Donald Trump’s proposals regarding immigration policy are part of a long history of US policies aimed at defining the racial composition of the country. They are also paralleled by the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union– an anti-immigrant backlash. It seems that after centuries of building their economies on the backs of exploited black and brown people, Trump and “Brexit” proponents are not willing to share the fruits of their economies with the people they oppressed. As people of color move in, they seek to close the door.
From the beginning, full participation in US society was based on the supremacy of whites. Early British colonial laws forbade intermarriage with Native Americans (in contrast to the French approach). The Declaration of Independence opens with the line, “all men are created equal” yet refers to Native Americans as “merciless Indian Savages”. A few years later, the Constitution treated African American slaves as 3/5ths of person and denied women the right to vote until 1920 (and Native Americans until 1924).
In the immediate aftermath of independence, the Naturalization Act of 1790 was created to limit citizenship to whites. It was not until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that racial criteria for immigration were removed (but a ban on homosexuals was maintained through 1990). The timeline below highlights just some of the policies that have set immigration and citizenship rules over time. For example, most Asians and people of color were not allowed to become US citizens until 1952. These policy debates were often accompanied by a barrage of racist cartoons and speeches in public forums. In the mid-1800s, the immigration debate occurred against a backdrop of ethnic cleansing of Native Americans and calls for “Indian extermination”.
These policies all sought to control membership in the American club, if you will, and to define the US as a white nation. Trump’s promises to exclude all Muslims and to deport 11 million Latinos fit clearly within this historical pattern. When Trump recalls that “in the good old days”, protesters at his events would have been severely beaten, it brings to mind the lynching of African Americans during the civil rights struggles—or current encounters with white police officers. His “straight talk” and “saying what he feels” is code for open racism. His motto, “Make American Great Again”, is not-so-subtle code for “Make America White Again”.
At least one politician, Rick Tyler of Tennesee, is using this expression with purpose. Tyler refers directly to past immigration policies, stating,
“The Make America White Again billboard advertisement will cut to the very core and marrow of what plagues us as a nation. As Anne Coulter so effectively elucidates in her book, “Adios America,” the overhaul of America’s immigration law in the 1960’s has placed us on an inevitable course of demise and destruction. Yes…the cunning globalist/Marxist social engineers have succeeded in destroying that great bulwark against statist tyranny…the white American super majority.”
In this cosmology, white males occupy the supreme position. Disturbingly, while white, male journalists find innumerable faults with Trump, they repeatedly ignore his misogyny and white supremacist proposals. But it’s not lost on most others, as racist bullying using Trump’s language is spreading across schools and playgrounds.
For the millions of American Muslims, Trump’s message is that they are unwanted. For the millions of American Latinos whose family members face deportation, Trump represents a very real threat. For all the people of color that Trump has ridiculed (African Americans, Native Americans, Asians), as well as women, Trump’s message is that they are second-class citizens.
When Obama was re-elected in 2012, he was so based on a loose coalition of non-white male voters, a first in US politics. Rather than court the growing number of voters among people of color, as some Republican strategists recommended, Trump has doubled-down on the white male demographic. Come November, he may regret that, as the new majority rejects him as a two-bit New York City billionaire snake oil salesman.