Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Racism Represents an American Tradition

(Jan. 22, 2018) President Trump has inspired widespread outrage and disgust with his crude, racist disparagement of Haiti, El Salvador and African nations and the predominantly black and brown immigrants from these places.

As horrifying as this remark was, his groundbreaking transparency provides an opportunity. Racism has long fueled United States immigration exclusions and restrictions, but these days it’s rare to hear rhetoric that openly reflects this reality, providing us a chance to delve into its roots and implications.

We’ve grown accustomed to the dog-whistling of anti-immigrant racism. Where blood, purity and civilization were once its everyday vocabulary, anti-racist and immigrant rights activism have, at least until recently, succeeded in forcing such talk underground. Our era’s seemingly race-neutral languages of security, legality, culture, productivity and assimilation are often strongly inflected with racial meanings, but they’re subtler and deniable, attracting far less opposition than, say, likening countries to outhouses.

Public utterances like Mr. Trump’s have and should inspire outrage, but we need to go deeper, challenging the racist views — both flagrant and soft-pedaled — that have long shaped America’s immigration policy. And we need to ask hard questions about the ways racism has decisively, durably shaped the immigration debate in ways that usually go unnoticed.

The truth is, many of the United States’ early policies toward immigrants were conceived in recognizably Trumpian terms, in substance if not in tenor. The president’s headline-making sentiment that people from countries like Norway (read: white people) were preferable would have been recognizable to the founders.

The nation’s first naturalization law, from 1790, closed off United States citizenship to all but “free white persons of good character.” People of African descent were among the first migrants singled out for surveillance and exclusion, as they sought entry to the country or moved between states. State repression of black migrants transformed them into America’s first “illegal immigrants,” laying the groundwork for durable associations between law, morality and the need to keep people of color, quite literally, in their “place.”

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Paul A. Kramer