Original Sin(s)

Vive La France!!!! Bless their garlicky, buttery, champagne bubbly hearts. Now the French have even more reason to be insufferably arrogant: They stopped the surge of supremacist nativism. The two Anglo countries? Nope.

Here in the United States, “stuff” comes at us so thick and furious these days that focus on or even ratiocinative thought about what barreled down at us 30 seconds earlier becomes a casualty of the latest onslaught. So let’s get the most recent crises out of the way in order to, um . . . think.

Trump’s “religious freedom act” signing was on an executive order, not a bill (Congress so far is still the legislative branch), and accomplished nothing except a photo op with evangelicals, priests, and a token nun. Furthermore, though House Republicans signed their own political death warrants in replacing Obamacare with Trumpcare—and then, tone-deaf, celebrated with champagne—the Senate can’t wait to rip it up and start over. (The House GOPers know this, of course, but got so thrilled at passing anything they were like toddlers finally producing a result during toilet training: “Lookie! I made a poop!”) True, Mitch McConnell is ready: he has assembled a team to produce a Senate version of Trumpcare—thirteen white men. Republicans seem to have even stopped caring how things look. But we haven’t stopped caring. Looming Obamacare and Medicaid loss is raging like a prairie fire across the land, GOP elected officials’ constituencies are livid, and Resistance groups, large and small, are digging in and revving up.

OK. Now can we indulge in some thought for a bit? About, say, immigration vs. nativism? Remember those issues? Undocumented residents certainly haven’t forgotten.

Lately I’ve been thinking about truth and reconciliation initiatives. In a sense, the founding of the United Nations after World War II was one such initiative on a global scale. South Africa may have pioneered the idea in a bold, national move after finally ending apartheid. Ireland, Rwanda, Burma, and now Tunisia are among the countries with Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, daring to exhume and publicly acknowledge atrocities committed by citizens against one another in the name of tribal, ethnic, racial, or religious differences.

In the United States, the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction was supposed to have that reconciliatory effect. But newly emancipated African-Americans’ hopes for real freedom, constitutional equality, and full citizenship were met by a violent, massive backlash from Southern white supremacists, who promulgated the infamous Black Codes (1800-1866), and by means of murder and intimidation established the Jim Crow system of segregation and discrimination from which African Americans across the country suffer still.

Slavery, of course, has rightly been called the “original sin” of the U.S.—though it could also be argued that the European conquest of and in many cases eradication of indigenous peoples already living on this land was an original sin predating the concept of original sin the Christian European conquerors brought with them. In both cases and more, however, this nation of immigrants boasts a population constantly being seduced into amnesia. American prejudices and the myth of “white nativism” have been here from the European arrival, and have been consistent, toxic, even lethal. They persist today, constituting one of the two basic reasons—along with sexism–that Trump squats in our White House.

Virtually all those folks who voted for Trump are the children or grandchildren of immigrants: German-Americans, Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Polish- and Dutch- and Scandinavian- and Anglo- and so forth-Americans. So are those who voted for Hillary, with the added electorate of African-Americans. As Trump followers gather at his rallies and defend their leader even when he betrays them, it’s hard to believe they can have forgotten what their own ancestors were forced to endure. But then, memory is selective—and they don’t learn much about this history in school.

They don’t learn that the first law preventing a specific ethnic group from emigrating to the United States was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, prohibiting immigration of Chinese laborers. The Chinese had been tolerated when they were needed to build the railroads and during the early stages of the gold rush, but then anti-Chinese sentiment became politicized by labor leaders and fanned into animosity by the Workingmen’s Party, which blamed the Chinese instead of the bosses for depressed wage levels. (The Workingmen’s Party, founded in 1876, was one of the first Marxist-influenced political parties in the U.S. and the forerunner of the Socialist Labor Party of America. Senator Bernie Sanders is not the first Socialist unable to fathom any oppression other than economic.)

The Immigration Act of 1924 was the first successful large-scale immigration restriction. It banned outright “Asiatics and their descendants”–especially aiming to bar people from India—and it cut arrivals from countries outside the Americas in half, barring entry for those not Northern and Western European—who were acceptably pale. French immigrants had arrived earlier, in the late 1700s, because of rumored potential prosperity, with some in flight from the French Revolution—but they came in small numbers. Scandinavian immigration, from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland, would increase dramatically in the late 19th century, due to mounting economic pressures and overpopulation in those home countries.

The 1924 Immigration Act established strict quotas for Eastern and Southern Europeans, because those immigrants represented too many “types of social inadequacy.” This was tailored to restrict Jews, who were thought to be terrorists and Bolsheviks, and Slavic peoples, who were regarded as genetically inferior. The Act did encourage non-Jewish immigration from Germany and Britain—and these quotas remained in place for the most part, shockingly, until 1965. The number of Jews admitted to the U.S. decreased from an average of about 50,000 per year between 1880 and 1924 to fewer than 10,000; the number of Polish immigrants dropped from 95,000 to 10,000. Again, trade-union leaders supported this Act, too, fearing a drop in wages if (new) foreign workers were around to compete.

Between 1820 and 1860 almost two million Irish arrived, 75 percent after the Great Irish Famine. Many died en route due to disease and the foul conditions of what became known as “coffin ships.” They were greeted with signs reading “Workers Wanted— Irish Need Not Apply.” Poor, unskilled, uneducated, they were considered disruptive and particularly dangerous because they were Catholics in what was increasingly coming to regard itself as a Protestant nation, although the Founders had specifically, repeatedly made their intention clear—in The Constitution and their other writings—that the United States not be considered a Christian country, or even a religious one.

Italians were part of what got termed the New Immigration, from 1890 onward. This third and largest wave was a major shift from previous waves, which had consisted largely of Germans, Dutch, Irish, British, and Scandinavians. Between 1900 and 1915, three million Italians arrived, with more following—the majority laborers or farmers fleeing poverty, plus a small population of craftsmen. They, too, experienced economic and ethnic bigotry, because employers preferred the by-now-familiar, previously despised Slovaks and Poles. And when yesterday’s immigrants, now established workers, staged strikes out of fear that new machinery being introduced in multiple industries would challenge their skills or even replace their jobs (sound familiar?), Italians became scabs, filling those jobs in construction, railroad, mining, and long-shoring. And they were detested for that.

Mexicans, ironically, were already here, in their own country. But then the United States annexed Texas in 1845. In fact, many of them then fled south. They were exempted from the 1924 Immigration Act because farmers argued that without Mexican migrants they would be unable to find the labor they needed to work their crops. (Sound familiar?)

Are you beginning to suspect that our “welcome huddled masses” image (thanks to Emma Lazarus’s poem displayed at the base of the Statue of Liberty) is perhaps less than accurate? If you’re starting to think our history has actually been more about admitting people when we need their labor and resenting them when we don’t, bingo. If you also suspect that the labor movement was never as idealistically noble as many of us were taught growing up, bingo again. Even today, “working class” is implicitly defined as “white”—though it never has been and still isn’t.

Welcome or not, they came. Greeks, Portuguese, Latin and South Americans, Pacific Islanders. Refugees from war, like the Vietnamese. Refugees from revolutions, like the Cubans. Persecuted ethnic groups like the Hmong. And despite all empirical evidence that countries with a large variety of immigrants are more productive, more innovative, wealthier, and faster growing, there’s been sufficient hatred waiting here for all of them. There was forcible clustering of groups into de facto ghettoes. There was the infamous mass internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II—and also the smaller, lesser-known detention of Italian Americans and German Americans during that same period. And always there was the stereotypical definition of “Other.” Each group in turn has been called “a bunch of lazy, dirty, sly, stupid, drunken, deranged, subhuman brutes who want to take our jobs and rape our women”—and yes, do notice that the male voice was the one speaking and the one heard. Which is not to say that “their” women didn’t join in the fearing and the hating. But those women had only immigrant status—powerlessness—in their own homes.

The poisonous names alone! Names screamed at small children while they were being bullied and beaten, children who then grew up to scream other cruel names at other, different-looking or different-sounding children: Redskin, Nigger, Chink, Coolie, Frog, Polack, Kike, Mick, Wop, Jap, Kraut, Scandahoovian, Wetback, Gusano, Spic, Guinea, Dago, Raghead. . . .

Oh my god, surely it’s past time for the United States to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of our own.