It’s a scary thing, to be an American. At every moment since our country’s founding, some people, somewhere, have been standing in the way of our freedom, and our only choice seems to be exclusion, control, or extermination. Any given day in our nation’s life, since Thomas Jefferson penned a declaration of independence, there was a “them” that threatened an “us,” and a righteous crusade to exclude “them” from “our” nation, and kill “them” in their homelands, just to be sure that our perfect union could and would survive.
As a student of American history, the last few months haven’t just felt like another wave of Islamophobia to sweep through the nation in the wake of 9/11 (although it certainly has been that as well), but it’s revealed itself as yet another cycle in the worn out wheel that defines the dark side of American life; the undying need for an “other” to fear and hate, usually to serve the interests of America’s insatiable appetite for natural resources and cheap labor.
According to a study in Washington’s Blog since 1776, the United States has not been engaged in active warfare for exactly 21 non-contiguous years. Here they are: 1796-1797, 1807-1809, 1826, 1828-1830, 1897, 1935-1940, 1976-1978, 1997, 2000.
It’s a scary thing, to be an American.
This means that every president of the United States has been a wartime president. This means that there has not been more than a 3-year span in which we did not have an enemy to kill and control. In which politicians did not lecture us about the latest–and greatest–enemy currently “threatening” the homeland. In which young men were not convinced to give their lives to protect “us” from “them.” In which peoples in the United States who were both denizens of the nation and “of” the enemy, were not harassed, feared, and made to feel unwanted. In that context, the last few weeks fit well into the long history of hate and fear that has been an intrinsic part of our country.
… Every president of the United States has been a wartime president.
The vast majority of these wars took place against indigenous peoples in the Americas. As the US expanded, first across the continental United States, and then into the Pacific, as well as the Caribbean, these wars were sold to the American public as an impassioned humanitarian effort to “civilize” savages, and — of course — to secure natural resources for America’s benefit. This included land that was farmed and harvested by another dominated group: enslaved African peoples.
This land expansion and continued use of forced free labor — both here and abroad — aided America’s economic prosperity, which attracted many different sorts of peoples to migrate into the United States. Southern Europeans, Chinese, South Asians, Pacific Islanders, Middle Easterners, and Latin Americans all moved into the United States. Then, the country’s leadership and wealthy class had a problem; it needed workers, but it wanted to remain a white nation. How could these two desires be combined? The answer came in a two-tiered system of citizenship. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese people in the United States from ever gaining citizenship. The Bracero Program allowed Mexicans to work migrant and itinerant jobs in the United, but without any benefits of citizenship. Naturalization and Citizenship laws* morphed and evolved over the decades, usually revolving around race, where ethnic groups from specified regions were granted or refused citizenship, mainly based on their proximity to “whiteness.” Prior to the 1940’s, many people actually went to court in order to prove they were white, so they could obtain US citizenship.
*These laws were only repealed as WWII heated up, when the US realized it was the only country in the world other than Hitler’s Germany to have racialized naturalization laws.
And so, the pattern continued. In World War II, the Japanese were pronounced the enemy and Japanese Americans who had lived here for generations were put into concentration camps for years. During the Cold War, people lost their jobs and livelihoods over the fear that they were communists. After 9/11, Arabs and Muslims became the targets of this long and enduring war against the “other.”
So, what can we make of this history? Understanding it is an opportunity to reflect on what drives fear in this country: the answer is — this country. As Muslims and Arabs we will not end Islamaphobia through only education about our culture and religion (although we should do that). We will end it by opposing the enduring racism that has been a mainstay in the underbelly of American society since its founding. We will end it by forming coalitions with other groups, by standing up to any oppression, at any time. And in joining these broad coalitions, we will learn another history; a history of resistance, of creativity, bravery and beauty that makes up the real American story. We must force the curtain hiding this darker history open, and we must confront the ways in which the United States has been conceived through domination and expansion since its conception. It is only through this long lens that we will be able to change our country and stomp out oppression, instead of just putting out the latest fire.
Scroll through to see a glimpse of America’s — what seems to be — everlasting fear of “the other”.
Written by Randa Tawil. Randa is a Ph.D. Student at Yale University in the Department of American Studies. Her research interests are migration, critical geography, and racial formations. She currently researches migration from the Middle East to the Americas in the turn of the 20th century.
Image via Flickr