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.
A Conservative friend of mine asked me why, since Progressives say that they would like a color blind society, so many of my posts focus on race. He brought up the idea of white guilt and the fact that he didn’t have any, that his ancestors had fought for freedom and equality, and he didn’t feel that whites should be singled out as being especially culpable in terms of historical bad behavior. All of these are the standard arguments trotted out by folks who wish to ignore the fact that the past has produced the present and that understanding how we created the present is crucial to finding solutions to our problems.
… Suffice it to say that, while the Chinese, the Mongols, the Japanese, the Turks, and so on have all had their turns at empire, grabbing territory, enslaving other cultures, and so on, for the past 500 years it has been about white folks from Europe.
I never said that white folks are somehow unique in treating other peoples badly. But it is a fact that Europeans conquered the New World, exterminated most of the native population, relegated the rest to the land that no one else wanted. Then, as resources were discovered, treaties have been broken right down unto the present day. Our native population had their children taken forcibly from their families and placed in schools designed to eradicate their native culture and languages. This was still going on when I was a young adult. In parts of the West, no white man would be convicted of killing a native American in any court. This discrimination continues to this day.
But is just a fact that you cannot talk about any of our current unsolved social problems without understanding the relationship of the white community to the African Americans, initially as slaves, then as a much discriminated against minority. During Reconstruction an essentially terrorist resistance was mounted against Northern rule with lynchings, beatings, and assassination used to thwart implementation of equal rights for Blacks. In the 1920’s the KKK marched in force down Pennsylvania Ave in our nation’s capitol. Even on the North, red lining ensured ghetto-ization of the Black population. Jim Crow still existed in the South when I was young and the Civil Rights Movement was a mere fifty years ago. It is simply a fact that unequal treatment continues to this day.
It is a fact that a good portion of the United States used to be Mexico and that we went to war and took the portion we wanted and left the rest. Since that time our Hispanic citizens, many of whom have roots that go back before our Revolution, had their heritage stolen, their culture devalued, and been discriminated against. It is a fact that in my parent’s lifetime, we engaged in what amounted to ethnic cleansing by deporting millions of them to Mexico, regardless of citizenship. This discrimination continues to this day.
It is a fact that white Americans basically took over the independent kingdom of Hawaii, deposed their Queen, relegated the native Hawaiians to second class citizens. We attempted to destroy their language and culture and that discrimination continues to this day.
In terms of foreign policy, it is a fact that the majority of our most serious problems cannot be considered without an understanding of European colonialism which was still in effect when I was a young student. Virtually all of the main military interventions we have had since WWII have involved former European colonies. Most of the international issues we face involve really bad decisions about how to divide up the Ottoman Empire after WWII, decisions made by a bunch of old white guys in Europe.
Nobody expects you to feel guilty about your or my ancestors did. My own ancestors included slave owners and abolitionists. One, who as a slave owner, paid $10,000 to private investigators to find and re-unite one of his slaves with his wife, a fortune at the time. Was he a bad man for being a slave owner or was he a good man for caring? Probably a bit of both. But that is history. People are the product of their times.
So, white guilt is irrelevant. But an understanding of how we got where we are and how old patterns of thought, old social relationships perpetuate themselves in a society long after the institutions that created them are gone is indispensable to finding solutions going forward. The fact that I have abolitionists in the family tree or you have civil war heroes does not absolve us of the responsibility to correct the injustices and inequality which have persisted since the country was founded. The fact is that most of the wealth, most of the power, in this country still lies in the hands of white folks and while opportunity exists for our minority citizens in ways that didn’t exist even when I was younger, it is by no means equal.
So, that is why we have to talk about color. We might wish to get to a color blind society. But color blindness right now is just an excuse to ignore legacy racial inequality and injustice.
After realizing just how much time I was spending on Social Media posting on political issues, I have decided to start a Blog devoted to the fight for progressive values in the world to day. I hope to be able to both provide commentary on today’s important political issues but also to give some historical context to these discussions, something I feel is lost on most major media coverage. I hope my readers will find this blog to be interesting and helpful.