By Benji Hart
The third rendition of Trump’s Muslim Ban was struck down this week. The block by multiple federal judges was rightly celebrated. Yet the rhetoric of those opposing the ban, from political pundits to those in the streets, has revolved around the same chorus relied upon during its previous incarnations: That banning immigrants is un-American. One must ask to what history these platitudes refer.
The first restrictive federal immigration law, known as the Page Act, was passed in 1875 on the heels of the Civil War, and at the start of westward expansion. It prohibited entrance into the US of any immigrants considered “undesirable,” loosely defined as those from Asia, sex workers, and those who were convicts in their countries of origin (though it was often left up to judges to determine whether or not an individual fit the description). The Immigration Act of 1917 banned Asians, Mexicans, those from the Mediterranean, as well as political radicals, and those with disabilities. A similar act in 1924 created quotas for the number of immigrants from those same general categories, its architects naming its goal to be “[preserving] the idea of American hegemony.”
Nothing, then, is more American than racist, sexist, ableist immigration bans. When we call current anti-immigrant measures un-American, we are rewriting history, and failing to place current laws in a long lineage of decidedly white supremacist policies that date back to the nation’s origins.
White nationalists, on the other hand, understand this history with crystal-clarity. When they say they are protecting American values and ways of life, they are speaking from a place of historical knowledge. The primary charge of challenging white nationalism is not to dismiss its tenets as foolish, but to take them seriously, understanding them as a distilled vision of the core desires of US empire—both historically and currently.
As white nationalists defend confederate symbols with cries of erasing history, we seem to have generally come to understand that it is the flags and monuments themselves which are the erasure, a toxic misrepresentation of events leading us to celebrate what we ought to be fighting against. It’s imperative we understand that such celebrations are hardly unique to hate groups and Klansmen.
Like white nationalism itself, the bland honoring of this nation’s most vile atrocities forms the heart of US patriotism, and is perpetuated by liberalism just as much as—if not much more than—conservatism.
When a white nationalist says, “This country was founded by white people for white people,” and we respond with the inevitable, “This nation was built by immigrants,” or, “Diversity gives the US its richness of culture,” it is white nationalists who got it right. We are the ones trying to retell US history in a way that allows us to avoid its true violence—and our complicity with it.
The knee-jerk reaction of so many to reject calls for white nationalism isn’t a response to its vitriolic message. It is, rather, about the ways those messages force us to acknowledge the white supremacy inherent in every aspect of US culture, values, institutions, and history.
Unsurprisingly, there is a defense of whiteness at the root of this reaction, in the same way there is when nationalists fear their own loss of heritage through the removal of racist statues.
If we can convince ourselves that racism in the US is rooted in the misguided views of avowed white nationalists, we absolve ourselves of the responsibility to perform the much more challenging work. If all that needs to be done is to correct the ignorance of a rowdy fringe, undoing the roots of racism shouldn’t actually be all that hard.
But what if white nationalism doesn’t represent some heinous distortion of US history but, instead, is its most clear and honest articulation? What if, in fact, it is we who are playing ignorant, we who are as tied to white supremacy as those waving confederate flags and proudly proclaiming their allegiance?
What if the only difference between us and them are the ways we do and don’t name that allegiance, and the values it has instilled within us?
Once we accept that white nationalism is not merely part of the US project, but its defining feature, then it is the structures of empire that must come down, not the individual white nationalists we have convinced ourselves are always poor, always uneducated, always a part of some other community.
This is the labor many of us are purposefully avoiding. Statements like, “The US was founded on the tenets of freedom and equality,” don’t come from a place of ignorance.
On the contrary, I believe those who make such statements are acutely aware of their falsehood, but are fighting to convince themselves and those around them that the nation they seek to defend isn’t as guilty, as inherently concerned with domination and violence, as they undoubtedly know it is.
Beneath this simplistic proclamation is a desire to distance oneself from racist values, without implicating the structures which have generated them—structures from which the speaker benefits, and wants to preserve.
If the culprit is not actually a handful of bigots, but is rather an entire social, economic, and political power structure, then all its beneficiaries bear responsibility, not merely the ones who shout their bigotry. Platitudes about core U.S. virtues are a weak attempt to re-imagine the dominant order as an accidental purveyor of white supremacy, not its source.
When Muslims are banned, Black people are murdered and their killers absolved, Boricuas are left to starve in the wake of (un)natural disaster, social services disappear, indigenous people are displaced for the sake of environmental devastation, and children are bombed, that is the system working. Crediting the system with doing the right thing, when, in actuality, it is its targets’ resistance that occasionally leads it to falter, is the ultimate misunderstanding of US history, and its erasure as it unfolds in the moment.
When white nationalists say, “Our way of life is under threat, is dying out,” take them at their word. Then ask what you are doing to make that fear a reality.
Benji Hart is a Black, queer, femme artist and educator currently living in Chicago. They are the writer behind the blog Radical Faggot, and have essays featured in the anthologies Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief (2017) and Taking Sides: Radical Solidarity and the Poverty of Liberalism (2015), both from AK Press. Their writing has also been published in Truthout, Salon Magazine, Socialist Worker, and other feminist and abolitionist media.