A shameful history

Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead moral error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much. And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names. But you and I have never truly had that luxury.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me

I’ve had a bit of a revolution in my thinking recently. This revolution has consisted of becoming properly acquainted with the horror that is American history.

I am not the type of writer that can inspire emotion with the type of eloquence in the above quote. But it feels atrocious to me that the true nature of American history, which should be appreciated by every American, is not taught in schools, or is taught in a softened and white-washed form. I would like to share a few facts about the history of my country that I wish I had known earlier.

Legal Racism

Naturalization and whiteness

  • From the very beginning of our country’s history, Congress explicitly stated that only white immigrants could become citizens.
  • This stayed in place for over 100 years. In 1922 (Ozawa v. US), a Japanese-American man who had lived in the United States for 20 years was ruled ineligible for naturalization by the US Supreme Court.
  • From the decision: “In all of the naturalization acts from 1790 to 1906 the privilege of naturalization was confined to white persons.” This was used to conclude that Japanese could not be naturalized.
  • In both this case and a subsequent case (US v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 1923), the US Supreme Court specifically ruled that Japanese and Indian people do not count as white, and thus are racially ineligible for naturalized citizenship.
  • Bhagat Singh argued for his status as a white person by pointing to his Brahmin status. He argued that his people were originally the conquerers of the indigenous population of India, thus giving them an equal claim to whiteness.
  • Arguments from Bhagat Singh’s lawyers: Singh had a revulsion to marrying Indian women from the “lower races,” and had expressed a “disdain for inferiors” that characterized him as white.
    • “The high-caste Hindu regards the aboriginal Indian Mongoloid in the same manner as the American regards the Negro, speaking from a matrimonial standpoint.”
  • The court decided against the whiteness of high-caste Indians, because “while the invaders seem to have met with more success in the effort to preserve their racial purity, intermarriages did occur producing an intermingling of the two and destroying to a greater or less degree the purity of the “Aryan” blood.”
  • An irony: the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886 with the famous quote…

    “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

    … At this time, only whites had naturalization rights, and the Chinese Exclusion Act had restricted all Chinese immigration to the country four years before.

Oriental exclusion

  • The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, banning Chinese immigration for ten years.
  • In 1892 it was extended for another ten years, with the additions that that all Chinese residents must carry permits, that they could not serve as witnesses in court, and that they weren’t allowed bail.
  • In 1902, it was again renewed, this time with no ending date.
  • In 1913, California prohibited Chinese and Japanese immigrants from owning property. Other states followed suit.
  • In 1922, the Cable Act ruled that if an American woman married an Asian, she would lose her citizenship.
  • In 1924, the Oriental Exclusion Act prohibited most immigration from Asia, including foreign-born wives and children of American citizens of Chinese ancestry.
  • In 1929, the National Origins Formula completely barred Asian immigration.
  • In 1952, all federal anti-Asian exclusion laws are finally nullified by the Walter-McCarran Act, allowing for the naturalization of all Asians.

Interracial marriage

  • Laws banning interracial marriage (i.e. marriage between whites and non-whites) were enforced in many states up until 1967… a mere fifty years ago.
  • At least three constitutional amendments banning interracial marriage were introduced in Congress.
  • Quote from a speech given before Congress by a Georgian governor in 1912:
    • No brutality, no infamy, no degradation in all the years of southern slavery, possessed such villainous character and such atrocious qualities as the provision of the laws of Illinois, Massachusetts, and other states which allow the marriage of the negro, Jack Johnson, to a woman of Caucasian strain. [applause]. Gentleman, I offer this resolution … that the States of the Union may have an opportunity to ratify it. …

      Intermarriage between whites and blacks is repulsive and averse to every sentiment of pure American spirit. It is abhorrent and repugnant to the very principles of Saxon government. It is subversive of social peace. It is destructive of moral supremacy, and ultimately this slavery of white women to black beasts will bring this nation a conflict as fatal as ever reddened the soil of Virginia or crimsoned the mountain paths of Pennsylvania.

      … Let us uproot and exterminate now this debasing, ultra-demoralizing, un-American and inhuman leprosy.

  • Anti-miscegenation laws were deemed constitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1883. The argument was that both races were treated equally, “because whites and blacks were punished in equal measure for breaking the law against interracial marriage and interracial sex.”
  • Idaho banned interracial marriage and sex between black and white people in 1921, even though the state’s population was 99.8% non-black.
  • In 1967, the Supreme Court finally ruled these laws (that were enforced in 17 Southern states – all the former slave states) unconstitutional.
  • It took South Carolina until 1998 and Alabama until 2000 to actually remove the ban on interracial marriage from their Constitutions.
    • In the respective referendums, 38% of voters in South Carolina and 41% of voters in Alabama voted to keep the ban in place.

Racism now

  • A 2018 study found that Republican-appointed judges sentence blacks to 3 more months than similar non-blacks. This is 65% of the baseline racial sentence gap.
    • “These differences cannot be explained by other judge characteristics and grow substantially larger when judges are granted more discretion.”
  • A 2011 poll of Mississippi Republicans found that 46% think interracial marriage should be illegal, and 14 percent replied “not sure.”
  • A 2007 Gallup poll found that 17% of Americans explicitly disapprove of interracial marriage.
  • Black job applicants without criminal records have the same chance of getting hired as white applicants with criminal records.
  • If current trends continue, one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.

 

There is so much more, and I haven’t even touched the brutality of the branch of US law dedicated to stripping Native Americans of their homes and their lives. Taking into account this disturbing legacy of white supremacy, one wonders how a slogan like “Make America Great Again” could be anything but a dog-whistle for the type of bigotry and hatred that has always been our nation’s past. It also casts the notion of American pride in an ominous light. The only attitude I can summon up thinking about the realities of our country’s past is shame. Is “proud to be an American” a sentiment borne of ignorance, or something more sinister?

 

You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine…

Our triumphs can never compensate for this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about this world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me

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