Racism, Nativism, and Xenophobia in the U.S.

Charles M. Russell, Water for CampRacism, nativism, and xenophobia did not start with the Trump for 2016 presidential campaign. In fact, these phenomena predate the colonization of what would eventually become the United States. They have been with us from the beginning, and they played an integral part of the development of our country. Remember that the land Columbus and others "discovered" was already inhabited.

Racism, along with Christianity, fueled manifest destiny and the campaign of genocide our ancestors waged against Native Americans. Racism, along with Christianity, justified slavery prior to its abolition and the appalling treatment of Black Americans following abolition. We see their role in how Chinese immigrants were treated as they built the railroads, the Tuskegee experiments, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the conditions experienced by Native Americans living on reservations, and the hatred aimed at Latino immigrants.

We have been hearing a great deal from our politicians these days about how our reluctance to accept Syrian refugees is inconsistent with our nation's history. "We are a nation of immigrants," we are told. And yet, each and every wave of immigrants to enter this country has been viewed with suspicion by nativists, xenophobes, and racists. Ellis Island is a nice image, but we must not forget how the newly arriving immigrants were treated by those who were already here or how previous waves of immigrants would treat subsequent waves. Those insisting that Americans welcomed immigrants with open arms seem to have a very short or selective memory.

The harsh reality is that our nation is rooted in racism, nativism, and xenophobia. This has been true from the beginning, and to a much lesser but still disturbing degree, it remains true today. That is not to say that we have not made great progress; we have certainly made great progress. But these are problems that persist today despite our mass amnesia and denial. Yes, racism is alive and well in America today.

The reason that racism is often described as one of the most serious problems facing the United States is not only that it has been with us throughout our history or that it persists today; it is also that we have largely been unable or unwilling to acknowledge and address it. Sure, we will reluctantly accept historical examples when forced to do so, but many try to deny that racism exists today or refuse to allow themselves to reflect on the lasting impact of many historical examples. We tend to sweep them under the rug and attempt to move on as quickly as we can. "Why dwell on the past? What good can come of that?"

Most of the limited discussion of racism in the U.S. focuses on Black-White relations. Given our history of slavery and the manner in which Black Americans have been and continue to be exploited in the aftermath of slavery, this is understandable. There are far too many unresolved issues around Black-White relations, so more work is certainly needed. And yet, focusing only on Black-White relations obscures the pervasive nature of racism, as well as the important role of nativism and xenophobia when it comes to immigrants and refugees.

"Why are they still talking about slavery?" Because many of the effects of slavery persist today, because we continued to extract forced labor from many persons of color long after slavery was abolished, and because there are still far too many aspects of our criminal justice system that appear to treat people quite differently based on their race. Institutionalized racism is something that should make us extremely uncomfortable. It should make us so uncomfortable that we demand its abolition. Instead, it seems that many would prefer to deny its existence.

Visit some poor predominately Black neighborhoods today and ask yourselves why the people who live there can't just "get over it" or why some may see themselves as having few viable economic opportunities. Might it make sense that they would see evidence of institutional racism in their lives and feel disenfranchised? Spend some time on an Indian reservation today and ask yourself how you would like to live there. Can you really keep telling yourself that everything is okay now because some tribes have casinos? Take the time to talk to some of the White people who live in small towns throughout the West, and listen to their thoughts on Latino immigrants. Unless your experience is vastly different from my own, you won't hear much about their fear of immigrants taking their jobs. None of them would be willing to do most of the jobs that immigrants end up doing. Instead, you will hear vague concerns about how the very presence of these immigrants degrades our culture.

#BlackLivesMatter activists, student protesters from Mizzou and other universities, and many other groups are trying to tell us something. They might not always have the most rational or articulate messages, and they may say some things with which many of us will disagree. None of that means we should not listen to what they are attempting to communicate. I'm certainly not advocating a listen and believe approach here but more of a listen and think approach. Even if I don't always agree with what I hear from some of these groups, I am glad that they are trying to have the conversation. It is long overdue, and it is a conversation in which I'd like to participate.