Hate and Fear: A Brief Overview of America’s “Great” History

By Randa Tawil

“Immigrants on a ship approaching New York City, bound for Ellis Island, with the Statue of Liberty in the background,” 1915. From: http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/immigrants-view-the-statue-of-liberty-while-entering-new-news-photo/1759162

It’s a scary thing, to be an American. At every moment since our country’s founding, some people, somewhere, have been standing in the way of our freedom, and our only choice seems to be exclusion, control, or extermination. Any given day in our nation’s life, since Thomas Jefferson penned a declaration of independence, there was a “them” that threatened an “us,” and a righteous crusade to exclude “them” from “our” nation, and kill “them” in their homelands, just to be sure that our perfect union could and would survive.

As a student of American history, the last few months haven’t just felt like another wave of Islamophobia to sweep through the nation in the wake of 9/11 (although it certainly has been that as well), but it’s revealed itself as yet another cycle in the worn out wheel that defines the dark side of American life; the undying need for an “other” to fear and hate, usually to serve the interests of America’s insatiable appetite for natural resources and cheap labor.

According to a study in Washington’s Blog since 1776, the United States has not been engaged in active warfare for exactly 21 non-contiguous years. Here they are: 1796-1797, 1807-1809, 1826, 1828-1830, 1897, 1935-1940, 1976-1978, 1997, 2000.

This means that every president of the United States has been a wartime president. This means that there has not been more than a 3-year span in which we did not have an enemy to kill and control. In which politicians did not lecture us about the latest–and greatest–enemy currently “threatening” the homeland. In which young men were not convinced to give their lives to protect “us” from “them.” In which peoples in the United States who were both denizens of the nation and “of” the enemy, were not harassed, feared, and made to feel unwanted. In that context, the last few weeks fit well into the long history of hate and fear that has been an intrinsic part of our country.… Every president of the United States has been a wartime president

The vast majority of these wars took place against indigenous peoples in the Americas. As the US expanded, first across the continental United States, and then into the Pacific, as well as the Caribbean, these wars were sold to the American public as an impassioned humanitarian effort to “civilize” savages, and — of course — to secure natural resources for America’s benefit. This included land that was farmed and harvested by another dominated group: enslaved African peoples.

This land expansion and continued use of forced free labor — both here and abroad — aided America’s economic prosperity, which attracted many different sorts of peoples to migrate into the United States. Southern Europeans, Chinese, South Asians, Pacific Islanders, Middle Easterners, and Latin Americans all moved into the United States. Then, the country’s leadership and wealthy class had a problem; it needed workers, but it wanted to remain a white nation. How could these two desires be combined? The answer came in a two-tiered system of citizenship. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese people in the United States from ever gaining citizenship. The Bracero Program allowed Mexicans to work migrant and itinerant jobs in the United, but without any benefits of citizenship. Naturalization and Citizenship laws* morphed and evolved over the decades, usually revolving around race, where ethnic groups from specified regions were granted or refused citizenship, mainly based on their proximity to “whiteness.” Prior to the 1940’s, many people actually went to court in order to prove they were white, so they could obtain US citizenship.

*These laws were only repealed as WWII heated up, when the US realized it was the only country in the world other than Hitler’s Germany to have racialized naturalization laws.

And so, the pattern continued. In World War II, the Japanese were pronounced the enemy and Japanese Americans who had lived here for generations were put into concentration camps for years. During the Cold War, people lost their jobs and livelihoods over the fear that they were communists. After 9/11, Arabs and Muslims became the targets of this long and enduring war against the “other.”

So, what can we make of this history? Understanding it is an opportunity to reflect on what drives fear in this country: the answer is — this country. As Muslims and Arabs we will not end Islamaphobia through only education about our culture and religion (although we should do that). We will end it by opposing the enduring racism that has been a mainstay in the underbelly of American society since its founding. We will end it by forming coalitions with other groups, by standing up to any oppression, at any time. And in joining these broad coalitions, we will learn another history; a history of resistance, of creativity, bravery and beauty that makes up the real American story. We must force the curtain hiding this darker history open, and we must confront the ways in which the United States has been conceived through domination and expansion since its conception. It is only through this long lens that we will be able to change our country and stomp out oppression, instead of just putting out the latest fire.

Scroll down to see a glimpse of America’s — what seems to be — everlasting fear of “the other”.

Against Native Americans:

“This unfortunate race [Native Americans], whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate.”

Thomas Jefferson, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1813

Against Chinese:

“The Chinaman degrades white Labor…California must be all American or all Chinese. We are resolved that it shall be American, and are prepared to make it so. May we not rely upon your sympathy and assistance?”

Dennis Kearny, “The Chinese Invasion. Workingmen’s Address.” 1878

Against Germans:

I do hereby further proclaim and direct that the conduct to be observed on the part of the United States toward all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of Germany, being males of the age of fourteen years and upwards, who shall be within the United States and not actually naturalized, who for the purpose of this proclamation and under such sections of the Revised Statutes are termed alien enemies.”

Woodrow Wilson, Proclamation of German Enemy Alien, 1917

Against Japanese:

“A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched…. So, a Japanese American born of Japanese parents, nurtured upon Japanese traditions, living in a transplanted Japanese atmosphere… notwithstanding his nominal brand of accidental citizenship almost inevitably and with the rarest exceptions grows up to be a Japanese, and not an American…. Thus, while it might cause injustice to a few to treat them all as potential enemies, I cannot escape the conclusion… that such treatment… should be accorded to each and all of them while we are at war with their race.”

-Editorial in Los Angeles Times. 1942

Against Communists:

“Communism is no longer a creeping threat to America. It is a racing doom that comes closer to our shore each day. To resist it we must be intelligently strong.”

Sen. Joseph McCarthy, 1950

Against Mexicans

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Donald Trump, 2015

Against Muslims:

“Without looking at the various polling data, it is obvious to anybody the hatred is beyond comprehension. Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine. Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.”

Donald Trump, 2015


Originally posted on Muslim Girl

On Race, Inheritance, and Struggle at Yale

March of Resilience at Yale University, November 9th, 2015. Courtesy of Philipp Amdt Photography
March of Resilience at Yale University, November 9th, 2015. Courtesy of Philipp Amdt Photography

Associate Master Erika Christakis,

My mother was one of many thuyền nhân Việt Nam. English-speaking historians might call her a “boat person,” which is as good a translation from the original as any. Among the Vietnamese, stories like hers wield great power, communicate great pain, and symbolize the great burdens of my ethnic heritage. After the Fall of Sài Gòn in 1975, she became one of a million refugees who fled Viet Nam by water. Packed like a sardine onto a tiny boatessentially, a rowboat with no working engineshe escaped from her war-torn homeland with nothing but the clothes on her back, trusting the capricious ocean fates to take her somewhere better. Many other boat people encountered pirates, who raped the women, killed the men, and kidnapped the children; my mother was fortunate enough not to fall victim to these predators. Nevertheless, weeks upon the water proved taxing: a fortnight with no food will drive people to desperate measures, and some on the boat even debated the possibility of cannibalizing the children. In fact, my mother had survived the thirst for that long only because her vessel entered a chain of raging storms, which poured upon them life-sustaining rain even as their rocky waves and turbulent winds threw a number overboard, where they were lost to the open sea. Eventually, her boat took her to Malaysia, where she found some semblance of safety. She would not come home for thirty years.

As I grew up in California, my parents’ troubled journeys were relayed to me in place of bedtime stories. Perhaps you, as a former preschool teacher, can sense what these tales meant to my personal development. People of color bear upon their shoulders the struggles and sacrifices of endless generations. In my family and others, heartbreak is passed down from father to son and mother to daughter—not through our umbilical cords or our genetics, but through the things we share amongst each other, through the lessons we teach our children, through the unfulfilled dreams we have learned to keep to ourselves. Our skin can be an incredible source of pride and power, but it is equally a source of unbearable pain, frustration, and—in our weakest moments—shame; at an institution like Yale, built upon the blood and sweat and tears of enslaved people, the hallowed halls amplify such feelings in ways that you cannot possibly imagine.

As you may have guessed by now, I am writing to you about the mass e-mail by the Intercultural Affairs Committee (IAC) in October and your incendiary response to it. I know that you and your husband have been besieged by many protests over the past two weeks, and this letter will be one more. From what I have seen and heard, your response (and your husband’s) has involved far more knee-jerk defensiveness than thoughtful listening, so I quite frankly do not expect you to answer. If you choose to do so, though, I hope it is only after very mindfully considering this message.

I have a multitude of points to make throughout this message, and intend to get the smaller ones out of the way before moving on to my central counterargument. For instance, you present the IAC’s message as “censure and prohibition… from above, not from yourselves.Maybe your ears are not particularly close to the ground on such matters; I myself have seen and heard many students of color, and especially native people, protesting racist costumes both in person and online. In this sense, the IAC’s call for racially competent Halloween attire was not some oppressive demand from above. In fact, it reflected very accurately the cries and demands of countless Yale students. This story was not about out-of-touch bureaucrats imposing censorship; it was about Yalies of color being fed up with annual celebrations of blackface and finally being recognized by a small segment of the administration. Thus, when you delegitimized the IAC’s message, you delegitimized a small victory that too many students have worked too hard for. Accordingly, when you address the student body in your e-mails, I must ask whom “yourselves” refers to—surely, it does not reflect the Yalies of color who have clamored against these offensive costumes year after year. I daresay that you have shown your hand: when you claim that this call for racial competence does not come from Yale students, it becomes rather obvious to me whom you perceive as Yale’s student body, and whom you regard as outsiders.

Moreover, when you compare nonwhites’ offense against Halloween racism to religious conservatives’ offense against revealing costumes, you miss both the historical contexts and the power dynamics at play in these distinct situations. After all, blackface has its roots in slavery and Jim Crow oppression, while scantily-clad women are defying notions of female respectability-through-attire—they are challenging problematic ideas that hearken back to elitist Victorian sensibilities and the male desire for control over women’s behavior. It is (and please forgive my bluntness) exceptionally disappointing that one living on a campus full of critical race and gender scholars cannot grasp such rudimentary distinctions; perhaps you should be reading up on your Michel Foucault and your Jane Austen more vigorously. You also try to invoke the admittedly messy line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange, but only in a haphazard way that makes me wonder how much actual effort you have previously put into understanding this topic. You propose “social norming and “free speech as solutions to racist attire in one paragraph, but hyperbolically describe the IAC’s gentle, civilized reminder as “censure and prohibition in another. Under your standards of behavior, how, exactly, are antiracist and antimisogynist change meant to happen?

But, most importantly, your calls for civilized dialogue on a campus tormented by violent racism reveal a white privilege that I (and others) do not enjoy. You and your husband claim to value rational thought, and seem also to believe that the university is a place for such things. I too believe that schools like Yale are, first and foremost, a space of knowledge and learning, but I would argue that positivist rationality is an imperfect tool for thinking about the world. Individual context matters deeply; true knowledge is tremendously personal, and involves visceral emotionality as much as it does logical thought. Allow me to elaborate: as you may know, for generations, blackface was used to ridicule and degrade black people, all the while barring them from professional roles in entertainment; to this day, it symbolizes a Jim Crow past defined by white terrorism and black suffering. But because I am not black, I can never appreciate in its entirety what blackface means to black people. I did not inherit from my ancestors stories of slave ships, plantation labor, and lynchings; my grandparents and great-grandparents never knew anything of the Jim Crow South. Still, I do know how images like this and this make me feel, and perhaps I have some vague, imperfect frame of reference. You, as a white woman, could never remotely comprehend the anguish that this poisonous racism brings to nonwhite people.

This is not meant as an insult: even the most well-intentioned whites will only ever learn about racism through third-party observation, second-hand stories, and first-person book-reading; you will never learn about it from the barrel of a policeman’s gun, never feel the tears running down your face as drunken fratboys ban you from parties, never detect the sweat upon your own palms as you gradually realize that the world views you as an animal. Likewise, as a man, I could never grasp the sheer terror that must plague so many women whenever they walk home alone on a campus where rapists evidently run rampant. When you suggest that we should “ignore” or “look away [from] racist behavior, which you indeed do in your message, you exercise a remarkable white privilege that illustrates my point more vividly than any contrived hypothetical could. You, Associate Master Christakis, have the luxury of ignorance; I—and other people of color—do not.

No individual is capable of becoming a master of all knowledge. To believe otherwise is to ascribe to a dangerous intellectual hubris. Such logics are the enemy of diversity, the bane of inclusiveness. To argue for some post-racial, gender-blind vision of rationality is to stifle the individuality in our identities, to make obsolete the very peoples most qualified to speak to specific issues. Please do not misunderstand my argument. I am always grateful for my white allies; historically, nonwhite activists have often found white allies fighting by their side. However, the best white allies know that they will never understand black or brown pain firsthand, and seeking to do so represents an exercise in futility. Let me be perfectly clear: your whiteness prevents you from fully comprehending our nonwhite suffering, but it forgives neither your whimsical dismissal of our outrage nor your uniquely egregious ignorance regarding the shadow of racism.

To be fair, cultural sensitivity is something of a misnomer, and I imagine it has led to some confusion among the public. I think that “racial competence” is a far more accurate term. When the IAC and other representatives ask for “cultural sensitivity,” they are asking for white students to display a modicum of common sense in the selection and design of their costumes, to work towards an environment where students of color feel some sense of safety. Even for the most open and rational thinker, there must exist some baseline of mutual respect and personal security. If—God forbidmultiple Yale students fell ill with symptoms of some especially deadly and contagious virus, responsible administrators’ first impulse would not be to calmly sit down and thoughtfully problematize the anti-vaccination movement; it would be to cancel all classes and notify the Center for Disease Control. Just as people cannot be expected to critically analyze an academic monograph or scientific study while they detect immediate danger—I assume this is part of why so many college women have spoken out against the ongoing epidemic of on-campus rapes—communities of color should not be asked to remain composed intellectuals when they are surrounded by symbols and processes that perpetually remind them of how precarious their lives are, of how instantly their worlds can be snatched from them in the blink of an eye. There is little room for civilized debate on a campus where one group is permitted to wear attire that is an affront to other groups very humanity; there is even less room when the latter groups face accusations of “censure and prohibition” whenever they point out that costumes can be offensive and kindly ask the former group to exercise judgment.

Along this line of thinking, I must inquire: where was your avid free-speech rhetoric when policemen pepper-sprayed nonviolent #BlackLivesMatter protestors? Where was it when Brian Encinia threatened and assaulted Sandra Bland for getting too mouthy? Where was it when the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fired Steven Salaita for his controversial pro-Palestine comments? Context, as most good linguists would argue, influences meaning. A demand for “freedom of speech” does not signify the same thing here as it does here, here, or, for that matter, here. By unveiling your free-speech defense only after the IAC’s Halloween message, you have made very clear whose speech you aim to protect and whose you do not. Of course, “freedom of speech” does not refer literally to our right to speak; it refers to our right to freely express ideas, to share important logics with the public. Thus, when you imply that the IAC, by discouraging racially incompetent costumes, has violated students’ freedom of speech, one must wonder what valuable and intelligent ideas, precisely, blackface and redface-wearing Halloweeners are trying to share with communities of color.

For many nonwhites, practices like blackface and redface and yellowface constitute an offense for which we cannot and will not stand; they are remnants of a formidable white supremacist past that has persisted into the present, one that has haunted our peoples for as long as we can recall. In a nation where nonwhite lives consist of closed door upon closed door upon closed door upon closed door, daily life is a struggle for our very humanity and dignity. Surely, you must appreciate how this takes precedence over some lofty, ivory-tower standard of rationality and Socratic discussion.

I hope that this message helps you, in some small measure, to understand our grievances, but most of all, I hope it helps you hear our voice. When the most courageous among us share our stories, we are exposing our family secrets, our deepest insecurities, our dreams and our nightmares. We are laying bare a thousand generations of struggle and painvisceral pains that cut deeper than any surgeon’s scalpel or bone saw could, pains that too many of us have carried for too long upon our shoulders.

Viet N. Trinh

Originally posted on Conversation X