Many Americans still cling onto the idea that their country is in some part a “racial” project, that there is a core cultural or ethnic identity to the nation, and that their whiteness in some way makes them superior to others.
Far & Near column in the Hindustan Times, 24 January, 2018
“Those who come here are generally of the most stupid sort of their nation… they will soon outnumber us.” Those are not the words of Donald Trump, but rather of one of America’s much-loved “founding fathers,” Benjamin Franklin, speaking in the middle of the 18th century about the migration of Germans, who he feared would be unable to learn English and assimilate. In his essay “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind,” he writes that Germans, as well as Swedes, Spaniards, Italians, Frenchmen, and Russians were insufficiently white, having “a swarthy complexion.” Their coming to the New World was tainting an otherwise virtuous project. America should not be so willing to let immigration “darken its people.”
From the beginning, Americans have fretted about whom they should accept as part of their national collective and who they should reject. There exists the powerful notion that America is a country for all people, a country idealised by symbols such as the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour, which lifts a light to the world and embraces its “huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” In reality, that ideal has been undercut at all times by a tenacious force in American life: nativism.
One of the strange boons of Trump’s presidency is that it has exposed quite starkly the underlying tensions in American society. He recently made terrible comments about immigration, in which he used a vile expletive to refer to countries in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean while insisting it would be preferable for people to come to the United States from Norway. These baldly racist remarks have sparked yet another cycle of outrage and indignation. They are further proof for Trump’s critics of the aberration of his presidency.
Their sentiments, however, are nothing new and find echoes throughout American history. Americans are taught to think of Benjamin Franklin as a liberal exemplar of reason and a champion of liberty. Yet his beliefs about Germans would presage centuries of xenophobic and racist thinking. In the nineteenth century, anti-immigrant ideologues lamented the influx of Germans and Poles, Irish and Italians as fatally compromising the American project. Like immigrants today, these people were seen as coming from ruined, impoverished countries with nothing to offer America.
Read the rest of the piece in the Hindustan Times