ODVV interview: Trump is using the immigration...
The United States is a diverse and multicultural society, accommodating people coming from a range of racial, cultural, religious and national backgrounds. In fact, multiculturalism is believed to be a historical tradition in the United States, and the blending of cultures and ethnic groups in America since it was discovered by the Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries, has led to the country to become known as a “melting pot.” Americans see advantages in their country’s growing demographic diversity. According to a Pew Research Center study carried out in 2019, a majority of Americans, namely 57% of them, believe the fact that there’s a diverse composition of people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds is “a very good thing” for the country. A larger share, that is 64% of Americans, say diversity of races and ethnicities has a positive impact on the country’s culture.
However, it’s conceivable that for such a large and populous country, diversity is not all about opportunities and benefits. Racial prejudice and antipathy towards immigrants and minorities has been an entrenched feature in both mainstream politics and everyday life, living deep within the marrow of the nation since the early days of independence. In the recent years, particularly following the 9/11 attacks, which were billed as the worst terrorist operation on the US soil, hostile rhetoric against the minorities and immigrants has been intensified, and Muslims, Hispanics and African Americans became vulnerable targets for misdirected resentments and defamation.
The coming to power of Donald Trump, a former reality show personality and businessman, who predominantly appealed to white Americans by pledging to slash immigration and put “America First” in his policies, was another turning point for race relations in America. An extensive Pew Research Center survey found in 2019 that the plurality of Americans agree President Trump has made the race relations worse and that people are more likely to express racist views since he was elected.
Prof. Vernon Burton is a renowned American historian and Judge Matthew J. Perry Jr. Distinguished Professor of History, Sociology and Anthropology, Pan African Studies, and Computer Science at Clemson University. He is the author of tens of essays and books on the intersection of humanities and social sciences, race relations and the American South. A prolific writer, his 2007 book “The Age of Lincoln” won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Literary Award for nonfiction. In an interview with Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, Prof. Burton shared his views about the growth of racial inequalities in the United States, public perceptions of minorities, police brutality against African Americans and President Trump’s immigration policies. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: Some American scholars maintain that Donald Trump was successful in rising to power by pledging to be the voice of the American whites who felt their rights and opportunities were trampled by the immigrants and minorities. They say Trump’s building on the idea of white victimhood gave him an ace up his sleeve in the 2016 elections. Has Donald Trump been the exemplary leader whom the white nationalist Americans were looking for? Has he been able to give new life to the white identity?
A: Historians are much better at trying to figure what has already happened than to predict the future. Trump’s real significance will only become clear after he is no longer president. I can tell you the story of the great historian David Donald when he was asked about the busing crisis in Boston and what Lincoln would have said. Donald replied, Lincoln would ask what a bus is. I think the racism was always there, but it was not just Trump. It was the social media world that began with the right-wing radio shows like Rush Limbaugh and then Fox News and Sean Hannity, etc. which led to this horrible resentment of minorities, especially African Americans and helped set the stage for Donald Trump’s success and the sellout of the Party of Lincoln. This began way back with Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his saying let’s go hunting where the ducks are, i.e. in the south, and then Nixon’s Southern Strategy – and remember Kevin Phillips Republican strategy, find out what group hates what group and use that – then Reagan’s speech at the Neshoba Miss county fair near where the three civil rights workers were murdered, then the Republican Party’s deliberate appeal to white southerners as the party of white people and portraying the Democratic Party in the south as the party of African Americans.
We should consider the Republican assault on affirmative action and especially their attacks on the 1965 Voting Act, all the disfranchisement and vote dilution methods such as the current purging and voting ID laws. So, Trump just accurately read the tea leaves and has led the Republican Party even further into its anti-black, anti-the “wrong kind of immigrant” approach and given voice to many whites in the US who have been left behind in this global economy and digital world. Race has nearly completely replaced class as how a lot of whites, especially some white males, see their world.
Q: Is Donald Trump a new phenomenon in the political and social landscape of the United States whose influence on race relations was not previously experienced? Why was Trump’s ascendancy to presidency followed by a spike in racially-motivated incidents and hate crimes against minorities, African Americans, Muslims and Hispanics?
A: No, Trump follows an old pattern of the southern racial demagogue who was first probably represented by Ben Tillman of South Carolina. Indeed, I see Trump as a New York City version of the 19th century and early 20th century Tillman, using race issues to convince voters through cultural lens and issues to vote against their own economic interests, although Tillman was better than Trump in delivering some real things to his white constituents. But white supremacy is bred into our culture and history for so long, though academics are now aware that this was taught at least well into the 1990s – the academic new views have not yet permeated the popular culture and people actually believe what we now know was a created history to serve the purpose of white supremacy. It will take some time to correct that wrongly learned history and at least probably another generation.
I do not think that he is a new phenomenon on the political landscape. What I think is that he is one in the long line of American political demagogues. The exception is that they never reached the highest political office in United States. Think of Wisconsin’s Joe McCarthy, Machine Gun Joe, of the McCarthy hearings and how successful he was for so long.
Trump’s sound blasts made people who have felt that they have been silenced by “political correctness” to speak out their inner thoughts, no matter how dark those thoughts may have been. Right after Trump got elected I was in the Food Lion and there were these two white people in front of me and they were complaining about their kids having to take the bus to a school when there was a school right down the road from their house, and one of them said, “We are going to get this stuff fixed now.” Trump was going to turn back the clock and make things the way they should be. It is like the lost cause myth of black rule during Reconstruction. Let me put it this way: the “Democrats messed up this country, took away our jobs, let immigrants in the country, and let people who did not know how to govern be in positions of governing.” African-American friends of mine tell me America has always been a racist country; Trump just made it ok to express your racism.
And actually, it was nativism, rather than outright racism against African Americans that propelled Trump to the White House. This might seem a distinction without a difference, since most immigrants to the US today are non-white. But I think it is crucial to place Trump in the context of a worldwide antagonism to immigrants and refugees, at a time of unprecedented demographic mobility and large numbers of refugees. Opposition to refugees spurred Brexit, and right-wing parties in Europe. But the same animus pervades politics in Turkey, Myanmar, and India.
Trump is the first really nativist president, except perhaps for Millard Fillmore. The horrible 1924 Quota Act passed without the relevant presidents, Harding and Coolidge, becoming, at least in popular memory, identified with its passage.
An interesting question is the relationship between populism and anti-immigrant sentiments. Although Richard Hofstaeder’s account of populism has rightly been critiqued by several generations of historians, including me, his association of populism with anti-Semitism and opposition to immigration is still worth reading. But that was a third-party movement and it had more diverse elements in the late 19th century. What you have in Trump is the leader of one of the two national parties and leading in nationalistic and anti-immigrant rhetoric to mobilize voters.
I think Trump’s rhetoric moved from being implicitly to explicitly anti-African Americans as he transitioned from candidate to president, in part because of the connection between black voters and the Democratic Party. He no longer hid his intense hatred of his predecessor. His lunatic fantasy that Obama was not eligible to be president was both anti-black and anti-immigrant. Nativism fetishizes the distinction between citizen and non-citizen. Let us remember that our talisman, the 14th Amendment, in both the due process and equal protection clause, refers to “all persons” and not merely to “all citizens.”
Q: That’s interesting. Slavery was declared illegal more than 150 years ago with the introduction of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution. The results of a survey by the Pew Research Center suggest more than 80 percent of African Americans believe the legacy of slavery affects their position and standing in the society today. Is anti-Black discrimination a social ill that can have short-term solutions? Wasn’t the election of Barack Obama as the US President in 2008 a point in time when the United States achieved color-blindness?
A: No, though many called Obama’s election a sign of a post racial America, most whites did not vote for Obama, and there was an immediate backlash. Trump is the white backlash to Obama. As I overhead once, “you had your president, now we got our president.”
Q: Different ethnic groups and communities in the United States have long complained about police brutality in this country, and many reports confirm the excessive and sometimes extrajudicial use of force by the police forces against civilians including intimidation, verbal abuse and assault. Why do the police in the US resort to violent measures against the minorities? Is it something the government is willing to address and solve?
A: The government needs to address and in particular not shoot to kill as officers are instructed to do so if they use their weapons. The Supreme Court did not help in their decision setting out how one justified force in dealing with suspects. But yes, it needs to be addressed. And much of this comes from stereotypes that you asked about and fear of the unknown, of the stranger as seen in minorities mostly by white police officers.
Q: The US Census Bureau data in 2014 found that the wealth of African Americans doesn’t exceed 7% that of whites. While the median net worth of white households amounts to $130,800, this figure stands at $9,590 for the African-American families and $17,530 for the Hispanic households. The Economic Policy Institute reported that 25 percent of black families have a net worth of zero or negative. What do you think is the root cause of the severe racial wealth gap between the white families and minority households in the US?
A: Initially slavery; but we institutionalized white privilege and supremacy in official government policies of affirmative action for whites. Schools were underfunded or nonexistent for former slaves and then minority segregated schools were by far unequal to white schools. Veterans benefitted from the GI Bill after World War II, but blacks could not attend the white colleges. Then there have been years of affirmative actions for whites so that white veterans could buy homes in areas where their investments grew, while redlining denied African American and other minorities those opportunities, and thus there has not been the capital buildup or the inherited wealth.
Q: Between 2014 and June 2019, the Council on American–Islamic Relations recorded 10,015 instances of bias incidents against Muslims in the United States, including violent attacks, hate crimes, questioning and interrogation by the Customs and Border Protection officers at the airports and physical assaults at schools and public places. In 2017 alone, 2,599 bias incidents were reported to CAIR. Do you think discrimination against Muslims has become systematic in the United State? Are the federal government institutions indifferent toward such incidents?
A: I am not qualified to answer, but it is clear that we have elected officials who add to the problems and hysteria. We do not have a parliamentarian form of government and for the US, it is a winner take all in the elections, and president appoints judges and many others in positions of authority.
Q: How fair and objective is the representation of ethnic and racial minorities in the US media? How do stereotypes employed to portray African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims and other minorities as dishonest, violent, disloyal, irresponsible, imprudent and sub-human in American movies, TV shows and articles on newspapers and social media posts affect the general public’s perception of them?
A: I could talk on this forever. We still have negative stereotypes, but at least people are more aware of them now. And hopefully, we will keep changing those negative stereotypes. The South Carolina-born actor Orlando Jones was fired from the television show American Gods, not because he was playing an African trickster god in America but because they felt his character’s fiery observations on black life in America would cause blacks to rise up against whites. They actually used the term “Nat Turner” like speech. The media would rather present stereotypes. We all know how poor black people and white people live because we see them on those reality television shows. They have multiple kids by different men and they know who the dad is, or they are always fighting in the trailer park. From music and videos today, people would think all black people should live in ghettos.
Q: In 1958, John F. Kennedy, who was not yet elected president, called the United States “a nation of immigrants.” People from across the globe moved to the United States since its establishment in a quest for job opportunities, freedom and safety. At the same time, they contributed to the economic prosperity, social development and educational betterment of the country. Today, there are more than 1.09 million international students in the United States, many of whom are gifted youths who end up being recruited in the country and becoming US residents. Why do you think the United States has adopted restrictive immigration policies in the recent years? Will these measures improve the national security of the US?
A: I suspect the measures will not improve national security. Most terrorist attacks or murders like school shootings are by American citizens not by immigrants. Trump and the nationalists are using the immigration issue as a cultural war weapon and immigrants as scapegoats to mobilize disenchanted voters many of whom are being left behind in a digital and globalized economy. Everyone who lives in America today had an ancestor who came from somewhere else, even Native Americans. What makes America great is that we are an example for everyone else in the world. Where else can the great grandson of an immigrant from Germany who fled to escape military services become the president of the United States? What makes America great is the opportunity for individuals to invent and innovate. Restrictive immigration policies are targeting individuals who are coming to America seeking economic opportunities and a degree of civil and human rights. And let’s be real for just a moment. These polices are driven by a fear that in the very near future the demographics of the United States will be quite different. And white power will be replaced by brown and Asian power. I believe this is the bottom line of restrictive immigration policies.
By: Kourosh Ziabari