Thursday, November 19, 2015

Ain't Nothing Much New in the Game: Sadly The Hatred Against Syrian Refugees Is As American As Apple Pie

Friend of the site, the indispensable Werner Herzog's Bear, has an excellent essay about the Syrian refugee crisis and American nativism that folks should read. I have posted it below. As always, Mr. Bear's website Notes from the Ironbound is a gem. The work he does there deserves much more attention. If you have not, please do seek it out, share the site with others, and send him some love.


Yesterday will go down as a dark day in American history.  As the world faces one of the worst humanitarian crises yet known, several American politicians went out of their way to attack some of the world's most vulnerable people, continually competing to be the most cruel.  Chris Christie laid down the trump card (pun intended) by declaring that even orphans under the age of five would be banned from my state of New Jersey.  The spectacle of elected politicians currying favor with the bigoted masses by pissing on war orphans, the group of people in the world most in need of protection, completely sickened me.  My students often ask how American turned back Jewish refugees -even children- in the 1930s.  Now I guess they'll know.

Unfortunately, liberals have responded to this onslaught of noxious nationalism with a decent amount of naivete. They assert that the governors don't have the power to ban certain classes of immigrants, and that's true, but that's really beside the point. Also, I have heard it said many times that this state-sanctioned hatred is "un-American."

Oh, how I wish that were true. However, if you look at American history, you'll find that this kind of hatred is as American as apple pie. We have a lot of myths we tell ourselves about our country, and one of the biggest is that "America is a nation of immigrants." Never mind that most people of African descent in this country did not have ancestors who came here willingly, or that plenty of folks here are Native Americans.  And just because most people who live here are descended from immigrants doesn't mean that immigration was always welcomed, valued, or free and equal.

Just look at the Naturalization Act of 1790, one of the first important pieces of immigration legislation.  It limited citizenship to those who were "free white persons."  One year before the passage of the Bill of Rights, those vaunted rights were effectively being limited to white men.  When waves of Irish immigrants came over in the mid-1800s, they were feared and hated, commonly depicted as ape-like by native born whites.  This new surge in migrants gave birth to a nativist party, the Know-Nothings, who coincidentally were one of the elements that formed the nascent Republican party in the 1850s.  These nativists didn't just spread hate, they burned Catholic churches, and instigated anti-immigrant riots. 

Even though more immigrants followed from more places, paranoia and hatred still abounded.  The cartoon below by Thomas Nast depicts Catholicism in the form of bishops invading the nation and destroying its values. Replace the bishops with imams and you could run this cartoon today.

In the 1880s the government began draconian restrictions on Chinese immigrants, who also faced horrific violence.  In Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885 white workers torched Chinese dwellings and murdered 28 Chinese immigrants.  Depictions of the time, like the one below, show the level of racism directed at Chinese Americans.

In the 1920s restrictions on European immigration followed.  The Immigration Act of 1924 set strict quotas aimed at immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, those deemed less "white." That coincided with the high point of the KKK's power.  The Klan's slogan of "100% Americanism" reflected their emphasis on nativism and hatred towards immigrants, particularly Catholics and Jews. These restrictions came after a wave of paranoia associating immigrants with violence and terrorism.  Acts of terrorism in the post-World War I period, such as the passel of bombs sent out to politicians and capitalists on May Day in 1919, were blamed on radical immigrants, without proof. Foreign-born radicals like Emma Goldman were literally shipped off to Russia without trial. The supposed threat of foreign radicalism was the excuse used to bar new immigrants from coming in, including refugees from war and revolution in Europe.  Sound familiar? (The cartoon below is typical of all this.)

When European Jews fled Nazi oppression in the late 1930s, those quotas of the 1920s were not relaxed, and those refugees were cruelly turned away.  The reasons then are pretty much the same now: many Americans hated and feared Jews, just as a great many today hate and fear Muslims and Arabs. 

In the last 70 years I can certainly point to other instances of nativist hate and violence, some rather close to our own time.  Vietnamese "boat people" faced opposition to their presence in America. Remember when mobs attacked buses full of child migrants from Central America?  That was only a year ago. 

So yes, we must fight the bigots who are acting so cruelly to people so desperately in need of aid. But let us not pretend that the sickness we fight is "un-American."  It is a tendency in our history that we must tear out root and branch, but before we do that, we have to realize that it's there.

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