In this essay, written for The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, I look at Trump’s Muslim ban in some more depth.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a remarkable scene from Booker T. Washington’s 1901 autobiography Up From Slavery, where Washington recounts visiting an unnamed town that was on the brink of killing a black man. Why was this the case? The “dark-skinned man” had committed the unspeakable crime of stopping at the town’s local hotel. During this Jim Crow era of racial segregation and deadly racial violence, a black person had to know where to go and where not to go, otherwise merely stopping at a hotel could become a life-threatening act. Washington tells us that the man’s presence so angered the local white population that “it seemed likely for a time that there would be a lynching.” And yet the man was spared. The townspeople soon found out that the man was not an “American Negro” after all but was in fact “a citizen of Morocco” who spoke English. And with that revelation, “all the signs of indignation disappeared.” Washington then informs us that “[t]he man who was the innocent cause of the excitement, though, found it prudent after that not to speak English.”
There was a time when being Moroccan and not speaking English would save your life in this country. Imagine that. Of course, escaping racial violence in 1901 because you’re a non–English speaker from the Maghreb can exist only within the context of centuries of brutality inflicted on African Americans. What really saved the man was not the fact that he was North African but that he was not African American (a notion the Moorish Science Temple of America would later reify). Today, African Americans are still disproportionately subject to both state and vigilante violence, and so are many Moroccans and Arabs and Muslims and also those who are assumed to be Muslim. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to call this turn of events, but I’m pretty sure it’s not called progress.
As a nation, we seem to be in a rush these days to move backwards as quickly as possible. How else to categorize Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning the entry of people from six Muslim-majority countries? This ban is a return to an ignoble past, recalling the dark days of the late nineteenth century, when for the first time the government excluded a specific ethnic group, the Chinese, from entering the country. That the Supreme Court has now allowed Trump’s ban to proceed, even if just in part, is ominous.
In fact, we were supposed to have moved beyond this type of immigration prejudice some time ago. For generations, American immigration policy had been based on a quota system that perpetuated racial and national-origin discrimination, a system that Lyndon Johnson called “un-American in the highest sense,” because it “violated the basic principle of American democracy—the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man.” Noting Johnson’s sexist language, we can still appreciate his point, a position that was inscribed in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. From that moment forward, we recognized that our past immigration practices of blanket discrimination on the basis of race or national origin were wrong, and so we changed the law. Since 1965, what mattered was not where you come from. What mattered was who you are.
Well, no longer. By exploiting a fear of refugees and capitalizing on a hatred of Muslims, our government, now abetted by our Supreme Court, has decided that grandmothers from Yemen are a national security threat. What madness.
Read the rest here.