The Muslim Ban cannot go unchallenged. We’ve lived through other bans and purges, were worse off for it, and later realized how wrong they were. Let’s take a look at America’s racial history. Apologies beforehand to any group I leave out; this is an overview and I’m not trying to slight anyone. Please feel free to add to this rant.
What runs throughout the narrative is always opposition to what sociologists call “the other.” The “other” is someone or a group who are not part of the ‘in’ group, party, or people. An example is a high school clique the keeps out whoever those within the clique feel don’t quite measure up.
Any discussion of America’s racial history has to begin with slavery. It’s not hyperbolic to say that tens of millions of people wrenched away from their families, homes, and country. Slavery was justified for many reasons, not the least of which was because the enslaved were thought to not be human (that’s a refrain that comes up often in our racial history, btw). This genocide lasted centuries and the after-effects are still felt today. The Civil Rights Movement did much to help the plight of African-Americans, but has not resolved the issues that face the group – many of which issues may truthfully be traced back to slavery.
A non-exclusive list of laws aimed at black citizens: “Black Codes” (laws aimed at restricting rights of blacks); the Jim Crow laws; anti-miscegenation laws; vagrancy laws aimed/targeted specifically at blacks; separate but equal partitioning; many, many more could be listed. Many argue that laws today specifically target blacks such as the difference in penalties for various drug offenses, as well as disparate sentences given to blacks and whites convicted of the same crime.
At the same time as the Slave Economy was expanding, the country was growing due to European immigrants. But these immigrants were distinctly unwelcome and were vilified as murderers, thugs, criminals and derelicts. Most particularly this was aimed at those from Ireland and Scotland. Unsurprisingly, these immigrants weren’t seen as white. They were lesser than the Anglo-Europeans running the country and were limited as to jobs, housing, etc. Their acceptance was limited and didn’t really happen for decades. The Irish and Scottish tended to stay to themselves to avoid the animus they faced everywhere outside of their own communities.
Around 1850 or so, more immigrants came from Western (Continental) Europe. These included people from Germany and Austria. The prior immigrant groups were then accepted as white, but still lesser ‘quality’ than Anglos. However, German and Austrian immigrants were considered black. And, just as it did with slaves, that justified the prejudice the Germans and Austrians experienced: as ‘black,’ they were not fully human, considered criminal class, etc.
Even Scandinavian immigrants who came a little later experienced prejudice. Theirs was seemingly justified because of an ‘inability to learn English’ and/or speaking English with a pronounced accent. And, yes, they too were thought less than human, criminals, etc. As I said earlier, you’ve no doubt noticed this is a recurring refrain. As did the Irish, Scottish, Germans, and Austrians before them, the Scandinavians tended to live amongst other from their lands. It is a means by which each group protects itself and its members against the prejudice experienced from the larger society.
Moving ahead a few more decades, immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe started. Russians, Poles, Jews from both countries (for Jews were never considered citizens of the countries in which they resided so were a separate immigrant category), and Italians came to the shore. And, yes, once again, these groups were ostracized and considered subhuman. The explanation/justification was that they too were criminals, incapable of assimilating, etc. And, as with the Irish, Germans, etc., before them none were considered “white.” But by the time Russians, Italians, etc., entered the United States, these prior immigrant groups were now fully “white” and were even gaining acceptance as Americans, not Irish, etc., and were starting to accumulate wealth.
While Eastern Europeans were landing on Ellis Island in New York and other ports on the eastern seaboard, in the Western United States we had a large influx of immigrants from Asia, particularly China. As had the European “trash” before them, the Chinese were not accepted by the people or government – except as hard laborers (building the railroad) and in what is now stereotypical “Asian businesses” such as laundries. Asians were, like European immigrants of the period, not considered human because they were not “white” and spoke a different language.
In the midst of all this, the Supreme Court of the United States weighed in on a number of race-based cases. The most infamous cases were Dred Scott, 60 U.S. 393 (1857) which held that slaves were not United States citizens and Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), which established the “separate but equal” facilities based on race. In other words, both cases accepted racist state laws and codified racism in American society.
Moving forward a few decades into the 1930s, the world’s political situation started growing graver. The world economy was very bad – the ’29 Stock Market Crash reflected the world’s economic instability – and people sought opportunity elsewhere. But at the same time, war clouds loomed and crackdowns on ‘the other’ within many nations started. The Germans started its crackdown on Jews and other ‘subhumans,’ the Soviet Union tried to purge itself of ‘enemies of the state.’ The common denominator in both were Jews and the intelligentsia. Jews and the other ‘enemies of the state’ sought to emigrate to the United States and elsewhere. They found most of the doors closed.
That’s because before the United States entered World War II, we limited Jewish immigration. Many of those turned away died in concentration camps. The rationale was that Jews did not belong in the United States and were a threat to national security. This was put forth by none less than the State Department, including the much vaunted George Kennan.
As might be expected from the foregoing, the anti-immigrant animus was not limited to Jews; anyone from countries at war were limited in coming in. And even then, the animus extended to those already in the United States, those who were of Asian or German descent and/or naturalized citizens. Ultimately, the United States interned Japanese and Japanese-Americans on our own soil, confiscating their homes, land, and property. They were an obvious ‘other’ and, thus, a danger to security and the homeland.
In a series of cases, the United States Supreme Court later upheld the orders as constitutional, another point of shame in our land of laws. Those cases were Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944); Hirabyashi v. United States, 320 U.S. 81 (1943); and Yasui v. United States, 320 U.S. 115 (1943). Long afterward, Black said Korematsu was the worst decision of his career. Let me make this point absolutely clear: Korematsu has never been explicitly overruled/overturned. Its precedent still stands, which sends chills down anyone’s spine when considering the current presidential regime.
Moving on in this long, inglorious history, the United States had another large immigration from Southeast Asia, most notably Vietnam. Once again, the influx was opposed. Despite knowing that the people fleeing Vietnam would be incarcerated at the least, quite possibly killed, the United States limited immigration – even of those who helped the troops while the United States was in-country. Those who managed to get out of Vietnam were in camps in Thailand, sometimes for years (similar to what’s happening in Africa today).
Later in the late ’70s and into the 80s, the Refuseniks (Russian Jews who were denied exit visas) became a cause célèbre and yet immigration was again limited. Those limits happened on both ends, the Soviet side and American side (though America did manage to let in many Refuseniks). But it was right in keeping with America’s anti-immigrant history.
Lately, we’ve seen an embargo on refugees from African nations such as the Sudan and Somalia seeking asylum in the United States. This immigration dilemma is in flux, yet the situation is grim.
Now, with the Muslim Ban, we’re embarking on the same kind of path as discussed above. We are not just limiting immigration from countries, but outright denying the people an opportunity to come to the United States. And solely because of their Muslim religion, for professing Christians from the Arab nations are free to come to this country. The people seeking entry have gone through long vetting processes; it’s not as though they’re coming in the same day they apply for a visa. Regardless, we’re seeing war refugees being denied entry – refugees who have no truck with Assad or the opposition and simply sought to live their lives in peace. We’re seeing people who worked with American soldiers in Iraq as translators and in other ways, who fought side by side with our soldiers, detained due to the ban. They’ve proven themselves trustworthy – and often at great risk to themselves and their families (they were/are sometimes seen as collaborators with the US occupying force). We’re seeing people with visas, green cards, etc., et al., being denied reentry. Please think on that a moment: these are people who have already been vetted, are living and working here, have become resident aliens and/or are students working on degrees in the United States – and they’re being denied the ability to return to the United States if they’ve been abroad visiting family or doing research.
I’ve no doubt history will negatively regard 45’s order. But we cannot wait for history’s vindication. Hopefully, enough of us will stand up to this racism and say this isn’t us. It took two constitutional amendments to overturn Dred Scott, XIII and XIV. It wasn’t until 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, that Plessy was overturned. It takes a while, but America usually gets it right. Let’s hope that holds true for the odious Muslim Ban executive order, and much sooner rather than later.
Because we’re better than this.