The first time I heard the racial trope “Go back to where you came from,” I was getting off of a school bus in a white section of town in Brooklyn, New York. Little did I know then that I would hear those words from K through 12, and the N-word was usually coming at the end of the phrase. By my senior year in high school, very few white students and their parents hurled those words at us black kids who were in the school’s new college-bound program. But many of our white teachers, school administrators, and staff employees didn’t have to, because it was not what they said to us, but rather their treatment of us.
The “otherness” that I experienced from my years of being bussed, I learned, had less to do with the people targeted, like myself, and everything to do with the group in power. I grew to understand that their perceptions of birthright, citizenship, ownership, and racial entitlement were bolstered by laws and institutions keeping their belief system in place. It is the belief, at least in my generation and older, that it takes a long time for attitudes like that to change, if they change at all, because changing those people, their systems and laws, can take more than one lifetime. With that said, enter the Democratic congresswomen fondly called the “Squad”—Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
When the Squad called out the president and his administration for the inhumane treatment of undocumented immigrants detained in cages, and the deplorable and squalid conditions they are forced to live under, Trump, in his inimitable style of ad hominem tweets, stated the following rather than address the crisis head-on: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came…These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough.”
Trump’s now infamous statement illustrates how perceptions of birthright, citizenship, ownership, and racial entitlement have upped the volume on xenophobia and racism to blast these days. Many more people feel emboldened to call the cops on blacks, to tell perceived foreigners to leave this country, and to concoct birther conspiracies of American-born children of immigrant parentage, like presidential hopeful Kamala Harris and former President Barack Obama. While many Americans are shocked that more than 90,000 people liked Trump’s tweet, and many of his fellow Republicans stand behind him, Congresswoman Pressley clapped back, stating, “THIS is what racism looks like.” And she’s right.
Trump espouses a racist nostalgia of his childhood during the 1950s and 1960s Jim Crow era, which to him was when America was great. A lot of people see how racist the country was back then. But do we see it now?
The volume and the degree to which white American citizens have called 911, for example, on blacks for sitting at places like Starbucks and public parks not only speaks to Trump’s perceptions of birthright, citizenship, racial entitlement, and ownership, but also to the prejudices of other white Americans as well. While the public has heard ad nauseum Trump utter his now familiar refrain, “I am the least racist person you have ever met,” when it comes to defending his racist behavior, similar refrains are spoken by so-called ordinary white people.
When the American Colonization Society failed to send all freed blacks and slaves “back to Africa,” the dominance and societal backing of the white gaze allowed for the “othering” and policing of nonwhites. While these policies began with slave codes, which did not permit blacks to assemble without the presence of a white person, they didn’t end there. The white gaze morphed into various permutations of policing throughout history: the Klan, segregation, white citizens councils, and white privilege, to name a few. Each of these permutations makes clear that a white person’s discomfort, unease, or suspicion of the “other” trumps a nonwhite person’s civil rights.
President Trump’s proclivity for racist remarks comes as no surprise. His comment stating a preference for immigrants coming from Scandinavian countries like Norway, rather than from Africa and Haiti, which he depicts as “shithole” countries, is based solely on his xenophobia.
The Squad has a lot to offer this country. And of course, all of them are US citizens—three born in the States, and one naturalized in 2000. They are the hope of what democracy can and should look like.
Rev. Irene Monroe can be heard on the podcast and standing Boston Public Radio segment ALL REV’D UP on WGBH (89.7 FM). Monroe’s syndicated religion columns appear and the Boston voice for Detour’s African American Heritage Trail. She is a s a Visiting Researcher in the Religion and Conflict Transformation Program at Boston University School of Theology.