Immigration and the Unbearable Whiteness of History-ing

Finally. I’m popular.

Like many people who end up in graduate school studying history, high school was rough for me. Even today I’m not usually the life of any parties. But over the past four months, history has been hot. It’s gratifying. When I explain that I study American history to a stranger, they’re more prone to ask follow-up questions than (as I suspect) mentally compose their grocery list for a polite length of time before excusing themselves. People seem to be recognizing the urgency of understanding the past in order to understand this crazy present we’re all grappling with. Call it an opportunity. Call it a search for answers in an age of uncertainty. Call it the “Trump effect.” Whatever you call it, for once, I feel like the belle of the ball. But like most young ingénues in teen movies, I face a challenge: how do I keep the attention of the popular kids without compromising something important about myself?

This past month, we’ve seen a lot of talk about immigration in response to the Trump Administration’s executive orders banning migration from several predominantly Muslim nations. One of the easiest refutations of this scheme is the refrain “America is a nation of immigrants.” This point is easily meme-able, tweetable, and has that delicious ring of righteousness to it. The only problem, of course, is that as a claim about the past, it’s not very good history. The problems with this statement are fairly obvious. Let’s run through a few.

First, it erases America’s history of colonizing, displacing, and enacting violence against Native peoples. The people who came from Europe to what is now the U.S. in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were only "immigrants" in the sense that they moved from one place to another. They did not join in with the Native political systems that existed in North America, but displaced them through disease and warfare. Moreover, the notion that Americans are a nation of immigrants necessarily places twenty-first century Native people outside of the nation and participates in the longstanding process of forgetting Natives out of existence. 

Second, it does not consider the forced migration of enslaved African men, women, and children through the Middle Passage. Despite Ben Carson’s nonsense, enslaved people were not immigrants. They were forcibly moved into North America not in order to give them a better life, but for the profit of slave traders and slave owners.  

Third, the "we're all immigrants" trope ignores the fact that, as Matthew Frye Jacobson has argued, Americans’ increasing adoption of immigrant and ethnic identities (“German-American,” “Scots-Irish,” “Italian American”) in the twentieth century was a means of distancing themselves from the historical baggage attached to “whiteness” in the United States. White people in the United States have benefited both from enslaving Africans and people of African descent and from taking land from Native peoples. They have also passed along these benefits to their descendants. To avoid coming to terms with the privilege that these violences have conferred on them, many white people fixate on an ethnic identity (“German-American,” “Scots-Irish,” “Italian American”) rather than the common racial identity ("whiteness"—which many of their ancestors aspired to) that has historically been associated with enslavement and land appropriation. By denying an inheritance of guilt, they deny an inheritance of privilege. Worst of all are those who draw a false equivalence between slavery and immigrants' often-difficult experiences in American history. The "Irish slaves" myth, though thoroughly debunked, is probably the worst example of this.

Finally, the “nation of immigrants” trope ignores that “we” are also a nation of immigrant haters. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, immigrants in the U.S. were fond of saying “America beckons, but Americans repel.” Nativism has been an incredibly powerful in the United States, from the Alien Act of 1798 to the Know Nothings to anti-German activity during World War I to the Chinese Exclusion Act to the resurgence of the Klan in the early twentieth century to Japanese interment during World War II. To paraphrase H. Rap Brown, exclusionary legislation and outright discrimination toward immigrants are as American as cherry pie. In this sense, Trump and his ilk are not swimming against the currents of history, but drifting along with them.

So here’s my dilemma: history beckons, but historians repel. In political conversations, a quick soundbite is more effective than a complex argument. I don’t want to be the history police, but this seems like a moment when we need to be remembering, not erasing, the entangled histories of settler colonialism, enslavement, and white supremacy.

Instead of suggesting that we’re a nation of immigrants, let’s acknowledge that we have always been a nation of nativists, fearful of the idea of the unfamiliar and hateful toward the face of the unfamiliar. The U.S. has always grappled with contradictions that don’t fit on bumper stickers: nativism and immigration; slavery and freedom; inequality and opportunity. And let us also acknowledge that when we look back at the past, it’s not the nativists whom we revere—it’s the immigrants.