In February 2018 the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), certainly at the behest of the Trump administration, altered its mission statement by removing a reference to the United States as a “nation of immigrants.” Even though many Trump supporters would rather not be reminded that their ancestors came from other lands, a fundamental part of our American story remains: out of many we became one.
But mythologists understand that every national narrative has its shadow, the part of the story we have suppressed so deeply that we’ve forgotten it. The shadow of E Pluribus Unum insists that we can’t speak about how we became one people without considering settler colonialism, genocide, slavery, the construction of “whiteness,” and all the ways in which those privileged enough to exist within the pale determined who was outside the pale, how some might be admitted within the pale, and how they might be forced to impale others to keep them outside.
Because it is built upon such contradictions, the mythology of Americanism is extremely unstable. And every time its basic assumptions come into dispute, as they regularly do, we experience on a mass scale the need to re-examine ourselves and re-encounter the question of who we are. And Americans, unlike any people before or since, have always understood who we are only by determining who we are not. This is the genesis of white supremacy (as I discuss in Chapters Seven and Eight of my book), and it goes a very long way toward explaining both the sense of anxiety that threatens to overwhelm us, and the one-third of voters who still support Donald Trump.
Consider some of the primary players in American myth: Black people remain imprisoned as America’s perpetual “inner Other,” while the “outer Other” in all of its changing images (Indians, communists, Mexicans, Eastern and Southern Europeans, Asians and of course Muslim terrorists) is always located beyond the borders, beyond the pale. But the immigrant plays a curiously ambiguous role in the narrative of American innocence. Immigrants are outsiders who hope to be (or threaten to be) in transition to becoming insiders, to join the rest who aspire to achieve something we quite ambiguously refer to as the American Dream. To the Paranoid Imagination, however, they threaten to pollute that dream.
A further ambiguity is that their condition is qualified by their skin color. The story of American immigration announces a welcome to all that is enshrined on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” There may be no poetic line better known in the entire world. But this story – the Melting Pot, or the Ellis Island myth – is rife with such contradictions that its adherents require an entire mythology to resolve them, a massive cognitive dissonance. When facts meet myth, it is the truth that must change to fit the myth. Five factors (race, religion, economics, politics and empire) have deeply influenced the mythology of immigration.
Race: Blacks are the only people brought from elsewhere who didn’t choose to come. For 250 years they were considered to be a necessary evil. How necessary? One could persuasively argue that none of the original great American fortunes nor the Industrial Revolution itself could have occurred in the absence of American slavery. Asians and Latinos were treated similarly until quite recently.
Religion: Protestant Puritanism, with its demonization of the poor, was enshrined as a fundamental part of White identity from the beginning. For these same 250 years, America was essentially a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant nation (with the exceptions of Louisiana, Maryland and the distant Southwest), and it perpetuated the Reformation demonization of Catholics. By the 1830s a large political movement of ironically-titled “nativists” who shamelessly called themselves the “Know-Nothing” Party attained considerable political influence with a single platform that resisted Catholic immigration. It was the first example and certainly not the last, of “America First” arguments.
Economics: From immediately after the success of the American Revolution, legal definitions of citizenship (or at least of temporary, acceptable workers) have always varied with the needs of the business community. Slavery is the best example, but there are many others, such as the Bracero program. Because of the general trends of business growth (interrupted only by periodic economic depressions) there were few limits on Northern European immigration after 1800, and Southern and Eastern European immigration from 1880, until 1920, when the need for more workers began to decline.
Politics: The opening and closing of the gates to citizenship have always been political decisions. Prior to and during World War Two, anti-Semitism ruled much policy, and the U.S. refused to admit more than a trickle of Jewish refugees from Europe (including Anne Frank’s family), leading to the shameful story of the S.S. St. Louis.
Especially since 1975, people from socialist countries (Nicaragua, Viet Nam, the U.S.S.R., Iran and especially Cuba) have easily achieved admittance as political refugees, while those attempting to enter the U.S. from friendly or right-wing countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, Indonesia, etc), despite the overwhelming evidence of mass murder, have rarely been granted that status. Israelis are a special case, with unlimited immigrant privilege. In recent years the U.S. has allowed in very large numbers of South Asians (primarily Indians and Pakistanis), primarily because of the needs of the computer industry.
The case of Cuba vs Haiti is our best example of how politics influences immigration policy – and is in turn influenced by it. Cubans, perceived as obvious antagonists (if not enemies) of their government, have enjoyed nearly free admittance for decades, and they have constituted a solid right-wing constituency in Florida that clearly determined the Presidential elections of 2000 and 2004. Can you imagine the course of American and world history since the year 2000 had Florida not “voted” for George W. Bush (or if a quarter of African Americans in the state had not been ineligible to vote)? Haitians, by contrast, have nearly always been subjects of governments friendly to the U.S., and they have been forced to endure the most extreme privations to be allowed onto American shores. And, of course, Cubans are primarily brown and Haitians are black.
It is a clear marker that in the age of Trump we still have to remind ourselves that White Europeans conquered this land through genocide. This was an original sin so overwhelming that its perpetrators and their descendants could only live with themselves and their crimes by demonizing the surviving Native Americans. The ideology of Puritanism remains alive and well today, as politicians continue to blame the poor for their condition.
It’s a commentary on our current debased state of public discourse that we even have to state this. White people are not indigenous here, and for four centuries our existence here has been marked by the deep anxiety of people who are themselves “Other.” We live with this painful knowledge by “othering” those who can’t or won’t fit our definitions of being American.
We begin by reminding ourselves that White Europeans conquered this land through genocide – an original sin so overwhelming that its perpetrators could live with themselves only through justifying their crimes by demonizing the surviving Native Americans. It’s a commentary on our current debased state of public discourse that we even have to state this. White people are not indigenous here, and for four centuries our existence here has been marked by the deep anxiety of people who are themselves “Other.” We live with this painful knowledge by “othering” those who can’t or won’t fit our definitions of being American.
Empire: A final, often unspoken factor is the question of how Americans, from the start – indeed since before independence – have expanded, conquered, massacred, fomented military coups and stolen resources from every nation to the west and south that had the misfortune to be on the other side of those expanding borders. This immense contradiction became such a fundamental aspect of the myth of exceptionalism that now, few Americans have any idea (or would object if they knew) that U.S. armed forces are placed in over 180 sovereign nations. Here is that contradiction in the simplest terms: Americans historically fear the incursion of the Other even as their sons die fighting within the borders of dozens of countries, for no justifiable reasons.
All white persons arriving in the New World between 1600 and 1800 must have wondered, even if only momentarily, why they should be so privileged over the natives. I imagine that at least some of them felt considerable shame and guilt about their participation in the theft and genocide of an entire hemisphere. It took the attraction of the evolving myth of America – a new world of opportunity, an empty land ripe for the taking – to override the natural ethical standards of common people. The phrase “A land without people for a people without land” was so attractive (if utterly false) that 19th century Zionists used it (equally falsely) in the arguments for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
The Naturalization Act of 1790 proclaimed that “any alien, being a free white person, may be admitted to become a citizen of the United States.” Blacks, Indians and most women could not be citizens. Sam Smith writes, “If you were a free white male, you came, you saw, and you signed up.”
Above all, however, the myth spoke of freedom. For 250 years, these citizens were white, Christian (Protestant) and free, if not always able to vote. All three of these characteristics were necessary components of the meaning of “American.” Conversely, to be black, with few exceptions, was to not be free, and thus to not be a citizen. Indeed, when the Civil War determined that all were free, new definitions of “white” (having to do with acceptable forms of dress and behavior) became necessary.
There were very clear political implications. From the very start, the myth encouraged “Americans” to identify as white, rather than as members of a downtrodden social class. At every juncture when poor and working class people began to organize, the full weight of the media and religious gatekeepers succeeded in driving a wedge between blacks and whites. And it encouraged them, once their conditions improved even slightly, to look down upon the next wave of immigrants.
Even so, for 250 years, “immigrant” was almost always a positive term that described primarily white, European Protestants who came to take advantage of the opportunities America offered, and who in turn helped to build the nation. The inconvenient truth that slavery was the major economic engine that actually did that was omitted from the story. And that corruption of historical knowledge is clearly making a comeback even now.
The basic story of who we are remains: deserving, hard-working, white people who longed for freedom and opportunity, escaped European despotism, contributed their skills, expanded the frontiers and settled the empty spaces of the rural interior. As I write in Chapter Seven:
A new mythic promise of America developed, expressing fecundity, growth and the happy labor of idealized, Jeffersonian farmers: the “garden of the world.” Although this story is no more accurate than that of the cowboy, it survives because it embodies fantasies of simpler, happier times and independent ownership of land. Such ownership (for whites) was possible, of course, only if the frontier continued to expand into Indian Territory. These “sturdy” family farmers, backbone of the country in war and peace, were the spirit of democracy. Neither rich nor poor, they owed no one and exploited no one. They gave to the myth of the garden another fundamental characteristic: the West (the Midwest, the heartland) was racially homogeneous and classless. This powerful and historically unique narrative attracted millions of immigrants in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Americans were free and equal.
In the early 1860s the federal government began distributing Western lands free to citizens or anyone who declared their intention to become citizens. Eventually it granted 1.6 million homesteads and distributed 270 million acres of federal land for private ownership. However, after 1865 “freedom” no longer defined whiteness. So new laws prevented most blacks from acquiring western land. This kept them in the South as sharecroppers, or de facto slaves. Homesteading became a privilege of whiteness, and in the southwest similar systems targeted Latinos. No wonder our picture of the “hardy pioneers” is lily-white.