Faculty Perspective: The 500 Year Battle Over Who is American Continues

July 22, 2019
Faculty Perspective: The 500 Year Battle Over Who is American Continues

This piece was first published on CNN.com on Saturday, July 20, 2019.

By Ben Railton
Professor, Department of English Studies

Donald Trump's attack on four freshman Democratic congresswomen fits into a long tradition of people in power trying to define who is a real American—and an equally long tradition of resistance from those whom the powerful are trying to define out of the country.

In his initial July 14th Twitter thread, Trump wrote that the congresswomen "come from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe," and then suggested that they "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came." Yet three of the four Congresswomen in question—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib—were born in the United States; only one, Ilhan Omar, was born in another country (Somalia) and arrived in the United States with her family nearly three decades ago at the age of 10.

While it's tempting to see this error as just another presidential misstatement or falsehood, I would argue instead that Trump's description of these four women and their distinct cultural and ethnic heritages—Puerto Rican, African-American, Palestinian, and Somali respectively—as all equally "coming from" outside of the United States is entirely purposeful, and indeed comprises a core element of his and his supporters' exclusionary vision of American identity.

As divisive and racist as the "send her back" gambit—aimed at Rep. Omar and chanted fervently by Trump supporters at a recent rally—is, Trump's use of it is far from unprecedented; it has a long and turbulent history that has helped shape our nation. In earlier moments in that history, as now, the movement to exclude has been met with, or intertwined with, efforts to promulgate an inclusive vision of this country.

My book reveals that such exclusionary definitions of America are but one side of a foundational and ongoing debate in the United States. These exclusionary visions define the American "we" by identifying numerous "thems"—communities and cultures that are physically present in the United States but are not part of what this perspective sees as American identity. On the other side of this debate are definitions of the American "we" that see all those communities and cultures as instead integral parts of American identity.

What is most striking about the battle between these competing definitions of America is how consistently we find examples of both at work during multiple consequential moments in our history. Here are four of those key moments:

The Documentation of America's Revolutionary Ideals

In his draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson made slavery one of the colonists' complaints against King George, calling enslaved Africans a "distant people" who had been "obtruded upon" the colonies and defining their desire for freedom as antithetical to the Revolution. But two enslaved African-Americans, Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker, embodied the Revolution's ideals by using the language of the Declaration and its legal extension in the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution to gain their freedom and facilitate the state's abolition of slavery.

The Massachusetts Constitution's Article I begins, "All men are born free and equal," and when Freeman, an enslaved person in Sheffield, heard the Constitution read aloud, she approached an abolitionist local lawyer, arguing, "I'm not a dumb critter; won't the law give me my freedom?" (Marchese). In a 1783 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling, Chief Justice William Cushing agreed, writing, "I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution" (Cushing).

The Status of Mexican Americans after 1848

Although the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo promised US citizenship for Mexicans who remained in the newly acquired territories, for much of the next century Anglo squatters, white supremacist mobs and their governmental and military supporters forced many Mexican-Americans off their land and out of their communities. But Southern California rancher and author Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton fought back against this forced expulsion through both legal and literary means, as illustrated by both her successful lawsuit to win back her family ranch and her historical novel "The Squatter and the Don" (1885).

When Ruiz de Burton returned to her San Diego ranch after her husband's death from Civil War wounds, she found that Anglo squatters had occupied the land; she spent the next decade fighting to reclaim the land, securing a federal land patent in October 1876. She then turned to literary activism, as illustrated by chapter two of "Squatter," "The Don's View of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo," in which her main character expresses a Mexican-American take on these exclusionary histories and their effects.

The Treatment of Japanese Americans as "Alien Enemies" during World War II

Executive Order 9066, the Roosevelt administration's February 1942 order of internment of hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans, depended entirely on definitions of that community (many of them US citizens) as threatening "alien enemies" for whose "conduct and control" the Executive Order was created. But Hawaii's Varsity Victory Volunteers, a group of Japanese-American college students, refused to be forced out of the military in the months after Pearl Harbor, writing to the territorial governor, "We know but one loyalty and that is to the Stars and Stripes. We wish to do our part as loyal Americans in every way possible" (Odo).

Inspired in part by their example, over the next three years, more than 30,000 Japanese American men volunteered for the armed forces, with more than 2,000 coming from the internment camps. Their 442nd Regimental Combat Team became by the war's end the most decorated unit in American military history, and at a July 1946 ceremony in which he awarded them a Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation, President Truman remarked, "You fought the enemy abroad and prejudice at home and you won."

The Dehumanization of Muslim Americans after 9/11 and Beyond

Twenty-first century exclusions have frequently targeted Muslim-Americans, culminating in our current moment of Muslim bans, hate crimes and political debates over whether "Sharia Law" prohibits Muslim-Americans from holding elected office at all. Yet Muslim-Americans have been present and influential at every stage of American history, as exemplified by the Revolutionary era, Charleston (SC) Moroccan American community. In January 1790, eight members of that community petitioned the South Carolina House of Representatives, arguing that, as free-born subjects of a nation with which the US had a treaty (Morocco was the first nation to recognize the United States), they were entitled to citizenship.

The Moors Sundry Act of 1790 granted their petition and gave these Moroccan-Americans citizenship, but they had an even more striking influence on early American law: Charleston's own Charles Pinckney, a cousin to the judge who first supported the Moroccan-American petition, was the framer who drafted the Constitution's Article VI guarantee that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States"; and in defending that clause during the ratification debates, the Constitution's advocates noted, "It is objected that ... pagans and Mahometans may be admitted into offices. But how is it possible to exclude any set of men, without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmly contend for?"

Perhaps the two most common threads across all these histories, that is, are exclusionary policies and oppressions challenged and countered by inclusive American lives and communities.

Those contemporary lessons drawn from these episodes of the past are both bracing and vital. As the last few days have illustrated with particular clarity, we find ourselves in the midst of another profoundly exclusionary moment, with not only laws and policies but the words and perspectives emanating from our federal government offering these white supremacist visions of America. Yet once again, inspiring American figures and communities offer inclusive alternatives, visions of an America that resist and transcend those exclusions. The four congresswomen targeted by Trump, and indeed their entire cohort of 2018 elected officials, embody that inclusive American identity and perspective.

Ben Railton is a professor of English Studies and coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University. He writes the daily AmericanStudies blog and his work has appeared in HuffPost, Talking Points Memo, the Washington Post and the Saturday Evening Post, where he is a columnist. His most recent book is "We the People: The 500-Year Battle Over Who Is American." The views expressed here are his.