White Nationalism Is Deadly. Don’t Play With It.

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Racist Congressman Steve King

This week, Iowa Congressman Steve King has had something of a coming out party as a white nationalist. King’s racism has been on display for years, but rarely has he articulated it in such robust ideological terms. It seems that the shackles are off. And with the Trump/Sessions/Bannon triumvirate at the helm of the executive branch, why not? King’s racist ideology is ascendant in the twenty-first century.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We Americans are lazily optimistic, defaulting to the assumption that things will work out in the end even if there is no particular reason to think so. On no question are white Americans, in particular, more lazily optimistic than the problem of racism. We are moving onward and upward forever!

And yet.

If we understood race for what it is—something constructed in history, contingent and changeable—perhaps we could better see how dangerous is our optimism. Whiteness itself is an identity forged in conquest. As biology, it’s an absurdity. As a way to organize difference and deploy power, it has proven to be extraordinarily meaningful. It’s not that white people conquered and enslaved. It’s closer to the mark to say that these historical processes created white people.  And to the present day this white identity bestows material advantages. That’s why political mobilizations that invoke whiteness as such are always reactionary and oppressive.

That’s why white nationalism is dangerous and profoundly evil. It is a denial of our common humanity; it is the negation of Christianity. That so much white nationalism appeals to a kind of cultural Christianity only reveals how heretical much of the so-called Christian world actually is.

It is white nationalism—not democracy or human rights or racial equality—that is ascendant here and in Europe. That this claim is controversial shows how ill-prepared we are to deal with resurgent racism. A congressman declares his racist ideology and most of us scramble to reinterpret, to condescend, to do everything but take him seriously and assume that he actually means what he says. A President becomes a political figure in the first place through the use of racist rhetoric, and we sit around arguing about whether doing racist stuff makes someone a racist.

I am so tired of the magical thinking, the condescension, the attempts to coddle racists and tell them that, after all, “you don’t really mean that, do you my boy?” To call Steve King a racist is not to insult him. It is to give him the respect we all want and deserve: to have our ideas taken seriously. I’m tired of a world where the pro forma denial, “I’m not a racist,” counts for more than what one actually does. This is a post-truth world where Paul Ryan is considered a good man because he is clean-cut and sounds earnest. It is downright rude to evaluate him on the basis of what he does. It doesn’t matter that he supports racism. Everything is symbolism. Nothing matters.

But all of this does matter. We lazily assume that American history is linear and on an upward trajectory. It is just as likely that a country that began in genocide and enslavement will circle around to a similar ending. We will avoid that kind of outcome in some distant decade or century not because of an historical inevitability or any innate goodness, but because of the tireless efforts of ordinary people willing to become, as Dr. King said, coworkers with God. Right now, we’re playing footsie with one of the most destructive ideologies in human history, an ideology responsible for the death of millions of people. Steve King is not your eccentric uncle. He’s a sitting Congressman espousing the ideology of terrorists like Dylann Roof.

I’m tired of the nominal Christians that think supporting this resurgent white nationalism is something other than a rejection of Christianity. I’m tired of the symbolic Christianity that says Jesus will save your soul and then you’re free to go oppress everybody else. Here, too, we’d do well to take each other seriously and count our actions more important than our intentions.

“I am tired of reading about them.”

Campus Life, an evangelical magazine for high school and college students, began publishing a few stories about African Americans in the late 1960s. This didn’t sit well with some readers. One gets the sense the editors got a kick out of publishing some of the more strident responses. From Birmingham, Alabama, Frank George wrote:

There is too much propaganda about Negroes. I am tired of reading about them.

Old letters to the editor are often fascinating. This one’s a classic. Sadie Caine, librarian of Perry Christian School in Marion, Alabama, was also annoyed. She wrote:

When Campus Life comes to the library of Perry Christian School, it is thrown into the wastebasket immediately. The high Christian standards of our school necessitate the elimination of all degrading reading materials. Please cancel our subscription.

One of the devil’s best tools in trying to spread atheistic Communism is through the infiltration of religious groups.

This, too, is classic. Someone should look into whether or not Perry Christian School was a segregation academy. A quick google search turns up that the school is still around, though it has a new name. It was founded in, wait for it…1965. The school’s description of its history is fascinating:

Knowing that only the truth of God’s Word can build Christian character to reform American society and family life, John and Bobbie Ames grieved over the loss of moral absolutes and methodologies, namely Biblical reasoning and old-fashioned logic. Being unwilling to sit back and do nothing, they took their children out of the Perry County School System and started their own little school in Marion, Alabama, in 1965.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it looks as though Perry County came under a court desegregation order in 1966. This was after a lot of other Alabama counties faced desegregation orders in 1963. Perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Ames saw the writing on the wall. As any good fundamentalist knew, the mixing of races was another one of atheistic communism’s nefarious plots.

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The Barbaric President

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“And…scene! You looked very presidential, sir. You can go back to watching TV now.”

Help me out, historians. Has any president ever made a public accusation as reckless as the one President Trump made this morning? I can’t think of anything approaching this.

Back in January, I gravitated toward the idea of barbarism as my most basic framework for this administration. This framework is holding up well.

We see barbarism in the Bannon/Miller/Trump wing of the administration’s complete lack of appreciation for history and the achievements of modern civilization. We saw it when Trump accused John Lewis—of all people!—of being all talk and no action. We see it in his flippant calls to Make America Great Again, with no apparent reflection on the history to which he refers, and no apparent understanding of why this call is a threat to millions of Americans.

As a historian and a Christian, I have both historical and theological reasons to believe in such a thing as human nature, and to take a dim view of it. So I count it as a big win when people are able to live under governments that are not entirely predatory and that avoid things like famine and genocide. These are not natural conditions to be taken for granted. They are achievements to be carefully preserved. Trump demonstrates no appreciation for this. Instead of a sense of human limits and tragedy, President Trump claims that there is nothing he cannot fix.

We see barbarism in Trump’s utter rejection of truth. Other Presidents have lied, usually with strategic purpose in mind. But Trump attempts to create his own reality and compel millions of people to join him in it. Even many of Trump supporters acknowledge that he sometimes says or tweets things he should not. But the consequences of false and malicious statements are much more severe when a President makes them. When a President rejects reality, tens of millions of people stand ready to follow him. This tears apart the fabric of civil society and democracy, eroding the common ground that is necessary for dialogue and learning to occur. President Trump seems unable to appreciate the pleasures of learning from others, or participating in civic functions, or reading books. His ego determines what is true from moment to moment. From the perspective of Christian theology, attempts to create our own reality represent a rejection of the reality of a transcendent God.

We see barbarism in Trump’s demagogic nationalism, in the way he elevates the nation above the worth of human beings. Trump demonizes vulnerable populations to boost his agenda of nationalist aggrandizement. As unchristian as nationalism is in general, Trump takes it to a more extreme level, crudely encouraging Americans to count our lives as more valuable than those of other human beings.

We see barbarism in Trump’s greedy self-enrichment at the expense of the public he is sworn to serve. The full dimensions of this corruption is not yet possible to determine because of Trump’s unprecedented financial secrecy and his refusal to make ethical arrangements for his business affairs.

And we see barbarism in the wanton cruelty of this administration. Dara Lind had a roundup yesterday of some of the recent arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants. Under the pretense of keeping the country safe, people are being oppressed for no reason at all. There ought to be a very high bar to clear before separating families. Only a grave threat to an individual or the public justifies breaking families apart. These arrests obviously don’t come close to meeting that standard. They are plainly cruel, and their circumstances raise legitimate questions about whether there is a deliberate strategy of intimidation and retaliation. (See Daniela Vargas’s story).

It is difficult to imagine the stress and fear millions of people in our country are facing right now. I don’t know how you get up every morning and go about your responsibilities not knowing if you’re going to be able to put your kids in bed that night. God is close to these suffering people, and God resists the Christians who support this oppression. Let’s not pretend this is very complicated.

Immigrant advocacy groups are saying that these kinds of arrests mark a departure from the Obama years. To the extent that there is also continuity, God forgive me for not being more vocal years ago.

Christians are called to pray for those in power. I’ve found myself praying for President Trump more than I ever prayed for President Obama. These prayers are not status-quo protecting mushiness. They’re not about giving sacred endorsement to the state’s actions. They’re prayers of concern for the public good. They are given with the knowledge that our leaders bear heavy responsibilities for which they will give account. So when we see evil rulers such as President Trump, we pray for their repentance. And we pray that in the meantime their barbaric designs will be thwarted.

One perhaps surprising source of hope is that so far Trump often appears more interested in playing President than in being President. He favors splashy announcements and grand claims, symbolic victories with very little substance. He is easily distracted, and seems to spend much of his time dwelling on personal slights and watching cable news. This isn’t good for anyone, but it’s probably better than the alternative of a focused, competent President intent on doing harm.

Notes from the Classroom: Telling Transnational Stories

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Because my class is about immigration, I thought the statue of liberty deserved its own lecture this week. It was a story that took us from French abolitionists and the conceiving of a monument to emancipation, to pogroms in the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, to the hapless fundraising efforts of a committee in New York, to the life of Emma Lazarus and her obscure poem that would later become indelibly linked to the immigrant story and American identity.

It was also a chronologically expansive story that raised questions about memory and the shifting meanings we attach to symbols. When the statue of liberty was dedicated in 1886, none of the speakers mentioned immigrants. As everyone knew, that’s not what the statue was about. At the 50th anniversary ceremony in 1936, President Roosevelt spoke about nothing but immigration. As everyone knew, that’s what the statue was about. In many ways, it was the immigrants themselves who had made it so. As I tell my students, whatever the American Dream was, it was not only made in America.

Then on Wednesday we went from Fiddler on the Roof to the massacre at Wounded Knee. While the Russian Empire made life increasingly difficult for Jews—and while the statue of liberty was being dedicated—the American Empire was wrapping up its counterinsurgency campaigns in the West. In the U.S., it was only in this period in the decades after the Civil War that the state was actually able to exert effective control over all the territory it claimed. In the process, it increasingly claimed the right to tell minority populations where they could live, what they could do, and even the religious practices they could engage in. State violence against despised minorities was crucial to the turn of the century mass migration that formed modern America. While Russian violence made immigrants and refugees, American violence paved the way for their arrival and transformed immigrants into settlers.

I argued that this claim is not an abstraction or a metaphor, but a tangible reality on the ground. Take Pennington County, South Dakota, for example. It is home to Rapid City, and adjacent to the Pine Ridge Reservation where the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred. It is built entirely on land guaranteed to Native Americans by federal treaty. In 1890, less than two decades after its founding, 18% of its population was foreign born. They came from Canada and Germany, Ireland and Sweden, England and Norway. By 1910, there was a small contingent of Russian Jews too. Their opportunity was inseparable from the dispossession of others.

There are probably very few historians being trained now who would argue against the importance of telling transnational stories. But it’s easier said than done. When we tell transnational stories, it usually means there are a lot of balls to keep in the air. Sometimes they don’t all stay up. On Monday, I said meanwhile and suddenly we lurched from New York to Ukraine. These transitions were abrupt enough to be comical. After the lecture, a student emailed me to ask me what the point was. That makes it sound more disastrous than it probably was. The student was quite engaged and had incisive questions. But one of my main points had lacked clarity and she wanted more information. Good for her!

When we tell transnational stories, the contexts we need to be familiar with multiply quickly. This is one reason we might shy away from attempting it in the first place. I am not a historian of Russia; what errors might I introduce in my brief characterization of the 1881 pogroms? Will this broader story aid student understanding, or will my own imbalanced knowledge—heavy on U.S. national history—only confuse the story?

But the payoffs can be substantial, perhaps especially in the case of immigration history. Most immigration is by its nature a transnational act with connections to multiple countries. It doesn’t make historical sense to only focus on the destination country. This is one reason I’ve assigned Tara Zahra’s new book.

There are also broader benefits to be gained. I’ll note just one. There is no adequate way to deal with questions of American exceptionalism while teaching only an American national story. Transnational history helps us to engage more productively with notions of national identity and the meaning of America. If we’re only telling a national story and students hear about the millions of people who came here seeking opportunity, they may be inclined to think the United States is exceptionally good. But then when they hear about the discrimination and violence aimed at these immigrants, they may think the United States is exceptionally bad. But if we come to class thinking the U.S. is the best and leave thinking it’s the worst, we’re just as myopic and American-centric as when we started.

A broader framework upsets both assumptions, allowing students to see that millions of people were also immigrating to other places in search of opportunity, and that they faced hardship and discrimination both in their home countries and in their new destinations. It enables us to see a more nuanced and complicated story about how opportunity and oppression moved alongside each other, and about the millions of immigrants who came to America with the dream not of becoming Americans, but of returning to their homelands as soon as they could.

From the Archive: “I Had to Stay Really Close to the Lord to Keep from Committing Suicide.”

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In 1960s publications and advertising, the prospective evangelical college student was white.

When black students began to go to white evangelical campuses in larger numbers in the late 1960s and 1970s, they often had very difficult experiences. On many campuses, especially rural campuses outside the South, most of the white students came from backgrounds of isolation and ignorance. For many white students, seeing a dozen black students on campus might have been their first real contact with black people.

In the spring of 1978, a black student at a white evangelical college¹ authored a guest editorial in the student newspaper in which she reflected on her experiences and lessons learned during her time there. She wrote,

I have had some bad encounters here. As a Freshman, I was lonely, miserable and terrified of the whites on my floor in the dorm. I was even more afraid after students told me that they could not invite me home because their parents were prejudiced or their father hated ‘colored people’ because “they are so violent and rude.” Some of the other statements were: “does your color rub off; is your hair wirey; and when do you wash your hair?”

My Freshman year was really difficult, and I had to stay really close to the Lord to keep from committing suicide. I could not understand why God had put me in this type of situation. I could not believe that there were only four Black girls and six Black guys. This caused me to go through real culture shock. But now as I look over my four years here, I can see all the things God has taught me, and how much I have grown from being in this type of culture. I have learned to be content…

The main purpose of this editorial is to make you, my fellow-Christians, aware of the damage you can do by not trying to understand Blacks, and to share with you the way I have felt as a student here…I must admit that I would never recommend Blacks to attend [this] College.

There are at least three important things to know about this editorial. First, it is a good representation of sentiments that were extremely common among black students at white evangelical colleges in the 1960s and 1970s. This young women may have felt alone, but black students all over the country were having similar experiences. Second, some things have changed in the past 40 years. Some white evangelical colleges have made genuine strides. Third, take away the dated indicators of ignorance (“does your color rub off?”) and you’re left with a sense of alienation and isolation that could have been written this year at many white evangelical colleges. It is still extremely difficult to be black at many of these institutions.

As a researcher, these kinds of accounts are a kind of north star for me. It is incumbent on me to read them critically and with care, but I frankly find them more credible than the happy talk of white administrators at these colleges. As I sift through documents I sometimes begin to get the sense that things were beginning to go really well at such and such a place at this time or other. And then a document like this brings me up short. They are heartfelt testaments to peoples’ lived experience. On that level they have enormous moral force. But they’re also analytically useful for me, because they expose the fictions of the colorblind college. A community that makes people feel this way is not simply “united in Christ” as its rhetoric would imply. It is also united in and through whiteness.


¹ I’ve elected to withhold the names of the individual and the college because of the nature of this content.

Keep Your Eye on the Justice Department

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An important intellectual call to arms during the last great nativist reaction. 1920.

The disgraceful confirmation of Jeff Sessions as the nation’s attorney general continues to fly under the radar. The Brennan Center’s Andrew Cohen reminds us what is at stake:

Just as the nation is turning away from mass incarceration, and discovering that crime rates can go down along with incarceration rates, Attorney General Sessions is poised to reverse course. He already made it clear with his opposition to bipartisan sentencing reform last year that he has little compassion or empathy for the families affected by the enforcement of unduly harsh sentencing laws. He has made this clear also with his adamant and relentless opposition to presidential clemency, even in cases of manifest injustice that shocks the conscience. A whole new generation of men and women, and their families, will be doomed to unreasonably long prison terms.

Even as he revs up the engine of mass incarceration, Sessions won’t be an attorney general who emphasizes the need to identify and rectify wrongful convictions. He will not fight for the right of criminal defendants to be ably represented in court so that fewer wrongful convictions occur in the first place. He won’t be an attorney general who questions the validity of forensic evidence, even when experts conclude that its reliability and accuracy is dubious. There are two types of prosecutors in the world: Those who care  only about convictions, and those who take a broader view of justice. Sessions has made it clear, both in Alabama and on Capitol Hill, that he is the first type of prosecutor.

Sessions’s confirmation hearing reminded us that he will be an attorney general for vote suppressors and perpetrators of the voter fraud myth. Under the guise of protecting democracy from a threat that does not exist, he will be an attorney general who allows more jurisdictions to enact voting restrictions that make it harder, or impossible, for the elderly, the poor, and citizens of color to cast a valid ballot. He will be an attorney general who looks for excuses not to file aggressive litigation designed to protect voting rights. He will be an attorney general who is as feckless in this area of the job as he has shown to be fearless in prosecuting dubious voter fraud cases.

Read the whole thing. A man who praises the Johnson-Reed Act and criticizes the Voting Rights Act is not fit to hold office. Sessions’ colleagues tell us how kind and decent he is. He reminds me of John Stennis in that way. As my forthcoming article in History & Memory details, American media and political elites harped on Stennis’s integrity and personal kindness, as if these interpersonal qualities somehow made up for what Stennis actually did as a public figure. He spent decades fighting for white supremacy, but his colleagues called him the “conscience” of the senate.

In a similar way, if you look at what Sessions actually does, he appears to be nothing more than a white nationalist operating in a proud tradition of white southern elites. Why should we care if he’s a nice guy?

Notes from the classroom: Immigrants Have Always Seemed Threatening

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For my Immigration and the American Dream class tomorrow I’ll be giving a lecture I’m calling “Bible Wars.” In the nineteenth century, controversies about Bible reading in public schools were often flashpoints for tension—and even violence—between native-born Protestants and immigrant Catholics.

Perhaps most famously, a dispute about the reading of the King James Version of the Bible in Philadelphia schools led to days of deadly violence here in the spring and summer of 1844. The danger in relating these stories is that students might find them inscrutable and absurd. Why were Protestants and Catholics killing each other, here in the U.S.? They must have been irrationally prejudiced, the student might conclude. Now, surely, we’ve become more sophisticated.

But if I’m able to provoke the students to think historically, they might begin to be able to see why Catholics might have seemed so threatening. They might begin to see that amid the prejudices were real disagreements about church and state, about education, about the very meaning of freedom (I’ll be leaning heavily on McGreevey tomorrow). Throw in the transnational context of the Irish famine and the Revolutions of 1848 and the vast numbers of immigrants we’re talking about—many of them not English-speaking—and we can begin to see, perhaps, why the influx was so unsettling.

If they can begin to understand this historical context, the parallels to the present day will announce themselves. I won’t even need to say it out loud. The historian Tyler Anbinder had a nice piece about this last week:

Many believe that today’s immigrants are more culturally isolated than those from the past. Previous generations of immigrants had to learn English and assimilate, runs this argument. They could not “press two for Spanish” or use satellite TV or the Internet to isolate themselves from American culture. Yet Irish, German, Italian, Slavic, Scandinavian, and eastern European Jewish immigrants were just as isolated in their ethnic enclaves in the 19th and early 20th centuries as today’s immigrants are in theirs. New York’s Kleindeutschland was so German, bragged one of its immigrant residents in the 1850s, that one could hardly tell it apart from Stuttgart.[1] Half a century later, adult Italian immigrants rarely learned much English. “I didn’t need it,” one New Yorker explained. “Everywhere I lived, or worked, or fooled around there were only Italians . . . I had to learn some Sicilian, though.”[2] When pundits complain that today’s immigrants don’t assimilate like those from the past, they are harking back to a golden era of assimilation that never actually existed.[3]

Some think that the religious beliefs of today’s immigrants pose an unprecedented threat to American values. Muslim immigrants, it is said, cannot be good Americans because they owe ultimate allegiance to foreign leaders and seek to impose their religious views on others. But Americans once said precisely the same things about Catholic immigrants. A Pennsylvania newspaper 150 years ago likened Catholic immigrants to a foreign army in our midst, waiting for the Pope’s command to destroy Americans’ most valued institutions.[4] Catholics would always remain foreign and separate from the rest of society, insisted an Ohioan. They cannot “really [be] Americans, but only residents in America.”[5] That every immigrant group viewed this way in the past has become an accepted part of the national fabric suggests that American Muslims will one day be fully accepted too.

Anbinder’s new book on immigrant New York is a great read by the way.

A Mockery of Justice

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Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions

In the first decades of the twentieth century, vast numbers of Eastern European immigrants came to the United States. By the 1920s, the country was gripped by nativist reaction. The revamped Ku Klux Klan added Catholics and immigrants to its list of enemies and gained millions of members nationwide. Leading public intellectuals fretted about “The Rising Tide of Color” and “The Passing of the Great [white] Race.” President Calvin Coolidge published an article called “Whose Country Is This?” in which he pontificated about the superiority of the “Nordics.” In 1923, the Supreme Court declared that Asians could not become naturalized citizens.

In 1924, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, the most sweeping immigration restriction law in American history. The law drastically reduced overall immigration levels, barred all Asians, and imposed draconian cuts on immigration from Eastern Europe. The expressed purpose of the law was to favor immigrants from western European countries deemed racially fit.

Congressman Albert Johnson, the key driver of the law in the House, described his rationale this way:

Today, instead of a well-knit homogeneous citizenry, we have a body politic made up of all and every diverse element. Today, instead of a nation descended from generations of freemen bred to a knowledge of the principles and practice of self-government, of liberty under law, we have a heterogeneous population no small proportion of which is sprung from races that, throughout the centuries, have known no liberty at all…In other words, our capacity to maintain our cherished institutions stands diluted by a stream of alien blood, with all its inherited misconceptions respecting the relationships of the governing power to the governed…It is no wonder, therefore, that the myth of the melting pot has been discredited…the United States is our land…We intend to maintain it so. The day of unalloyed welcome to all peoples, the day of indiscriminate acceptance of all races, has definitely ended.¹

Notice that Johnson described American identity not only as a matter of ideals, but of blood. America’s leading statesmen believed that race was linked to capacity for self-government. Liberty and self-government were not abstracted ideals. They were instead the racial achievement of the superior Anglo-Saxon race. By welcoming other races into the country that did not understand these traditions and were not racially capable of embracing them, the United States was inevitably weakening itself.

It is precisely this Johnson-Reed Act that soon-to-be Attorney General Jeff Sessions has praised:

In seven years we’ll have the highest percentage of Americans, non-native born, since the founding of the Republic. Some people think we’ve always had these numbers, and it’s not so, it’s very unusual, it’s a radical change. When the numbers reached about this high in 1924, the president and congress changed the policy, and it slowed down immigration significantly, we then assimilated through the 1965 and created really the solid middle class of America, with assimilated immigrants, and it was good for America. We passed a law that went far beyond what anybody realized in 1965, and we’re on a path to surge far past what the situation was in 1924.

Does Sessions think the Johnson-Reed Act was good policy because of its racism, or in spite of it? Does he support the law itself, but none of the ideas that caused Congress to enact it? These are not unfair questions.

While praising the Johnson-Reed Act, Sessions has criticized the Voting Rights Act. He called it “intrusive” and praised the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder ruling in 2013. He has since supported the proliferation of new vote suppression laws.

This man draws inspiration from the worst parts of our history, and seeks to roll back our greatest achievements. He is unfit for office.

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¹Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life, 2nd Edition (New York: Perennial, 2002), 283-284.

Notes from the Classroom: The Stickiness of National Myth

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Arthur Boyd. Persecuted Lovers. 1957. Australia. A painting rich in settler colonial themes.

How is my settler colonialism experiment going? The results in the first two weeks of class have been intriguing. My students who have been in the U.S. for any length of time came into the classroom with some intuitive familiarity with the nation of immigrants story. And I don’t think it was hard for them to understand that the story functions as more than a statement of historical fact—that it is also a statement of national identity and exceptionalism. So what would happen if I begin the class by bombarding them for two weeks with a completely different story? What if the United States was and is a colonial state whose foundations are in the conquest and dispossession of indigenous people?

I even had them read Mahmood Mamdani on settler colonialism this week (it was too hard for most of them and maybe I shouldn’t have assigned it). Mamdani confronts the question of American exceptionalism head on and argues that what makes the U.S. exceptional is that it is the first modern settler colonial state and it still hasn’t decolonized. So the students had, on the one hand, a traditional immigrant story of national identity. On the other hand, they had been exposed to a settler colonial narrative, culminating in Mamdani’s forceful critique of traditional exceptionalist narratives. Before breaking into small groups I gave them one more argument: what if the settler colonial story is historically sound, but civically destructive? What if it doesn’t produce good citizens? What if it harms the civic fabric? What if it doesn’t promote patriotism? (I don’t agree with this argument but I didn’t tell them that).

With these narratives and arguments swirling around, the students broke into groups to discuss whether or not the nation of immigrants narrative should still be used as the (or a) defining American story. If so, why? If not, what would they replace it with? After all, we’re going to tell ourselves stories about the past. You don’t get to rip up one narrative and offer nothing in return.

What surprised me—though it probably shouldn’t have—was that the large majority of students, especially in the first section, very much wanted to retain the nation of immigrants story. To be clear, I was not bothered by the conclusion. I was concerned that many students were disagreeing with Mamdani without realizing that they were doing so, or knowing why. I was pleased with their disagreement, but I hoped it came with awareness. Did students consider various angles on the question and adopt a deliberate perspective? Or did two weeks of alternative narratives just bounce off? Of course, all of this is shaped by my own failures of teaching. Their lack of understanding is my lack of communicating. I’m learning a lot. I only hope many of the students can say the same.

As students in the first section fought to retain the nation of immigrants narrative, I was struck by how often they spoke of it as inclusive and inspiring, only to quickly hedge their statement with “well” or “but” or “except.” Native Americans don’t exactly fit in this story, they admitted. Most African Americans didn’t come here willingly, they pointed out. But they wanted the narrative anyway. This led me to two takeaways:

First, isn’t history controversial precisely because we want to use it for very different things? Nations want it to establish identity and destiny and patriotism. Individuals want it to affirm their ancestors. Historians may want it to drive an ideological agenda in the present (yes, busted, it’s true!). But more importantly, historians’ desire to understand what happened and why is an agenda in its own right that puts us at odds with other uses of the past. Are the basic assumptions and desires of historians subversive to nation-states? Perhaps.

Second, we come back around to settler colonial theory. From a settler colonial framework, of course we’re having trouble finding a story that is at once inclusive, inspiring, and accurate. These are stories of national identity. And the whole point is that there are other nations within U.S. borders that claim their sovereignty and assert that their relationship to the United States is a colonial one. Why would they want to be conscripted into another nation’s identity myth? They have their own.

This basic recognition in American public life would go part way toward the decolonization Mamdani is talking about. If you’re still wondering what the big deal is, here’s a really nice piece from a Christian historian explaining why he doesn’t say “we’re a nation of immigrants” anymore. My goal was not to bring my students to a predetermined outcome of discarding the immigrant narrative. Rather, if they choose to embrace that narrative, I hope they do so with greater awareness of its implications and the arguments against it. But if I take seriously the notion that these stories are narrations of our own identities, then it’s hardly surprising that they have enormous staying power.

Preserving Monuments, Erasing History

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Over the weekend, the New York Times had a fascinating article about a statue in Namibia commemorating (yes, commemorating) Germany’s colonial genocide against the Herero and Nama over a century ago. Now, as some Namibians demand the statue’s removal, controversy has flared:

The push for the removal comes as the governments of Germany and Namibia are engaging in negotiations to close one of the grimmest chapters in Africa’s colonial history, the genocide of tens of thousands of Herero and Nama between 1904 and 1908. After decades of denial, German officials say they are ready to acknowledge the genocide formally, issue an apology and offer compensation.

German reticence is not the only reason the reckoning has taken so long. Namibia’s complicated internal dynamics have contributed as well. The Herero and Nama are minorities in a nation led since independence by the liberation party, the South West Africa People’s Organization, or Swapo, which is dominated by the Ovambo ethnic group. If Swapo has historically shown little interest in highlighting the colonial-era genocide, Namibia’s tiny but economically powerful German-speaking minority has shown strong resistance.

A desert city facing the Atlantic, Swakopmund is the center of Namibia’s German-speaking minority. It has what is perhaps the best collection of well-preserved colonial buildings in Africa, as well as a Bismarck Street and other thoroughfares named after German figures. Menus in hotels and restaurants are in German, catering to Namibia’s German minority as well as to German tourists.

The whole article is worth reading. Remembering the past—however we remember it—is a political act with contemporary significance. Historical narratives cannot be separated from the workings of power in the present. For some of Namibia’s German minority, an attack on the monument is an attack on their identity. If there is no place for the monument in modern Namibia, is there a place for them?

This brings to mind recent battles in the United States over Confederate monuments and the Confederate flag. One common argument in support of the monuments is that we must not “erase history.” This sounds reasonable on the surface but actually evades the real issue. Usually, the most ardent defenders of Confederate monuments are also the most committed to false historical narratives. Their myths and their identities have been shaped by these monuments. If they are taken down, more accurate historical narratives threaten to gain influence.

In Namibia, the German defenders of the monument are also the deniers of the genocide. They are trying to preserve an artifact of history precisely so that they might erase history. Provincial preservationism often works at cross-purposes with efforts to responsibly remember the past. Placing the monument in a museum would better serve both the narrow preservationist aim and the broader goal of historical accuracy.