Xenophobic Sentiment, America's Real and Enduring Race Card
Good morning Americans, it’s the year 2017 in the U.S. of A. Or is it 1640? No wait, is it 1882, 1896, 1942 or 1950? This past week we have heard the terms “un-American” and “foreign” flung around with great (and some would say alarming) frequency. The aforementioned dates are not arbitrary or random; they represent instances in our American history when the un-American card was played. Further, they tell the story of who gets to determine what or who is truly American.
In 1640, the legal system had begun to single out Africans for distinctly different treatment. In that year, a Virginia court sentenced a black indentured servant named John Punch to “serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural Life here or elsewhere.” No white indentured servant in Virginia ever received such a sentence. At about this time, court records and wills indicate that other blacks were being treated as slaves. Distinctions that were not previously made were now being made — profoundly impacting in colonial America who could be seen as a real citizen and over a century later who would be defined as an American.
Chinese-Americans targeted for exclusion
The year 1882 brings us to the first time in U.S. history that we see any restriction on immigration to the United States in the form of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Professor Roger Daniels put it this way: “The Chinese Exclusion Act … is the hinge on which all American immigration policy turned. Prior to the Exclusion Act there had been no significant restrictions of any kind on any immigration to the United States. There was no such thing as an illegal immigrant. After 1882 … there are successive restrictions placed on all immigrants.”
Yet, this exclusionary attitude toward those from China did not begin in 1882. In 1854, the California Supreme Court, during the case of the People v. Hall, had this to say in determining the validity of the testimony of a Chinese individual:
“The same rule which would admit them to testify, would admit them to all the equal rights of citizenship, and we might soon see them at the polls, in the jury box, upon the bench, and in our legislative halls."
“This is not a speculation which exists in the excited and overheated imagination of the patriot and statesman, but it is an actual and present danger. The anomalous spectacle of a distinct people, living in our community, recognizing no laws of this State, except through necessity, bringing with them their prejudices and national feuds, in which they indulge in open violation of law; whose mendacity is proverbial; a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point, as their history has shown; differing in language, opinions, color, and physical conformation; between whom and ourselves nature has placed an impassable difference, is now presented, and for them is claims, not only the right to swear away the life of a citizen, but the further privilege of participating with us in administering the affairs of our Government.”
Do we hear traces of these sentiments in our current political and social discourse? These same ideas are being forwarded — maybe not as dramatically or overtly, carelessly and callously — even as we speak. Not by some fringe societal element in a dark corner of No Place Particular, USA are these notions being floated, but in the highest halls of government at the state and federal levels.
Black Americans are discriminated against
The year is now 1892 and Homer Plessy (classified as black because he was one-eighth African-American) boarded a train in New Orleans and sat in a railway car reserved for whites. When he refused to move, he was arrested and convicted of breaking the law. Four years later in 1896, his case was tried in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court concluded in its decision that:
“We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.“
In the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, we find a time-honored, favorite misdirect used by those who revel in leveling the charge of un-American, that somehow the problem lies in the perception of their claims and not the claim itself; that it is the victimology of those who object to this discrimination and not the victimization of American citizens dignity by prejudicial attacks.
Japanese-Americans are locked up for their ancestry
We now come to 1942, four months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the formation of the first of the internment/detention camps for people of Japanese descent. The exclusion and incarceration of Japanese-Americans began in March 1942. The War Relocation Authority, or WRA, was established to administer the camps.
During the first phase, internees were transported on trains and buses under military guard to the hastily prepared temporary detention centers. Twelve temporary detention centers were in California and one was in Oregon. They were set up on race tracks, fairgrounds or livestock pavilions. Detainees were housed in livestock stalls or windowless shacks that were crowded and lacked sufficient ventilation, electricity and sanitation facilities. Food was often spoiled. There was a shortage of food and medicine.
What preceded Executive Order 9066 was a PR campaign, orchestrated by the media, laced with vitriol and animus toward Japanese-Americans. Some journalists claimed there was no difference between U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry and the Japanese citizens who attacked Pearl Harbor. “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched. So a Japanese-American … grows up to be Japanese, not an American,” wrote a journalist in the Los Angeles Times.
Other reporters expressed hatred and encouraged that loyal and innocent Japanese-Americans be forced out of their homes on the West Coast. “Herd ‘em up, pack ‘em off and give ‘em the inside room in the badlands. Let ‘em be pinched, hurt, hungry and dead up against it … Let us have no patience with the enemy or anyone whose veins carry his blood … Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them,” wrote United Press correspondent Henry McLemore in January of 1942.
On the most insubstantial of connections, on the most prejudicial of premises, Americans were herded into camps fit for animals and deprived of basic human rights. They were deemed un-American simply because of their ancestry. Once again, does this have a ring of familiarity to it, when we look at the attitudes and language of some, in contemporary America?
We conclude this summarized historiography of playing the un-American card in 1950. Here, in a speech in Wheeling, W.Va., we see Sen. Joseph McCarthy make his first claim regarding communist subversives infiltrating the U.S. government. What later followed is a host of hearings, false accusations, blackballings and demonization of political opponent. And what else, you might ask? A frightening (horrific, one might say) inability to substantiate his claims.
Race & citizenship defined by white men
The parallels between then and now appear to be too pronounced for a need of connecting the dots. It should be more difficult, and indeed more painful, to utter words that denigrates others; it ought to be heart-wrenching to level unsubstantiated charges of anti-Americanism against anyone.
Let us cut to the chase, at the heart of this diatribe regarding the “un-American” and the “foreigner” is what is actually being said to the American-born person of color or the recent non-white immigrant: You are not white; therefore you are not and cannot be a real American. To be white, in the minds of far too many, is to be a real American; that the American identity of people of color and non-white immigrants (and even some European immigrants who would later be considered white) has to be subject to the whims and proclivities of a white-American populace.
The landmark 1923 Supreme Court case, the United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, highlights this American political and societal dynamic. Thind received his citizenship certificate on December 9, 1918, wearing military uniform as he was still serving in the U.S. Army (he was then a resident of California). However, the Immigration and Naturalization Service did not agree with the district court granting the citizenship. Thind’s citizenship was revoked in four days, on December 13, 1918, on the grounds that he was not a “free white man.”
Thind applied for citizenship again from the neighboring state of Oregon, on May 6, 1919. The judge took all arguments and Thind’s military record into consideration and declined to agree with the INS. Thus, Thind received U.S. citizenship for the second time on November 18, 1920. The case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was essentially decided that Bhagat Singh Thind was not white and cannot be considered an American citizen. Thind had introduced anthropological evidence that South Asians were considered Caucasian. In the decision of the Court, however, it was postulated that, “It may be true that the blond Scandinavian and the brown Hindu have a common ancestor in the dim reaches of antiquity, but the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences between them today.”
In other words, Thind might well be Caucasian, the Supreme Court said, but he was not white. The justices never said what whiteness was, only what it wasn’t. Their implied logic was a circular one: Whiteness - and by extension, race and ethnicity - was what the common white man said it was.
A frightening view of the future
And now we come to the here and now. Recently, while being interviewed on a Pittsburgh radio program, someone IM’d the station to say that if I didn’t like how things were in America that I should go back to Africa. This certainly wasn’t the first time that someone stated that to me or to any person of African descent, but what it did do is shine a glaring spotlight on this simple and stubborn fact: Many whites who hurl that phrase about, are talking to people whose ancestry goes back to colonial times, while theirs begins at the start of the 20th century (this is true in my case). My ancestry in this land goes back even further when my Native American ancestors are included.
When we hear politicians, pundits and average citizens of the American populace, use this line of attack, what they are telling the targets of such nonsense, is that their identity is what they say it is — that even though your familial predecessors may have been here before 1620 and worked and built this country without recognition, appreciation or material compensation and that even though the ink is just as real on their citizenship papers from yesterday, a year or a decade ago as their family’s from early 20th century Ellis Island, they will always be more American than you. Moreover, they are also saying, in a not so subtle way, they determine whether or not you are considered an American at all.
So when does this change? It changes when the girl named Shaniqua, Consuela or Mnar can be considered the girl next door in our American imagination; it changes when the last name Gonzalez, Singh or Vang, does not preclude you from being viewed as the all-American boy in our nation’s collective consciousness. When any group of citizens are reduced to this shameful practice of demonizing Americans because of their own or their ancestral point of origin, compassion grieves, liberty mourns and justice weeps over the loss of something much more important than our Americanism … the loss of respect for our shared humanity.
*another version of this piece appears on Mint Press News.