is what America has been about for as long as it’s existed. There has never been an era of true racial equality, true welcome for immigrants or refugees, true liberty and justice for all.
To be sure, Trump and his administration are encouraging, condoning, and pardoning the very worst practices with regards to immigration. I am absolutely, unequivocally opposed to their racist rhetoric and cruel policies. I’m devastated that, where past movements and leaders have inched America toward more humane systems, those in power now have so utterly reversed that progress.
Still… Trump and his administration are a symptom, not a cause, of America’s fundamental white nationalism. We have always had, and continue to have, white supremacists in Congress. Law enforcement agencies in particular have a long history of violence toward non-whites; Border Patrol and ICE agents abused their powers long before this presidency. Xenophobic bans? Cages? Mass arrests? I’m past the point of finding anything our government does shocking or discordant with our national history.
It is facile and meaningless to express shock—shock!—when faced with news that the president has barred immigrants from certain regions and condoned inhumane enforcement practices at the border. It is factually incorrect and self-deluding to bemoan that this isn’t the America we know and love. We can’t just pin the latest atrocities on the politicians who are currently in power. We need to be honest about our nation’s long history of xenophobia, racism, and state-sponsored violence, baked into all our systems from the start.
Only then can we recognize our roles in those systems, and take responsibility for actively resisting them.
PS. Not convinced? Here’s a brief primer on America’s history of white nationalism.
May 9, 201912:01 AM ET