"But this is America–this is not who we are." (Spoiler Alert: It’s exactly who we are)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in the past week, you’ve probably seen news stories and Twitter feeds about migrant Central American children coming into the United States with their parents to escape any numbers of dangerous situations seeking asylum, only to be separated–the parents sent to one place, arrested, deported; the children sent to detention centers and not let go to be with their parents.

I’ve been seeing a lot of “This is wrong, this is immoral”–which it is–but I’m seeing a lot of “This is un-American.” Now what exactly does that mean? “This is un-American. This is not who we are as a nation.”

I feel like that’s either a call to American exceptionalism, an overly optimistic view of the American government and nation, or a lack of knowledge of our history.

I didn’t put this list together to diminish anything that’s going on today, because yes, I see some unsettling echoes of bad eras of history going on. But honestly, y’all–the United States has done some shitty shit to people in the past and it’s doing shitty things to people now. I personally don’t know people who approve or want any of this crap to be taking place, but they are. These sorts of things are not new and we need to reckon with the past and solve the present so our future can be full of less crap.

Also, this list is not comprehensive because that would take too long.

When you don’t know history, you are bound to repeat it. When you don’t know history, you are bound to let your government repeat it.

(And yes, I know, the American people and the American government are not the same entity. But since the government does things “in the interests of American citizens,” there you go. This has been our country. This is our country.)

How do we get those kids out of cages and reunited with their parents? How do we grant asylum to people fleeing unstable countries? How do we improve our immigration laws?

1. Slavery

Slaves on a plantation in Beaufort, South Carolina

As we know, the United States was founded with slavery imbedded in the Constitution–slaves were to be counted, for population and representative purposes, as 3/5s of a person. The history of Africans  being captured by or sold to slave traders, trapped on ships, and sent across the Middle Passage to the Western Hemisphere pre-dates the founding of the country, it’s true, but the fact that it continued on for “four score and seven years” is entirely the fault of this country.

The Atlantic slave trade into the U.S. stopped in 1808, but that did not stop the inter-country slave trade. Children were sold away from their parents, parents were sold away from their children. They could not make familiy decisions, had no power over their whereabouts or working conditions, couldn’t be educated. Slavery only ended with the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Following slavery there was Jim Crow, which outlawed many of the gains African-Americans made in the decade or so following the Civil War.


2. The Mexican-American War

In 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico because the U.S. wanted Mexico’s North American territories. Also, white settlers had started settling in places like Texas, breaking Mexican laws on slavery and Catholicism in the process. So there was a war. The United States won. It “purchased” California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, parts of Wyoming, and Texas from Mexico. The Mexicans living in those territories were supposed to be allowed to stay and retain their culture and they were supposed to be able to keep their homesteads. They were supposed to be able to become American citizens.

Congress didn’t pass an article, which was supposed to protect lands held by Mexicans living in newly-acquired American territory, and so Mexican landholders had to prove that they owned their lands in English-speaking courts, when many of them had been on those lands for generations.

3. Indian residential schools

Carlisle Industrial Indian School, circa 1900

In the 19th and 20th centuries, in an effort to “civilize” the Native American population, Christian missionaries began establishing schools on reservations. And while education is good, forcing families to send their children to missionary schools to be indoctrinated is not good. Then a former US Army veteran Richard Henry Pratt established the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Other boarding schools soon followed Carlisle’s model. Pratt’s motto was “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”

Native children were educated in militaristic environments which forced them to lose their languages, cultures, and to assimilate to white Christian American culture. The boarding schools were often overcrowded. Abuse was rife. Many Native children died from disease at boarding school.

It wasn’t until 1978 that Native American parents gained the right to deny their children’s placement in off-reservation schools.

Northern Plains Reservation Aid
National Museum of the American Indian

4. The Chinese Exclusion Act

From The Huffington Post, courtesy of the Royal BC Museum

This act was signed into law in 1882, prohibiting all Chinese laborers from entering the United States. It was first law passed that banned a specific ethnic group from entering the country. Chinese who were not laborers but wanted to enter still could, technically, but found it difficult to do so.

There were already Chinese laborers–mostly single men–in the country, particularly California by 1882. Under the act, they couldn’t become U.S. citizens and they couldn’t bring their families into the country.

The Act was renewed in 1892 and again in 1902. Ten thousand resident Chinese appealed against the act, using the power of the courts to fight. When the law stated that resident Chinese had to obtain a certificate of residency or be deported, many refused to get the papers, finding it discriminatory. Chinese immigrants were smuggled into the country.

The Immigration Act of 1924 restricted Chinese immigration ever further and restricted the immigration of all Asians and set quotas on southern and eastern Europeans as well.

The Chinese Exclusion Act wasn’t repealed until 1943, when China became an ally of the U.S. against Japan in WWII.

How the Chinese Exclusion Act Can Help Us Understand Immigration Today
The Chinese Exclusion Act documentary on PBS

5. Japanese internment

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, authorizing the forced removal and relocation of Americans of Japanese descent from “military zones”–effectively, the entire West Coast.

110, 000 to 120,000 Japanese were forced to leave their homes, businesses, and schools and moved to internment camps in the interior states. Some German- and Italian-Americans were also sent to camps during the war, but not in the numbers that Japanese-Americans were. And yes, the majority of the Japanese sent to camp were American citizens. People who were only 1/16th Japanese were sent to camp.

Some Japanese college students were accepted into colleges on the East Coast and were allowed to leave the camps to attend. Others enlisted in the military, fighting in the 442nd regiment in Europe. In 1943, before the military accepted any Japanese-American, a questionnaire was circulated in the camps–it was a loyalty questionnaire and eventually, all adults had to answer it. But the wording was circuitous and tricky.

In 1944, the US government passed the Renunciation Act–the Act made it possible for Japanese-Americans to renounce their American citizenship. A few thousand did, worried about what the future held in a country that penned them into camps, and some of them were repatriated back to Japan. Other renounced out of anger; others renounced because their English wasn’t quite good enough to understand.

Japanese Internment Camps

For further reading of the trials and tribulations of American immigration law, go here.

7 thoughts on “"But this is America–this is not who we are." (Spoiler Alert: It’s exactly who we are)

  1. This is exactly why we need education reform in this country. I didn’t realize how recent some of this stuff was. It’s disgusting. And hypocritical. Blind patriotism is dangerous. Our country needs to do better. Thinking that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate what we have. It means we care. People who think this country is perfect don’t try to change it for the better. They let crap happen, over and over again.


  2. 100% agree with you.So, even though I'm half Japanese, I didn't know about internment camps until middle school–my family didn't immigrate until the 1970s–and though I've read novels and watched docs on the subject, I usually end up crying. I learned about the Indian residential and white people moving in on Mexican land around middle school as well–from historical YA novels. Not in school.


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