The Great White Fear: White America’s Real Problem with Immigration

*This was originally a short essay written for my American Studies course*

The United States of America has a long, documented history of its obsession with national identity. This obsession with identity has manifested itself into the close monitoring of, and desire to identify, the “American culture” or “national narrative.” Neil Campbell and Alasdair Kean, authors of American Cultural Studies: an Introduction to American Culture, report national narrative as, “a story of agreed principles, values, and myths that gives the country a coherent sense of identity.”  In an attempt to control the national narrative, and define American identity, there is an increasing surveillance and preoccupation with immigration. The growing presence of immigrants threatens the homogenous narrative, identity, and culture that the majority (heterosexual, middle-class, Christian, english speaking and white) is so desperate to define and propagate.

In order to adequately examine national identity, a critical examination of white supremacy and American exceptionalism must also be considered. American exceptionalism, a byproduct of white supremacy, alludes to images and ideas of baseball games, apple pie, and fireworks. It appeals to the notion of a fair and color-blinded democracy, hardworking individuals, and extending equal opportunities to everyone. American exceptionalism insinuates that anyone can come to the “land of free,” and through hard work and dedication to one’s country, success can be achieved. But the reality is that, these privileges are only extended to white Americans (although many people of color use this model to gain success). Whiteness has always been the measure of Americanness; the concept of whiteness is older than America itself. Pamela Perry, in her essay titled “White,” explains that European historians, travelers, and naturalists of the sixteenth and seventeenth century cultivated and circulated the notion that fair skinned (white) people were perfect and pure. British colonist then brought these ideas of whiteness to the Caribbean and North American colonies, laying the foundation for American white supremacy and the horrors, oppression, and unequal structures that come along with it.

Through colonization, the standard of Americanness (read: whiteness) was set, performed, and enforced by nativist (nativist were people who believed that they were ‘true’ Americans, although they were descendants of those responsible for the genocide of indigenous people – the true native people of this land). Evidenced after a large influx of immigrants in the early 1800s due the the lax provisions on immigration, self proclaimed nativist became a growing and influential opposition to immigration in the 1850s emphasizing the importance of pure “American values.”  In the late 1850s into the 1900s, the process of Americanization, stripping immigrants of their native culture and assimilating them into the “national fabric,” was exuberant. Immigrant children in New York City schools were made to practice pledging allegiance to the American flag as a part of the public school curriculum, businesses like Ford Motor Company and facilities like the YWCA and YMCA held classes teaching immigrant workers English, and ceremonies were held across the country where aspiring citizens would pledge allegiance to their new homeland. But what’s even more telling, in this process of Americanization, is how assimilated immigrants would discriminate against and expel new waves of immigrants and Black people. When discussing how immigrants sought acceptance into Americanness, Julia Higgins wrote in an opinion piece titled “Immigration: The Myth of the Melting Pot,” she wrote, “you became white by opposing those who weren’t.” Essentially, mirroring the mistreatment brought against them at the hands of whites granted them access to whiteness,  legitimacy as person of America. Built into the “national fabric” of America was/is dehumanization and discrimination of the “others.”

Fast forward to present day America and the same ideas of whiteness cultivated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the concepts of assimilation and Americanization introduced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, still persist today. A great example of this is the 2016 Presidential Election.

In large part due to the 2016 Presidential Election, present day Americans are haunted by and engrossed with identity, citizenship, and who is really American and who really belongs. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan is arguably coded language for keeping America white, homogeneous, and racist. It is, arguably, anti-immigration and obsession with American identity that got Trump elected. He established his entire political platform on racism and xenophobia, first targeting Mexicans. He would spew racist propaganda such as, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapist.” The use of “they” here puts emphasis, especially in the context he used it, on Mexicans being non-citizens and even less human. Throughout the course of his campaign, he used language that made clear distinctions between “them/they” (people of color, usually) and “us” (true American, e.g. white people). National identity, and the need to define it, was Trump’s ticket to the White House.

There is similar language used by neo-Nazis when it comes to national identity. Marisol Bello of USA TODAY did a study on the white power movement and how their attitudes towards immigration is strikingly similar to their attitudes towards race. When interviewing a neo-Nazi, he said,

“Historically, when times get tough in our nation, that’s how movements like ours gain a foothold… When the economy suffers, people are looking for answers. … We are the answer for white people.

And now this immigrant thing in the past couple of years has been the biggest boon to us… the immigration issue is the biggest problem we’re facing because it’s changing the face of our country. We see stuff in English and Spanish. … They are turning our country into a Third World ghetto.”

The use of “them” and “our” is very indicative of what white people think they own and have the ability to audit based on white supremacist standards.

In the New York Times, journalist Lynn Vavreck goes into detail about the clear line drawn in the sand as it pertains to immigration and citizenship. She writes in “The Great Political Divide Over American Identity” that:

“The distinctive emphasis Mr. Trump’s primary voters placed on the importance of European ancestry and Christianity explains a lot about the 2016 presidential battle over the meaning of America. Would America be “stronger together,” as Hillary Clinton believed, or weaker because of the non-European, non-Christian people knocking on its door?”

This context makes it easier to see why many people interpreted Mr. Trump’s appeal to “make America great again” as a call to exclude some groups of people from belonging or feeling like Americans.”

In 2016, leading up to the Presidential Election, The Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation that fields political research to ensure democracy, fielded an interview of over 8,000 people who voted in the 2012 election. The results speak to how a lot of people see and value what they believe to be American identity. Forty-nine percent of Democrats placed importance on “those who want to call themselves American” to either be born in America or live most of their lives in America. A third of Democrats deemed affiliation with the Christian religion was also essential to American identity. Across the aisle, 72% of Republicans believed either living life in America or being born in America was a precursor to citizenship. Fifty-six percent of Republicans thought that being a Christian was vital to Americanness. Additionally, 75% of Democrats and 95% of Republicans thought that speaking English was of importance, and 16% of Democrats and 23% of Republicans believed being of European heritage was important.

While some may look at these numbers and assess that many Americans, both Democrat and Republican, are moving away from an “exclusionary notions of American identity” as Vavreck puts in her article, I see these figures and conclude that the numbers, especially across party lines, leave very little room for those that don’t fall within the bounds of white, Christian, English speaking, and native born, all byproducts of white supremacist notions of Americanness. Particularly, outside of these specifically structured bounds are immigrants. This is evident in policies and proposed legislation that this current administration has announced since the election of Trump, including but not limited to, Executive Order 13769, popularly known as the Muslim ban or the travel ban, and ending the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals program (DACA).  

Executive Order 13769 was one of Trump’s first orders of business of as President of the United States. It is popularly known as the “Muslim ban” because it restricts immigration, travel, and visitation from predominantly Muslim nations. The most recent update on this xenophobic executive order was more than 100 million individuals, according to lawyers from the ACLU, from the following countries: Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad, North Korea, and Venezuela. Trump and his administration are pushing for the legitimacy of this ban under the guise of national security and protection against terrorist. Not only is it racist, Islamophobic, and xenophobic to equate all Muslims to terrorist, but it’s a wildly inconceivable claim given Trump’s documented record of anti-Muslim tweets and statements. Several federal judges agree that the executive order is based more on bigotry than national security. Judge Theodore D. Chuang of the Federal District Court in Maryland says that “the new proclamation was tainted by religious animus and most likely violated the Constitution’s prohibition of government establishment of religion.” Similarly, Judge Derrick K. Watson of the Federal District Court in Honolulu says that the order “plainly discriminates based on nationality.”

Not only are immigrants being prevented from entering the country, but immigrants and their descendants that are already here are on the receiving end of Trump’s anti-immigration crusade. The ending of the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals program, popularly known as DACA, is an example. DACA offered legal protection to roughly 800,000 people known as “DREAMers,” who entered the country illegally as children. More specifically, DACA offered individuals brought to the United States as children before mid-2007 the ability to apply for protection from deportation and work permits if they met certain requirements. It also, under certain guidelines, allowed beneficiaries the opportunity to enroll in primary and secondary education and obtain work permits. The ending of DACA puts more than 800,000 at risk for deportation.

The Muslim ban and the ending of DACA are clear signifier of whiteness controlling and defining the national identity of America via anti-immigration and xenophobia. By deeming them all as terrorist or safety hazards (Muslim ban) and/or denying them access to resources (DACA) is exclusionary and designed to deny humanity and revoke aid to marginalized individuals based on American essentialist standards that aim to erase marginalized people from the American narrative.

However, studies predicate that immigration is set to increase in vast numbers in the coming years, creating less homogenous communities. Rehian Salam in the National Review explains that America’s cultural character is rapidly changing due to the influx of foreign-born individuals. He writes, “Over the next 50 years, demographers at the Pew Research Center anticipate, new immigrants and their descendants will account for 88 percent of all population growth.” The reasoning for this is in part due to native-born Americans having extremely low birthrates. Salam is calling this influx of foreign-born individuals in America a “cultural war,” a war between Republicans/conservatives and non-native-born individuals.  

This ongoing cultural war between native-born and foreign-born individuals has offered several, mostly ignorant and rooted in bigotry, arguments against immigration. One of the most common is that “immigrants will take all of our jobs.” This has always been the “to-go” argument for people against immigration, but there’s was an increase in this rhetoric in the conversation concerning DACA and the DREAMers. There is a plethora of research that disproves this claim. David Card from the University of California, Berkeley writes in “The Elusive Search For Negative Wage Impacts of Immigrants” that immigrant work has very little effect, sometimes none at all, on native-born Americans. He also states that immigrants are more likely to compete with each other than native-born Americans. Additionally, a whole range of economists, 95% to be exact, answered that the average American would be better off with more (highly skilled) immigrants working in the United States. More specifically, Americans benefit from immigrant workers in innovation, the price of good and services, the numbers of jobs, government finances, and even wage.

Another argument is that immigrants don’t assimilate into “American culture.” Again, this is assuming that there is an universal, agreed upon culture by which America operates. However, there are various studies that have rendered this claim to be false. Economist Jacob Vigdor speaks on 20th century immigration and says,

“While there are reasons to think of contemporary migration from Spanish speaking nations as distinct from earlier waves of immigration, evidence does not support the notion that this wave of migration poses a true threat to the institutions that withstood those earlier waves. Basic indicators of assimilation, from naturalization to English ability, are if anything stronger now than they were a century ago.”

The notion of the need for immigrants to assimilate troubles me, and supports of my original argument. The desire for immigrants to assimilate is the desire for immigrants to strip themselves of their original culture, language, and customs and take on those of whiteness. Or, better yet, to just fade into the background of “American culture.” Hence, erasure of identity for the national narrative. This speaks to my original argument that whiteness is threatened by immigration because it distorts their idea of what American identity is and should be.

In his article in the National Review, Salam poses the question of how to integrate this growing number of immigrants into “American society.”  He says that,

“To win this new culture war, conservatives must do more than embrace a new approach to immigration. They must offer a new conception of American nationhood. Just as the melting-pot nationalism of the 1900s forged a new American identity that natives and immigrants of various European nationalities could embrace, a new melting-pot nationalism is needed to counter the ethnic and class antagonisms that threaten our society today.” 

A “new conception of American nationhood,” as Salam puts it, would mean that the myth of American exceptionalism would have to become reality and equal opportunities would have to extended to everyone including immigrants. That means wealth would have to be distributed and systems would have to be dismantled. Melting-pot nationalism sounds nice and progressive, but, for me, it needs to goes beyond that into taking a serious look at the way whiteness has constructed the current concept of American nationhood and how that works in concert with American exceptionalism and white supremacy.

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