A few days ago, US President Donald Trump was reported to have told several Congresswomen to go back to their countries. The response to the Trump’s verbal assault has been just as strong. Paul Krugman of The New York Times denounced the President’s behavior, calling it “Racism Comes Out of the Closet.” As many have questioned whether Trump’s claim was indeed a factual one and applicable to the Congresswomen themselves, I wanted to talk about a related but broader question of who are the heirs of America — to whom does this country belong and who can chart its course. And, more important, do we need a new American identity?
By ordering someone to leave America or go back to where they came from is a statement that obviously denotes racism but also nationalism. Nationalism and racism cannot be understood independently, at least not in the American case. Racism is to distinguish one group physically or biologically from another and because of this division there is a hierarchy. And within this hierarchy there are those that belong in the top rung and these are people that are considered to be the sons and daughters of the nation — the heirs, so to speak.
The statement is meant to create a national identity based on not “who is” but “who is not”. But to mark those as the Other is to powerfully suggest who belongs in America. The rhetoric of the statement implies that those marked as outsiders have no history to the country and thus, no claims to it. And if they have no claims, then they are excluded from deciding the future of the America. While America has been popularly perceived as “a great melting pot” with many different racial and ethnic groups living in harmony, in recent times there has been a vocal opposition to multiracialism and multiculturalism, a development in which more groups like women and minorities, once excluded from the national decision-making, are making their voices heard.
A National Identity Based on Race or Culture?
Before he died in 2009, political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote that what made America great was the product of institutions, including the rule of law and democracy, created by white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) heritage. More important, he argued that Americans of Hispanic heritage were a threat to the American identity because these immigrants have refused to assimilate into the mainstream culture. He continued to make his point by asking rhetorically,
Would the United States be the country that it has been and that it largely remains today if it had been settled in the 17th and 18th centuries not by British Protestants but by French, Spanish, or Portuguese Catholics? The answer is clearly no. It would not be the United States; it would be Quebec, Mexico, or Brazil.
But we have to take the bad with the good. Without the Anglo-Saxon institution of capitalist political economy, would the United States still have had an economic system based primarily on slavery, the imperative to appropriate land from Native Americans, driving them to near extinction, and the Westward expansion of the mid-19th century that dispossessed many Mexicans who were living in California and New Mexico?
Huntington was very much an essentialist, one who believes that certain cultural institutions such as the rule of law and liberalism belong exclusively to a particular racial or ethnic group. However, Mexico, following its independence from Spain in 1821, adopted a liberal constitution and gave equal political rights to all racial groups. It was not until US soldiers occupied and appropriated Mexican lands that the Mexican elites resorted an authoritarian political system to protect themselves from foreign aggression.
While Trump attaches the American identity to race, Huntington thought that Hispanic immigrants could become Americans if they abandon their Spanish language and assimilate into the mainstream culture. He saw bilingualism as a threat to the American identity. But this strategy of assimilation did not work for Native Americans, who after abandoning their bow and arrows to pick up the hoe and adopt an European way of life, were eventually betrayed, had their land appropriated and driven out from their homeland.
But it is misguided to think in binary oppositions: black and white or Hispanic Catholicism or Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. The former indicates a racial difference while the latter cultural.
Like House Lannister, the American family is quite incestuous. Hundreds of years of war and occupation and slavery have created multiple legitimate heirs. Black Americans, who themselves the descendants of slaves and slave owners, have been excluded from inheriting the great American wealth, in which they helped build. In “I Have A Dream Speech,” Martin Luther King lamented, “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’.” Rather than being heirs to the great American family, blacks have been locked up in prisons or simply killed off on the streets. The need to maintain this racial order led to the Western expansion of the 19th century. Slave owners at the time wanted new states and territories to absorb the burgeoning black population to reduce their democratic power.
What we refer to as the Great American West was once part of the Mexican state. To expand the territory of the country, in 1846 the US invaded Mexico and forced it to hand over California and the Southwest territory and accepted the Rio Grande as the US-Mexico border. After the war ended, many American soldiers and entrepreneurs married into wealthy Mexican families, in order to inherit the land from their wives because at that time Mexican women had the legal rights to own and transfer land under their name.
Racially speaking, then, African and Mexican bloodlines are as much part of American racial identity as that of Anglo-Saxon. But we should move beyond race as a defining feature of the American identity. What is crucial today is economic equality.
A New American Identity
The problem is that Huntington seemed to believe that the American identity should not change from its WASP’s root. But if people can change, so too can nations. And sometimes change is progress. If the extreme economic individualism of Anglo-Saxon culture has led to a highly unequal American society, in which many citizens believe that the socioeconomic problems of their countrymen and women are their own individual mess to solve, then the community-based and working-class culture of Hispanic Catholic heritage can act as a countervailing power.
The British settlers and their descendants were slave owners and guilty of genocide, but they were pioneers. There is no doubt they and their economic system have accumulated the greatest wealth that the world has ever seen. There should be individual freedom and private accumulation of wealth. But the progeny of these pioneers has become socially complacent and materially defensive, creating a society that legalizes the moral hazard of speculators and enables a class of ultra-wealthy, depraved individuals who act with impunity. I see the vigor and optimism and righteousness of the working-class Hispanic Americans to be a powerful antidote to break up the status quo and usher in an era of greater equality and morality.
In high school I worked at a fast food restaurant. The restaurant represented a microcosm of American society. My co-workers, mostly first-generation immigrants, arrived to America from various countries, including Pakistan, the Philippines, and Mexico. We would handle the customer orders, pack the chicken and mop the floor. The owner was a white American and his assistant managers also shared the same skin color. The Mexican workers, who could not speak English, were confined to the back of the kitchen. But there was one worker of Latino heritage who broke that racial hierarchy. He did it by outworking every one of us. When orders arrived during the busiest times of the day, he would quickly shift, like a running back, from one food station to another, packing chicken legs and wings into multiple boxes. Like the Energizer Bunny, he had an unstoppable constitution and kept on going and going. I was amazed not only by his limitless energy and desire but also by his charismatic countenance and sense of goodwill.
Like many other Hispanic Americans, my Latino colleague had a kind of optimism that is rare to find in America. Black and white Americans are trapped in a vicious zero-sum game. The whites can never let the blacks share power because they fear what the blacks would do to them as they have done to the blacks. Therefore, the poor whites, voting against improving their material well-being, rather live in abject poverty than to help the blacks to help themselves.
While Native and black Americans are legitimate heirs of America and no one would tell them to go back to their country, one has a population which has been decimated and other one’s which has persecuted to the furthest extent of the coercive apparatus of the State.
If there is to be greater equality and morality in America, which means challenging the status quo, it would originate from the many that occupy the bottom rung of the hierarchy. They are down but not out. There can be no doubt who are the working class of America and who look forward for a brighter future. The Bible says, the meek that shall inherit the earth. Would our democratic political system make certain that it is they who would wield the power they legitimately deserve and inherit America’s land and wealth?