In early November, I wrote the following commentary for the third episode of the Beyond Boston video news digest that my organization produces monthly in collaboration with several Boston area public access TV stations. Given the nature of the political crisis sparked by the victory of President-elect Trump, I think it’s fitting that I run it as my first post-election column.
In contemporary Massachusetts, we don’t typically have as many open attacks on immigrants and refugees as some other states one could name. But we all know that anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and (lately) anti-Muslim sentiments, are always among us. Just a quick glance toward central Mass shows the scale of the problem—lurking beneath the surface of polite discourse like a toxic iceberg. Because in the town of Dudley, a recent effort by the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester to purchase a 55 acre abandoned farm to use as a cemetery for its co-religionists, has been stopped cold by local officials fielding a series of excuses that make it clear that deep-seated prejudice is actually at the heart of their protests.
Now it’s understandable, if misguided, that some Americans might feel threatened by more people arriving to our shores as immigrants and refugees every year—given ongoing economic instability. And it’s legitimate to express reasoned critiques of Islam, or indeed any religion, in our democratic society. Although it’s more typical to hear illogical and paranoid ones.
But before the anxiety and the critiques, it’s imperative for citizens to remember a couple of important facts. First, unless you’re Native American—and I mean basically full-blood Native American, Hawaiian, or Alaskan (or an African-American whose ancestors were enslaved and dragged here in chains)—then your family crashed a country that used to belong to someone else. The United States was stolen from those original inhabitants by a combination of pandemic disease, broken treaties, forced removal, and outright genocide. So the idea that you have some inviolable moral or legal claim to this land is laughable.
Second, unless you’re a white anglo-saxon protestant—a WASP whose ancestors arrived here prior to the American Revolution—then your family was once a bunch of immigrants or refugees who were considered just as suspect and dangerous as far too many immigrants and refugees, especially Muslims, are considered by far too many Americans today. And since those old line WASPs controlled politics in the US well into the 20th century, guess what some of them did from time to time? They banned or attempted to ban immigration from most nations on the planet, and also led vicious riots against many people that did not fit into their narrow vision for this land of opportunity. Sadly, they were eventually joined in that series of unfortunate crusades by members of other ethnic groups who had gradually managed to establish themselves as American over time.
By way of example, let’s take a look at my family. We’re Greek. Both my mother’s and father’s sides came here over a century ago. Now today, when people think about Greek-Americans, media stars like Maria Menounos and Zach Galifianakis pop to mind. The associations are generally positive, and no one would ever think to question our credentials as good Americans. But in my grandparents’ day, in many parts of the US, Greeks were literally compared to vermin and contagious diseases. Newspapers of the time talked about our strange ways and inherent criminality and said we would never fit in with “Anglo-Saxon civilization.” They called for our expulsion and worse. Greeks were the victims of nativist riots that drove us out of cities like South Omaha, Nebraska on more than one occasion. Yet, despite all that, today I have relatives that would be more than happy to let Donald Trump ban all Muslims from entering the US.
Sound familiar?! If not, then you need to take closer look at your family history. And after you’ve done that, you need to do your level best to stop yourself from tarring entire nationalities and religious groups—especially people fleeing wars and tyranny at least partially caused by American foreign policy—with the broad brush of the bigot. Every society in history has had its share of zealots, criminals, and terrorists. Including ours. So the mere fact of their presence in any group of immigrants or refugees doesn’t negate that group’s humanity. If you don’t want to turn into one of those big bads yourself in defense of an American purity that never existed, then you need to treat everyone seeking shelter on our shores as a human being worthy of basic respect—and afford them a chance to become a part of our messy yet still vital democratic experiment.