To many, President Donald Trump’s tweets telling four American minority congresswomen to “go back” to the “places from which they came” rang familiar. Creating divisions to suggest that some people belong and others do not, based on race and ethnicity, is as much a part of the American fabric as immigration itself.
The tweets were targeted at Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. All but Omar were born in the U.S.
“Every single person who is brown and black at some point in their life in this country [has] heard” something similar, Omar said at a press conference Monday. Omar was born in Somalia and is one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, along with Tlaib.
Trump’s effort to single out the four freshmen lawmakers based on race is “ugly,” but not without precedent, said Alan Kraut, a professor of history at American University.
It is “one of the great paradoxes of American society” that “on the one hand we pride ourselves as being a nation of nations. And we glorify that and celebrate that in a variety of ways,” Kraut said. “And at the same time, this is the society that has passed the Chinese Exclusion law” and other “highly restrictive immigration legislation.”
Many of the attacks that are based on race, or that target new immigrants, are born out of fear that “society and culture as it’s come to be” will threaten the white majority, Kraut added.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is one major example of this. The law banned the immigration of all Chinese laborers to the U.S. The legislation was a response to increased employment competition that left many white Americans anxious, which led them to target Chinese immigrants. The law was renewed in 1892, and then again in 1902. It was repealed in 1943.
Erika Lee, the author of “At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943,” wrote that the Chinese Exclusion Act turned the U.S. into a “gatekeeping nation,” instead of a welcoming one.
One of the most infamous examples of alienating Americans on the basis of race and ethnicity was the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the internment of thousands of Americans based on their ethnicity on the grounds of national security and preventing espionage following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
In the months that followed, Japanese Americans were rounded up and arrested without evidence. The government’s actions had lasting cultural effect that manifested into anti-Japanese and Asian sentiments.
More recently, following the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Patriot Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush. The act expanded law enforcement’s ability to use wiretapping and surveillance to counter potential terrorism in the U.S. The Patriot Act was touted by the intelligence community, and supporters who argued it was needed to strengthen national security.
But the law was criticized by many civil rights groups as unconstitutional. The legislation drew particular criticism from the Arab-American community, which already felt unfairly targeted and socially ostracized following the terror attacks.
According to a 2004 report by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, which cited a report by the Department of Justice’s inspector general, there were “numerous claims from Muslims and Arabs [who] were beaten or verbally abused while being detained by government officials. In other cases, financial institutions have used extreme interpretations of the Patriot Act to justify blacklisting Muslim account holders simply because their names matched those on a master government list.”
The report also noted that hate crimes against Muslim and Arab Americans were on the rise, because their “features” or “traits” looked threatening.
Trump’s tweets came against the backdrop of threatened ICE raids aimed at deporting undocumented immigrants living in the United States, and controversy over the detention of migrants in squalid conditions at the U.S. southern border.
Those actions, Pressley said in the lawmakers’ press conference Monday, are not in line with “the tradition of who we say we are as a country, a beacon of light and hope and of refuge.”
Yet, in America, history has shown that “race plays very powerfully into patterns of exclusion,” Kraut said.