Friday, November 22, 2019

Race—yes, it matters

And immigration too. If we think about it, we, as individuals, families, communities, and a nation are conflicted about both race and immigration, and always have been. This came to mind this week with news that White House advisor Stephen Miller was exposed as having advocated blatantly white nationalist literature. This is the same Miller who designed many of the president’s border and overall immigration policies: the anti-Muslim travel bans, border policies on separating children and families, etc.

I say we are conflicted about immigration and race because most of us in this country trace ourselves—proudly—to immigrant forbearers. My family arrived from Germany and Norway in the late 1800s and early 1900s. When I lived in California, many of my Mexican classmates and neighbors lived in ancestral places and houses, when they were part of Mexico! Anyone who can trace ancestry to African-American slaves has, along with the Mexican-Americans sited above—and many more in Arizona and New Mexico—been “American” in family much longer than I have. “Immigrant” is a conflicted term!

We are conflicted about color and race because white has not always been white enough. When Irish, Greek, and Italian immigrants came to America, most of them huddled in ethnic enclaves in Eastern cities, took jobs that proper white Americans did not want (sometimes jobs that had been done by slaves before our grueling Civil War). The promulgators of Manifest Destiny, like all but seven or eight of our 45 presidents, were “Anglo-Americans” who saw this country as the natural heir to the British Empire, the new arrow of Civilization.

Jewish immigrants have their own sad stories of not being white enough. In the run-up to WW II, in 1939, a ship with 937 refugees fleeing Nazi Germany landed in Havana, Cuba, where 28 passengers were allowed to debark—The US and Canada then refused to allow any departures, and the ship returned to Europe, where the
Holocaust was unfolding.

Subsequent American actions helped staunch the Nazi Anti-Semitic Aryan nationalist movement, and, in the process brought white Italian, Irish, Scandinavian, German and Jewish Americans together with Anglo-Americans and called them all white. Black troops served in a segregated military through that war; integration of the military occurred in 1948.

Majority society’s attitudes about ethnicity are most conflicted when it comes to the original Americans—misnamed from the beginning, “Indians.” The Indians were ravaged by European diseases, and drastically reduced in population as the country moved west and appropriated Indian lands through wars, fraudulent treaties, and overwhelming numbers.

There were always partisans who acknowledged these takeovers with minor or major misgivings. Official policy—and the accepted attitude of most Americans—became one of “assimilation,” making Indians white. The most generous advocates for Indians thought their cultures interesting and worthy of holding in museums, but also thought that the only way to save them was to “kill the Indian and save the man” in boarding schools and through policies that would make Indians farmers, make them city dwellers, make them white.

The Indian population of the country has rebounded from a low of 237,000 in the 1890s to over five million today—a population intent on saving and advancing ancient languages and cultures. Maybe most telling is the number of white Americans who now proudly claim a half-Cherokee grandmother or some other tie to the original Americans. Conflicted on ethnicity.

Not Stephen Miller. The new information about him follows an election and three years of rhetoric from the president and advisors that touches on—or settles squarely on—race. I believe that the election and support of this president is firmly rooted in race. Italian -Americans and Anglo-Americans, who once were divided by concepts of race, have made up and married and now fear the day when non-white Americans will be a majority in the country.

Yes, some religious conservatives look past anti-immigrant policies and continuing convictions of corrupt officials to the appointment of anti-abortion judges. And other traditional conservatives look past offensive remarks and actions to tax cuts and robust returns on investments. But the hard core of support for the current political regime is racial fear.

And that fear of becoming some kind of minority in “our own land” allows the likes of Stephen Miller to advocate racist policies in the White House and, importantly, engenders a quiet acquiescence to overt white nationalism and white supremacism among a large number of Americans.

In Wallowa County and majority white communities like ours, we support our Mexican, Thai, and Chinese restaurants, and hire Mexican crews from outside the area to sheetrock our homes and work in our fields, but fear the floodgates of new immigrants and the tilt of the nation-wide racial balance.

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