Why Immigration Still Inflames Trump Voters: Nativist Americans Always Believed Their Country Was Meant to Be a ‘White’ Nation, Even As the Meaning of That Word Kept Changing

Why is slandering immigrants and denigrating their homelands a tool that a bullying, manipulative President, backed by his horde of malignant toadies, continues to rely on to lever up the hysteria of his noxious base?

In the most recent headline-grabbing display of Nativist ignorance, the current “occupant” of the White House (to use Ayanna Pressley’s term for him) essentially told four Congressional critics to “go back where they came from,” somehow ignoring that for three of them their places of birth — New York City, Detroit, Cincinnati — are rather conspicuously within the United States. The fourth, born in Somalia, was brought to the US at age three and became a citizen as soon as she was old enough.

What all four have in common is they are generally regarded as non-white, or in the common political euphemism, as members of “minorities.” Commentators have pointed out, correctly, I believe, that it’s no accident that they — and the supposed ‘places that they come from’ — became Trump targets.

Our tiresome POTUS, in a display of ignorance and prejudice that would embarrass a self-respecting fifth grader, also slandered these hypothetical ‘other countries of birth’ as “crime-ridden” — a term that was once regularly applied to places such as New York City, where millions of other Americans including Trump (and myself) were born and, for that matter, to much of the United States. Just as it was hardly fair to demean New Yorkers because of the crime rate in their city in the early 1970s, it is both boorish and unjust — and plain ignorant — to blame all Somali natives for the crimes committed by terrorists in their country.

But the moral plague who currently holds our nation’s highest office regularly tars people by association. He hurls the most juvenile of school yard insults — you’re one of ‘them,’ whatever the category of the despised ‘them’ happens to mean to those who use it.

Why does he go on doing this? Why don’t his own supporters say, in the fullness of their own human decency, “OK, you’ve finally gone too far. I wash my hands of you.”

He keeps doing this because his supporters do not chide his immorality and withdraw their support. His “shithole” effusions — to cite another term from the occupant’s puerile vocabulary — do not seriously cost him popularity and may in fact rally and emotionally fortify his followers. They are the equivalent of some fantasy Field Commander pointing his sword at the enemy and urging his troops forward by declaring, “They’re all vermin! Kill them all!” It’s push-button politics. And the sad truth is that even in the 21st century the easiest, most volatile button to push is the racial one.

The only possible conclusion to draw from Trump’s reliance on ignorant personal attacks and the his base’s approval — and some bare-faced enthusiasm for them — is that the majority of his white supporters share his racism.

Taunts such as his attack on four female, ‘brown’ members of Congress who oppose his immigration policies are meant to divide Americans and to keep ‘his side’ of that divide flooded with the dark emotions that make rationality difficult and keep “the better angels of our nature” — to borrow from Lincoln, a President who could use the language — shut up in the slave quarters of the mind. It does not speak well of white Americans that a low, nasty, hate-filled ploy still gains the degree of traction that it does.

“They’re not white,” the occupant’s politics and policies say. “Send them back where they came from.”

Their appeal is simple-minded and ugly, but the code-words that Trump and other racists rely on bear looking into. They work in part because attacks on newcomers to America, and the ‘outsiders’ who have always been here, have a long a history. These slurs are part of who ‘we’ are. And our dirty secrets need an airing.

In the struggle to explain the humbling, and frankly embarrassing fact that a majority of white voters chose a candidate whose moral lapses, to use the mildest language possible, were fully on display during the 2016 presidential campaign, a number of commentators settled on the notion that white voters were responding to their anxiety over the possibility that the United might soon become “a minority-majority” country.

But why should we be surprised that this possibility would frighten white Americans? — when, throughout our country’s history, native-born white Americans have been offered an endless series of reasons to fear and look down on everyone else.

Considering the prejudices, lies, slanders, religious and racist myths our country’s nativists greeted each new immigrant population, is it any wonder that so many ‘majority’ background Americans — let’s go on calling them ‘white’ for convenience, though as we shall see the term has no objective meaning — should fear what will happen to them and theirs if (and when) non-whites become a majority of the country’s population?

The white majority has been telling bogeyman stories to itself for centuries.

Let’s look at the history. People from northern European countries first colonized the North American continent, steadily shoving the land’s native population into less desired lands. The first generations did not justify taking the land of indigenous people by declaring we’re ‘white’ and you’re not. What they said was we’re “Christians” and you’re “heathen,” and God has given this land to us.

The difference in terminology is instructive because it shows that the term “white people” originated at a certain historical moment and explains its origin. As various African American scholars and writers have argued, the designation ‘white’ was invented only when it became necessary to justify the institution of slavery. Africans could be enslaved — with divine approval, according to slavery’s apologists — as an inferior ‘race’ because God made them black.

How, apologists for the slave trade asked themselves, should we distinguish those of us who could not rightly be enslaved from those who — legally and justly — could? The answer was the invention of the notion of “white people,” a fortunate category of humanity that was, essentially, by nature, different from and superior to dark-skinned people.

The justification for slavery required a simplistic big-tent distinction that would divide ‘black’ from ‘white’ for the new country. American colonists were not solely of English stock. Some were Scottish or Welsh, or Dutch or Swedish, or French or Swiss. America was a nation of “Europeans,” as no less a revolutionary than Thomas Paine declared. But it soon became clear that certain parts of Europe — the northern and Protestant countries — were encompassed in the notion of who “we” were, and therefore ‘white.’ And certain other parts of that continent — Eastern and Southern Europe; Catholic and Muslim — were not.

America’s first immigration law described the United States as a country for white people. The Naturalization Act of 1790 — how to become a citizen, that is, if you weren’t born in the newly created United States — declared that any free white person of “good character” could apply for citizenship after living in the country for two years or longer. Non-citizens could live here as well, but they did not enjoy the same rights.

The most crucial distinction, at the time of the country’s birth and still, regrettably, the strictest ‘racial’ divider of all, fell between those of ‘white’ European birth and those of African origin.

Skin color drew the dividing line, even though in matters of pigment — as is obvious to anyone with eyes to see — determining where to draw that line is far from a black and white question. Variations of skin pigment are almost infinite. People regarded as white in some societies are considered black by others, and vice-versa. In a classic example, the Spanish empire regarded anyone with a drop of European blood as ‘white.’ In the American South, even a tiny fraction of African blood made you ‘black.’

In recent years, the term ‘brown’ people has gained use as a term of convenience to gather all of the earth’s human inhabitants who fall somehow in the middle, pigment wise, between pale Europeans and dark-skinned Africans. Many commentators have also pointed out that so-called ‘racial differences’ can more accurately be explained as cultural, societal, or national in origin.

Unsurprisingly, America’s historical racism reveals a morass of contradictions (and shameful episodes) over who can qualify as white enough to be a real American.

In reality, to be clear, race has always been nothing more than a term of convenience in America. There is simply no scientific basis for the idea of ‘race’ as a division of human beings into different kinds of people. There is only a single human species, only one humankind. We’re all part of it.

The word “race,” according to scholars, came into English in the 16th century, derived from the Italian word “razza,” used to distinguished a human ‘race’ from the mythical generations of the ‘the gods’ above us and the various species of animals beneath us.

During the so-called “Age of Exploration” — meaning European exploration of the rest of the world — explorers unaccustomed to meeting numbers of people who ‘looked different’ and lived differently from them turned comparisons of appearance, mores and culture into arguments that advanced their own countries’ interests.

That unscientific belief in the existence of inherently different races was converted into a useful political reality became clear when the long dispute over the legitimacy of slavery led a majority of America’s slave-owning states to attempt to form their own country. The key distinction between the ‘Union’ being left behind and the new confederacy was explained by Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, who said that Jefferson was wrong when he propounded the equality of all human beings in the Declaration of Independence.

The Confederacy, Stephens declared, “is founded upon exactly the opposite idea” from the Declaration of Independence. It was founded on the belief in “the innate racial superiority of white men.”

Even before the Civil War, the white, nativist majority of Americans exhibited unease over the arrival of European migrants who did not speak, or think, or act, or believe, like “we” did. Escaping famine and desperate poverty at home, Irish immigrants took the hardest and most poorly paid jobs in their new country and lived in the poorest conditions. Many spoke a different language and most practiced a religion that American Protestants of English ancestry had been taught to regard in the way Christians today look at Satanism. Blamed by the American born majority for their poverty, Irish immigrants were believed to represent a non-white racial type that fell between the superior Europeans and inferior Africans.

(See https://www.theroot.com/when-the-irish-weren-t-white-1793358754)

According to Noel Ignatiev, author of a book called “How the Irish Became White,” Irish immigrants “were (self-evidently) not Anglo-Saxon; most were not Protestant; and, as far as many nativists were concerned, they weren’t white, either.”

With time, of course, those prejudices went the way of the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing party of the 1850s. In a matter of decades northern cities and states were electing Irish mayors and governors, Catholicism took its place as a major American faith, and Irish American ancestry became a badge of honor. When John Kennedy was elected president, that achievement provided a symbolic ending to a religious hostility that had torn up Europe in earlier centuries.

Yet while immigration proved an obvious source of strength in the nation’s first century, the lesson was not easily transferred when a second, much larger wave of immigration brought some 13 million immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, including Italians, Greeks, Poles, Hungarians, Slavs, Jews, and other European groups from the 1880s to the 1920s. Once again many Americans could not see past differences in language, dress, way of life, and economic condition.

The largest single group of these new immigrants, Italians “were not considered white upon arrival,” according to historian Brando Simeo Starkey. While white Americans continued to enjoy the privileges of ‘whiteness’ — African-Americans were marginalized; Native Americans were forgotten — the new immigrants from a different part of Europe were relegated to “a state of in-betweeness, meaning they were placed in a racial pecking order below whites but above people of color.” (See https://theundefeated.com/features/white-immigrants-werent-always-considered-white-and-acceptable)

The consequences of not being regarded as ‘white’ could be brutal. Like earlier immigrants, the new wave occupied the bottom of the economic ladder, doing the heaviest labor, paid little, crowded into substandard housing. During a period of social upheaval as unions sought decent pay and working conditions, despised immigrant groups were targeted in reactionary attacks on unions and workers. The 11 victims of the nation’s worst mass lynching were Italian immigrants killed in New Orleans after an Italian was blamed, falsely, for a political killing.

A half century later, it is good to remember, America was proudly calling itself “a nation of immigrants,” and Americans with Italian surnames — or Jewish, Russian, Polish, Greek and an array of other national backgrounds — appeared in the rosters of leaders and achievers in any field in the arts, industry, science, academics, medicine, law, politics and all the rest.

The notion of who was ‘white’ proved elastic enough to include people of European backgrounds. No such recognition of equal status, of course, has ever been offered to African Americans, even after Barak Obama became the first ‘black’ man elected President.

It is, by the way, an interesting insight into America’s continued fixation on so-called ‘racial differences’ that as a nation we were all so quick to agree that Obama, born from a white American mother, was our first black President. It’s as if we all still have to know which side of this false divide everyone falls on.

But why, it is still necessary to ask, have ‘sides’ to begin with.

Listen, here’s the bottom line.

Americans must stop “otherizing” people from different countries or backgrounds. Unlike the rest of the world, we don’t have to sit around and debate what “it means to be French,” or English, or German, as many Europeans continue to do.

We know what it means to be American. Being American is by the truths of our history to be a citizen of the world, because the whole world has always been here. We’re free to be ‘American’ any way we wish.

This continent’s indigenous people migrated from Asia. Chinese laborers built the railroads in the 19th century. Yes, as Americans say proudly, ‘we’ built the country. But we are everyone.

Descendants of the country on our ‘Southern border,’ so demonized by the occupant of the Oval Office, raised cattle on the Texas plains before our government took their land, and their country, away from them. Mexicans have always been ‘us.’ They built towns and farms in California before the prospectors arrived in 1848. The legendary sailors of the South Sea worked on our whaling vessels when whale oil fueled the lights of our growing cities. Japanese fishermen and farmers helped develop the Pacific Northwest. Migrants from all of Europe filled America’s heartland and built its canals and its railroads and its great cities. African Americans, in consequence of their barbarous forced migration, fueled America’s first great source of wealth and chief trade good by their unpaid labor in the cotton fields.

And all those transplanted English speakers who set off on the bizarre course of declaring independence from a European empire based on the thoroughly radical notion of popular government — “government by the people” — set the nation on a political course that changed the world.

The American ‘majority’ is too big a notion to be encapsulated by the term ‘white.’ We’re everyone. We always have been. Americans! — born and made! — you have nothing to fear but your psychological chains.

The self-deluded ‘white voters’ who helped foist a sci-fi, horror film monster on a presumptive nation of nervous nellies worried about losing their ‘white privilege’ have got to get over their hang-ups.

Nobody is trying to pick their pockets. In fact everybody on earth helped fill them… In fact they grew the cotton and sewed the cloth.

We have all worked together to survive and grow as a nation. Continuing to do so is the only way forward.

Novelist, journalist, short story writer, poet, history lover, gardener, blogger. Author of “Suosso’s Lane,” a novel of the notorious Sacco-Vanzetti case.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store