July 4th 2019: A Salvadoran father and his young daughter drowned in the Rio Grande River. Families separated. Concentration camps. Children subjected to inhuman conditions amounting to torture while their parents are deported. Mothers told to drink from toilets. Border Patrol agents posting racist and misogynist cartoons on Facebook. Every day now we hear heartbreaking news from the borderlands. How, we wonder, can our government treat people with such gratuitous cruelty, has it ever been this bad?
While Trump and his stormtroopers churn up the National Mall and the streets of Washington with military hardware, I take a break from writing and go for a walk in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery. A series of chance turns takes me to the grave of Fred Korematsu, the Japanese-American who was convicted for evading internment during World War Two. Concentration camps.
This is an appropriate moment for us all to pause and consider how the nation has determined exactly who is privileged to live within the pale of “us” – the good, the true, the exceptional, the innocent – and who is not.
As I write in “The Myth of Immigration”:
…the immigrant plays a curiously ambiguous role in the narrative of American innocence. Immigrants are outsiders who in aspiring (or threatening) to be in transition to becoming insiders, force insiders to question 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 have required an entire mythology to resolve them, a massive, ongoing, national, cognitive dissonance. When facts meet myth, it is the truth that must change to fit the myth.
One could also argue for the simple statement that American immigration has always been about those whites who were welcomed and those others, including the conditionally white, who were tolerated.
So here is a detailed timeline of how America has negotiated that fine line – the border – between “us” and “them.” It’s a long and exhausting list, but I suggest that it falls into the “Don’t look away!” category. Yes, it has been this bad before, and no, we cannot become who we were meant to be without fully acknowledging who we are.
1600-1800: Over half of all immigrants to the British colonies arrive as indentured servants or slaves.
1610: The English massacre between 16 and 65 Paspahegh Indians near Jamestown.
1623: English settlers poison the wine at a “peace conference” with Powhatan leaders, killing 250.
1636: Connecticut Puritans massacre 500 Pequot people at the Mystic River.
1675: Rhode Island militia attack a Narragansett fort, killing at least 350.
1689: The Spanish destroy the Pueblo of Zia, New Mexico, killing 600.
1704: English colonists attack Apalachee villages in Florida, killing 1,000.
1705: Several states including New York pass laws designed to prevent runaways from fleeing to Canada.
1712: French troops kill 1,000 Fox Indians on the Detroit River.
1774: The Continental Congress leaves it to each state to decide who shall be a voting citizen.
1780: Thomas Jefferson writes, “…if we are to wage a campaign against these Indians, the end proposed should be their extermination, or their removal beyond the lakes of the Illinois River.”
1782: The motto E Pluribus Unum (Out of many, one) appears on the Great Seal of the United States.
1776: The new government grants full citizenship and voting rights to white male property owners (about 6% of the population), with six states granting it to all white males whether they own property or not. Some states require membership in a specified religion.
1789: Congress places the Secretary of War in charge of Indian affairs.
1790-1800: Nearly 100,000 immigrants enter the country, perhaps 20,000 of them as Catholic refugees fleeing political repression in France, Santo Domingo (Haiti) and Ireland.
1790: All foreign “free white persons” are naturalized, and only two years residency required before one can become a citizen. Freed male slaves can vote in four states. Women carry the legal status of their husbands. Property-owning women can vote in New Jersey only.
1792–1856: Various states abolish property qualifications for white men but retain them for blacks. Tax-paying qualifications remain in five states until 1860 and survive in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island until the 20th century. Free black males lose the right to vote in several Northern states.
1793: The first Fugitive Slave Act authorizes local governments to seize and return escaped slaves to their owners and impose penalties on anyone who aids in their flight.
1795: Congress extends the residency requirement to five years. The government encourages Indians to embrace mainstream white American customs so they can assimilate into American society. The Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes do so, becoming known as the “five civilized tribes.”
1798: “Nativists” pass the four Alien and Sedition Acts. Congress raises the residency requirement to 14 years. All immigrants must register with the government within 48 hours of arrival, and all aliens who are citizens or subjects of a nation with which the U.S. is at war are forbidden from becoming American citizens. Only ten years after freedom of speech becomes part of the Constitution, the Sedition Act restricts speech that is critical of the federal government and results in the prosecution of many newspaper owners.
1800-1801: The Sedition Act and the Alien Friends Act are allowed to expire. But the Alien Enemies Act remains in effect. It will be revised and codified in 1918 and remains in effect today.
1802-1803: Thomas Jefferson signs the Georgia Compact, an agreement to buy all Indian land in Georgia as soon as possible. The Louisiana Purchase provides western land for Indian resettlement. All federal administrations thereafter encourage Indians to emigrate west.
1807: New Jersey dis-enfranchises women.
1812-21: Six “western” states join the union with full white male suffrage. Maryland excludes Jewish Americans from state office until the law requiring candidates to affirm a belief in an afterlife is repealed in 1828.
1813: Tennessee troops attack an unsuspecting Creek town, killing 200.
1817: The Cherokee Nation makes its first land exchange, accepting a western tract in present-day Arkansas for one in present-day Georgia. But Most Cherokees refuse to emigrate.
1824: The Office (later, Bureau) of Indian Affairs is formed.
1829: Irish immigrants riot against free blacks in Cincinnati. Thousands of blacks leave for Canada.
1830-1839: The Indian Removal Act calls for relocation of all Native Americans west of the Mississippi River. The Cherokees contest it. The Supreme Court decides in their favor, but Andrew Jackson ignores it. The Army forces tens of thousands of the civilized tribes and other indigenous peoples into concentration camps (called “emigration depots”) and then onto what becomes known as The Trail of Tears. Several thousand die on the journeys.
1831: Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in Virginia.
1834: “Know-nothing” nativists burn a convent in Boston.
1844: Nativists riot in Philadelphia.
1846-1860: A million and a half Catholic Irish arrive, 50,000 of whom (including many U.S. citizens) are deported back to Ireland. Thousands are drafted into the army, but when the U.S. invades Mexico, several hundred Irish revolt, join the Mexican army and form the “Saint Patrick Battalion.”
1849-1869: White Californians deliberately murder 9,000-16,000 Native Americans.
1850: The Second Fugitive Slave Act adds more provisions regarding runaways and levies even harsher punishments for interfering in their capture. In some cases, it enables enslavement of free Blacks.
1853-56: The U.S. acquires 174 million acres of Indian lands through 52 treaties, every one of which it will subsequently break. Forty-three Congressional representatives are members of the nativist American Party, known also as the Know-Nothing party. With its single platform that resists Catholic, especially Irish, immigration, it is the first example of many in U.S. history when large numbers of citizens are intolerant of other white people.
1856: North Carolina is the final state to abolish the property requirement for voting. Previously barred Catholics and non-Christians are enfranchised. Some states allow white immigrants not yet naturalized to vote.
1857: In the Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court decides that no black person can be a U.S. citizen. Oregon is admitted as a state with a law (not abolished until 1927) that excludes all Blacks from settling there.
1859: Settlers massacre 70 Achomawi Indians on Pit River in California.
1860: One in seven Caucasians is foreign-born.
1862: Minnesota governor Alexander Ramsey calls for ethnic cleansing, offering a bounty of $200 for the scalp of each fleeing or resisting Indian. Around 1,700 Dakota are force-marched into a concentration camp. The Lincoln administration hangs 38 after an uprising. The first Homestead Act opens up millions of acres for settlement.
1863: New York City Draft riots, Irish against blacks. The Union Army presses newly-freed slaves throughout the South into “contraband camps.”
1864: The army, under Kit Carson, forces 10,000 Navajo people to march 300 miles in winter from their homeland in the Four Corners region to a concentration camp at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. some 1,500 die while interned there. The Colorado militia attacks a peaceful village of Cheyenne, killing up to 163 at Sand Creek.
1865: The Enrollment Act penalizes draft evasion or desertion with denationalization (loss of citizenship).
1866-1868: Following the end of the Civil War, the first Civil Rights Act declares all persons born in the U.S. (except Indians) to be natural citizens. This legal protection is ratified under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. For the first time, some people other than whites are considered to be citizens. The second Homestead Act explicitly encourages black Americans to participate, but rampant discrimination, systemic barriers and bureaucratic inertia slow black gains. Further Homesteading laws will be passed into the 1930s.
1868: George Custer’s 7th Cavalry attacks a Cheyenne village, killing 200.
1869: The Territory of Wyoming is the first to grant women suffrage in state elections.
1870: The 15th Amendment enfranchises Blacks. The South responds with Black Codes, poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, convict leasing and terrorism. Naturalization of black immigrants (but not Asians or Mexicans) is permitted. The 1870s will see 16 major race riots.
1871: Residents of the District of Columbia lose the right to vote for mayor and city council. Western Indians are forbidden to leave reservations without permission.
1874: Nearly a century after the Declaration of Independence, the Supreme Court rules that it is not unconstitutional to deny women the right to vote.