The Anti-Family Administration

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Immigrants in Texas, May 9. Loren Elliott/Reuters

It’s interesting to imagine how different American politics would be if there was a significant pro-family faction in the Republican Party. A lot of people are under the illusion that there already is such a thing, but maybe you can understand my skepticism:

The number of migrant children held in U.S. government custody without their parents has surged 21 percent in the past month, according to the latest figures, an increase driven by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” crackdown on families who cross the border illegally.

Although the government has not disclosed how many children have been separated from their parents as a result of the new measures, the Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday that it had 10,773 migrant children in its custody, up from 8,886 on April 29.

Under the “zero tolerance” approach rolled out last month by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, anyone who crosses into the United States illegally will face criminal prosecution. In most cases, that means parents who arrive with children remain in federal jails while their children are sent to HHS shelters.

Those shelters are at 95 percent capacity, an HHS official said Tuesday, and the agency is preparing to add potentially thousands of new bed spaces in the coming weeks. HHS also is exploring the possibility of housing children on military bases but views the measure as a “last option,” according to the HHS official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the agency’s preparations.

White evangelicals will no doubt cheer this on. It’s not their families on the line, so who cares?

Trump Supporters Can’t Make Credible Moral Claims

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Michael Gerson is at it again:

At the Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said: “We see moral relativism becoming more and more pervasive in our culture. Identity politics and tribalism have grown on top of this.” Ryan went on to talk about Catholic social doctrine, with its emphasis on “solidarity” with the poor and weak, as “a perfect antidote to what ails our culture.”

There is a profound disconnect when a Trump supporter says “moral relativism” and imagines that people of goodwill can believe he is sincere. So Gerson goes in for the kill:

And how did Ryan address the issue of Trump’s habit of dehumanization at the Catholic Prayer Breakfast? By avoidance, under a thick layer of hypocrisy. The Wisconsin Republican complained that politicians are too often in “survival mode” — trying to “get through the day,” rather than reflecting on and applying Catholic social teaching.

Ryan was effectively criticizing the whole theory of his speakership. He has been in survival mode from the first day of Trump’s presidency, making the case that publicly burning bridges with the president would undermine the ability to pursue his vision of the common good (including tax reform and regulatory relief). This, while a weak argument, is at least a consistent one. But by making the Christian commitment to human dignity relative to other political aims, Ryan can no longer speak of “moral relativism” as the defining threat of our time.

It is instructive to think about what moral claim Ryan could have reasonably made. Is there anything he could have said that people of sincere Christian belief could take at face value? Is there any moral principle he could have laid claim to without it ringing hollow? I can’t think of one. I believe that Ryan is sincere in his Catholic faith. We’re all pretty good at living with contradiction. But I find it fascinating that Ryan doesn’t feel a profound sense of shame when he talks about morality in a public setting (or private for that matter). This is what supporting Trump does to you. You become a hypocrite simply by telling your kids to be honest and respectful.

Gerson continues:

My tradition of evangelical Protestantism is, if anything, even worse. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, white evangelical Protestants are the least likely group in America to affirm an American responsibility to accept refugees. Evangelicals insist on the centrality and inerrancy of scripture and condemn society for refusing to follow biblical norms — and yet, when it comes to verse after verse requiring care for the stranger, they don’t merely ignore this mandate; they oppose it.

This represents the failure of Christian political leadership — not only from the speaker but from most other elected religious conservatives, too. Even more, it indicates the failure of the Christian church in the moral formation of its members, who remain largely untutored in the most important teachings of their own faith.

Christians who are following Trump (by that I mean they feel a strong sense of support and approval for him) are not following Jesus. To love the one is to hate the other. We shouldn’t shrink back from exposing their sin and calling them to repentance. Christians who say we need to work hard to maintain unity in the church in this divisive era are correct in a limited sense, but risk making a serious category error. Trump followers are not engaging in reasonable political behavior; they are separating themselves from Christianity and working to oppress their fellow Christians. It is hard to stay unified with people who do that.

 

Cartoon of the Day

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Kenyan political cartoonist Victor Ndula provides a geographically precise depiction of Trump’s imagined Africa.

Remarks like the ones President Trump made yesterday are viscerally upsetting and are damaging in their own right. We’re correct to respond to them. But we should also try to keep our focus on policy and respond just as forcefully to cruel and inhumane actions, such as the end of Temporary Protected Status for immigrants from El Salvador and Haiti. Trump’s negative comments about these places are drawing more outrage than his oppressive actions toward them.

This kind of behavior is yet another occasion to publicly lay down the marker we must keep laying down in our Christian circles: every day a Christian wakes up supporting Trump is a day they wake up engaging in wilful and open sin. They are mocking the gospel of Jesus Christ and have broken fellowship with the church.

Evangelical Leaders Support DACA. Does It Matter?

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When you study evangelicalism in the civil rights era, you quickly begin to realize that there was a dramatic divide between elites and ordinary people. Denominational bodies–even white evangelical ones–tended to publish moderate or supportive statements on civil rights. At the same time, the opinions of laypeople in the churches were much more hostile to the civil rights movement. Ordinary people often felt that their denominational leaders did not speak for them.

In the wake of the Trump administration’s decision to rescind the DACA program, evangelical leaders of all stripes have spoken out in support of the Dreamers. For example:

The President of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities

My denomination

The National Association of Evangelicals

Lots of other groups. Including the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, National Latino Evangelical Coalition, and World Relief. This is just a sampling. These are not minor organizations.

But the history of evangelicalism in the twentieth century makes me skeptical that these evangelical elites have much power to shape opinion, much less action, among their constituents.

I’m still quite uncertain about how these networks of influence and resistance to change work in evangelicalism. If evangelical leaders are so impotent, what and who are more formative influences on evangelical opinion?

Specifically, I’m thinking of evangelical talk radio. While evangelical leaders spoke supportively of DACA this week, evangelical talk radio hosts were busy explaining why the Trump administration had actually made a reasonable and compassionate decision. Do we have any reliable metrics of the listening audience of these shows? Has anyone tried to quantify their influence? Are these under-the-radar media companies actually more influential than the leaders of major evangelical organizations?

I’m thinking of shows like Point of View, Focal Point, The Line of Fire, In the Market, and so on. There are important differences between these shows—for example, Bryan Fischer is often overtly hateful, while Janet Parshall is more winsome and sincere in her brand of patriotic conservative Christianity—but they share a common conflation of the gospel and Republican politics. I wonder if they have more influence in many congregations than the pastor.

Evangelicalism is diffuse. Leaders speak for themselves. There is no army marching in lockstep behind them. It is nice that so many evangelical leaders made supportive public statements about DACA. But when it comes to the hard stuff of politics—money, votes, civil disobedience—will they show up, and do they have a real constituency? I’m not hopeful. My gut says most white evangelicals are content with the hateful public witness that has become the norm for our faith.

Jonny Rashid, pastor of a Brethren in Christ church here in Philadelphia, gets it right:

You might read this and just think I’m being political. You have to know that this is a deeply personal issue because of the meaning assigned to my skin color by the dominators. Thank Jesus, I’m freed from their judgment and condemnation. I am one-in-Christ, not because of their whitewashing, but because my Lord conquers racism. I gladly relinquish my assigned racial identity for the cross, but it goes both ways, the dominators must reject theirs which offers the initial assignment.

I do not just care about this issue, though, because I am brown. As it turns out, both of my brown children are citizens, and so were my sister and I when my parents immigrated here. So we are “safe.” But the rhetoric that this spews into the air, and the violence that always follows, is not good for us or for others.

Furthermore, the Bible is littered with passages about welcoming the stranger. Jesus is explicit in Matthew 25, so is the Levitical law, and Paul, himself, in what is the greatest masterworks of the New Testament is enraged at the prospect that we would separate anyone as a result of their cultural or ethnic heritage. The Christian witness has consistently been to stand with the oppressed and the immigrant.

And now, with a small, but loud, segment of the Evangelical community making up the bulk of Trump’s base, Christians have a chance to reject and denounce the heartless end to the program and take a stand. I doubt they will, though.

The Trump Administration gives Christians, whose reputation is tattered in the media (need I mention the fundamentalist Nashville Statement or Joel Osteen’s reputation risk management last week?), a chance to redeem themselves almost every day. There is always something evil that the administration is doing that Christians should oppose. And I’m not talking about complex policy, these issues are simple: oppose white supremacy, support safety for children of immigrants, care for the environment, don’t start another war or escalate a nuclear one. No theology or political science degree required.

For Christians, we are not to submit to evil institutions that do not follow the way of Jesus. You can twist Romans 13 to justify any of that, I suppose, but as a Christian the law is not the final word or final answer. And that is my hope, despite the evil of the state, for all the children who might be affected by the end of DACA. Your safety, ultimately, is in Jesus, not in the state or the country—it is not exactly hospitable for you here. We serve a God of all nations who commands us to welcome the stranger. This is not just a question of peace and justice, it is a question of obedience to God.

Resisting evil is not just a matter of saving our witness, but follow God. Jesus made it clear. You are either with him or you are not. I am sure Trump will give us more chances to stand up for our witness, but I pray we stand against the evil of the government for the sake of the Gospel now. I want to do it before it becomes increasingly ridiculous to entertain the notion of following Jesus. There are cosmic consequences to Christian inaction if we really believe what we say we do. And Jesus might be preparing a millstone for inaction of his purported followers who lead people astray from him. Lord, have mercy.

Notes from the Classroom: Contextualizing Racism in Immigration History

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Emma Goldman. Anarchist, immigrant, radical.

In the immigration class I’m teaching this semester I’m wrestling with how to contextualize events for my students. I’m often quite uncertain about how I should frame various events and forces. But that uncertainty reminds me to try to convey the deeper critical thinking lesson to my students: that the contextualizing choices I end up making are really historical arguments in themselves. I’m not giving them “the history” that they can safely tuck away with the confidence that they now know what happened. I’m giving them arguments that they should question and probe with counterarguments, using historical evidence.

As we approach the nativist reaction of the 1920s, I’m wrestling with how to contextualize the racism of that decade. The problem is that the racism is so obvious and deplorable that I’m not sure students can take it seriously. Establishing the racist intent of the Johnson-Reed Act is like shooting fish in a barrel. And students don’t need to be convinced that a resurgent Ku Klux Klan with millions of members was not a good thing, or that whiteness as a condition for naturalization is offensive. It’s all so over the top, almost cartoonishly awful, that students are likely to be tempted to separate themselves from white Americans of that period. With surprising frequency, students reach for the comforting assumption that contemporary people are somehow more advanced.

In an effort to ward off those assumptions, on Wednesday I gave a lecture about immigrant radicalism in the early 20th century, with special focus on the anarchist movement. I gave a lot of attention to Emma Goldman’s radical views, and described several episodes of anarchist violence culminating in the Wall Street bombing of 1920.  Though the perpetrators were never caught, the bombing was most likely the work of Italian immigrant anarchists. It came on the heels of the 1919 mail bombings and the attacks on the homes of prominent government officials, including U.S. Attorney General Palmer.

So, whatever else it was, the famous Red Scare of 1919-1920 was in part a response to a campaign of terrorism on U.S. soil. The people implicated in these activities were disproportionately immigrants. As the American public was inundated with newspaper headlines linking immigrant groups with political radicalism and violence, it is not surprising that fear, and even hysteria, grew.

We should point out, as I did to my students, that there were many millions of immigrants and only a handful of violent anarchists. But that’s not exactly the point. The point is the quintessentially human overreaction of fear and bigotry on the part of the U.S. public and American policymakers. In other words, the people of the 1920s were like us.

The point of this framing is to help students grapple with the real problems policymakers at the time faced, to see how scary the future looked, and to wrestle with plausible alternatives. Were there alternatives to Johnson-Reed? What would have happened in a world without that legislation?  Students might prefer not to face uncomfortable scenarios, such as the possibility that this racist legislation both caused human suffering around the world and reduced future political violence in the United States.

The moral purpose of complicating the story is not to absolve people in the past of their racism, but to implicate ourselves. How might our fears cloud moral clarity and enable inhumanity to our fellow human beings? Take the question to its most extreme example. The profile of a genocide participant is not necessarily monstrous. Just as likely, it’s an ordinary person who is very afraid.

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.

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.

______________________________________________

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.