As published on The Huffington Post:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
– Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus
Etched into the Statue of Liberty
In 1845, the slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass published a memoir, in which he recounts – in rich and unprecedented detail – the realities of living enslaved. Toward the middle of Douglass’s narrative, he tells the story of a brawl in a Baltimore shipyard with his white coworkers, who have refused to labor alongside a black man. The white carpenters:
“…said they would not work with free colored workmen. Their reason for this, as alleged, was, that if free colored carpenters were encouraged, they would soon take the trade into their own hands, and poor white men would be thrown out of employment. They therefore felt called upon at once to put a stop to it.”
This racially motivated refusal wasn’t exceptional; it was woven into the social thought of the time. Segregation – in living quarters, in social interaction, and in employment – was a mechanism of self-defense for the South’s white majority. Black mobility was a threat to White Supremacy, and White Supremacy was the Holy Grail.
Between the founding of the United States and the late 20th century, White Supremacy wasn’t a hidden aim. It was the aim, spoken of in a booming voice, with candor and pride, and enforced with mortal brutality. In 1935, when the Roosevelt administration began to extend New Deal programs to the black population of New Orleans, the city’s district attorney proclaimed, “At no time in the history of our State has white supremacy been in greater danger.”
As a strand of public and communal thought, this school has fallen out of the mainstream. But while our contemporary political discourse veils the uglier historic face of racism, it has done little to offset the mentality itself. It now extends to the way we treat our immigrants. Shortly after the tragic murder of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco this summer, I was listening to a California talk-radio show. The host took a call that went something like this:
HOST: Good afternoon.
CALLER: Yeah, do these Democrats in Washington hate America? Do they hate Americans? What do they think the illegals are going to do if we keep letting them in?
HOST: Do you have a comment?
CALLER: The illegals don’t have the right to be here. This is our country. Do you know how hard it is to live in this state with all of them coming in here?
HOST: Again, do you have a comment?
CALLER: Yeah, here’s my comment. Trump is the only one talking with some sense in this presidential race. He’s got it right.
That caller – laughable though she may sound – taps into the sentiments of a much broader faction. Let’s examine, for a moment, the words and ideas of the “only one talking with some sense” – the candidate holding the megaphone to the movement.
TRUMP: “They’re taking our jobs. They’re taking our manufacturing jobs. They’re taking our money. They’re killing us.”
Applause. And lots of it. Here’s another:
TRUMP: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best…they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they’re telling us what we’re getting.”
More applause. Massive, rapturous, toupee-curlin’ applause. And another:
TRUMP: “We’re the only place just about that’s stupid enough to do it.”
On that last one, Trump was referring to the 14th Amendment, and the clause that affords citizenship to children whose parents are undocumented immigrants. To this, an Alabama football stadium erupted in – you guessed it – deafening applause.
This is not the hollow and eccentric rhetoric of a few. It is a mass movement rooted in antebellum thought.
Our discourse on immigrants would feel chillingly familiar to American history’s most famous slave. Douglass would recognize the patterns of thought and the atavistic political tropes. Two centuries later, he would be staring at a South that holds eerie resemblance to the one he fled.
Read his reflection again:
“[They] said they would not work with free colored workmen. Their reason for this, as alleged, was, that if free colored carpenters were encouraged, they would soon take the trade into their own hands, and poor white men would be thrown out of employment. They therefore felt called upon at once to put a stop to it.”
Substitute “white carpenters” and “poor white men” with “American workers.” Swap “free colored carpenters” and “workmen” with “undocumented immigrants.”
Now read it a final time:
“[They] said they would not work with undocumented immigrants. Their reason for this, as alleged, was, that if undocumented immigrants were encouraged, they would soon take the trade into their own hands, American workers would be thrown out of employment. They therefore felt called upon at once to put a stop to it.”
Do you see it now?
The argument being used by Donald Trump and the conservative base to justify the de facto social exclusion of immigrants in America is – nearly verbatim – the argument that was used to justify racial segregation in the workplace during the antebellum South.
Do you realize what we’re doing, who we’re becoming? The era whose words we’re borrowing and whose thought we’re recycling?
Are you scared yet? How far we have fallen from the ethic of Ellis Island.
The tempest has cast the homeless from their homes. The tired have arrived, the poor are coming. The huddled masses gasp for air. But our lamp is out, and our door is closed.
And The New Colossus is dying.