I know we are all in shock about what is happening in our country at the moment and with good reason. But on another level, we shouldn’t be shocked. This is a failure of our educational system. Most of us never learned the history of how white America repeatedly used anti-immigration regulations and mass deportations to maintain a white supremacist vision of what the country should be.
Just looking at my parents generation, the 1930s, we can see an America which was unapologetic-ally racist. An unspecified number of residents of Mexican decent were arbitrarily rounded up in the late 20s and early 30s and “repatriated” to Mexico. A million or more were rounded up in a completely indiscriminate effort and estimates range as high as 60% of these people were US citizens. But it wasn’t just the 30s… in 1954 “Operation Wetback” did much the same thing, albeit on a slightly smaller scale… maybe half a million deported.
In the 1920s and 30s even Italians and other Southern Europeans were the target of an immigration policy that restricted their immigration to the US while favoring that of Northern Europeans. Efforts were made using the criminal justice system to deport as many as possible back to Italy.
America was virulently anti-Semitic in the 1930s. Jews were routinely denied membership in clubs and associations. The KKKs efforts at the same were actually more targeted at the Jews than Blacks since they didn’t feel that Blacks were any real threat. More than sixty years of terror had seen to that. But the Jews were threatening to white America. There had been a huge influx from central Europe and white folks were upset. So, legislation was enacted that strictly restricted Jewish immigration just at a time when Jews in the hundreds of thousands were trying to flee the rise of anti-Semitic Fascism across Europe and, in particular Germany.
The most famous instance was the VOYAGE OF THE ST. LOUIS in 1939. A ship full of Jews fleeing Germany after Kristallnacht (literally the “Night of Crystal” pogrom was turned away and denied entry to the US. Eventually, the ship was sent back to Germany where at least half of those refugees eventually were exterminated.
Almost nothing is taught in our schools about the anti Asian riots and roundups of the late 1800s and early 1900s which took place in the Pacific NW and the West Coast but most students have at least heard of the mass round up of our Japanese American citizens, the suspension of the civil rights, and the wholesale theft of their property when they were sent to what we would now call “concentration” camps.
What we are seeing today is just a resurgence of what has been a part of America since its inception. The success of the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s lulled us into a false feeling of security. Our successes in moving forward on women’s rights, minority and LGBT rights, deceived many of us into thinking that bigotry and racism was largely a piece of history. You even had Republican politicians seriously maintaining that we were in a post-racial America.
Well, the ridiculousness of that belief has been glaringly obvious in this past election. reactionary, “nativist” sentiment is alive and well in the US, and through a quirk of historical circumstance, has manged to gain control of our government. There is almost no difference between the position of the Jews fleeing Fascism in the 30s and the refugees fleeing the war torn middle east today. And one again, our country is taking the hard-hearted approach of excluding them from entry. They can return home and be killed, or they can stay in camps in which the conditions are terrible, we don’t care. Just as long as they don’t move here.
The focus on illegal immigration from South of the border is just a continuation of social and racial bias that has always been there and which has periodically exploded into anti-Hispanic round ups and deportations. Only the Wall as a response seems to be a truly new approach. Keeping them out is now a priority on which we are willing to spend many billions of dollars at a time when we do not seem to have enough money for basic health care or education
Perhaps of more people were aware of our history of racism, bigotry, roundups of immigrants, and ethnic cleansing, people might have spotted just how dangerous Donald Trump and company actually are. Perhaps we would not have seen such a blase attitude toward this last election with the lowest voter turnout since 1920. But it is what it is and now we have no choice but to fight a rear guard action while we try to regroup.