Ethnocentrism continues to rear its head within the United State through anti-immigrant sentiments by political leaders exerting nativist and nationalist warnings.
In the year 1939, for example, just before the breakout of war in Europe and prior to the U.S.’s entry, for some refugees, primarily those within Europe’s Jewish communities, the door slammed tightly shut.
During that year, two legislators in the U.S. Congress, Senator Robert F. Wagner (D-NY) and Representative Edith Rogers (R-MA) proposed an emergency bill, which, if passed, would have increased the immigration quoted by allowing an additional 20,000 Jewish children under the age of 14 (10,000 in 1939, and another 10,000 in 1940) from Nazi Germany to come to the United States.
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Though the bill was roundly supported by religious and labor organizations, nativist and isolationist groups mounted wide-scale campaigns to prevent its passage. Public opinion polls at the time showed that the overwhelming majority of U.S. residents opposed any increases in immigration. Though First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, implored her husband to advance the bill, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt failed to publicly support it.
In fact, Laura Delano Houghteling, the president’s cousin and wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration, sternly warned: “20,000 charming children would all too soon, grow into 20,000 ugly adults.” The bill never came up for a full vote in the Congress, and it died, like the children it could have saved.
Also in 1939, on May 13, Germans and other citizens from Eastern European nations, mostly all Jews fleeing Nazis brutality, booked passage on the German transatlantic ocean liner, St. Louis, from the port of Hamburg bound for Havana, Cuba. Most passengers had applied for U.S. visas, and they planned to wait in Cuba on their previously-approved landing permits and temporary transit visas until U.S. officials accepted them into the U.S.
Even before embarking from Germany, the passengers became the source of bitter political cross-partisan rivalries in Cuba as several conservative politicians and newspapers demanded the immediate cessation of its policy of admitting Jewish refugees on its land. The Cuban government, therefore, reneged on its offer to honor the passengers’ landing permits when the St. Louis entered Cuban waters.
Faced with this unforeseen development, the ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, turned the St. Louis toward the Florida coast of the United States in hopes that U.S. government officials would allow passengers entry with refugee status by processing their visa applications.
Unfortunately, though, the political wars transpiring in Cuba on the plight of Jewish refugees were even more intense in the United States. Within the United States, President Roosevelt succumbed to conservative political pressure by following his immigration officials’ decision to deny safe-haven to the ship’s passengers.
The captain had no other choice than to turn his ship around back toward Europe. On route, knowing that returning to Germany meant certain death for his passengers, he negotiated with a few governments, whereby Great Britain allowed entry of 288, the Netherlands admitted 181, Belgium took 214, and France took 224. By the end of the war, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that all but one in Great Britain survived, approximately half of the remainder on the continent, 278, survived the Holocaust, and 254 died: 84 who had been in Belgium; 84 in Holland, and 86 who had been admitted to France.
A January 1939 survey conducted by the American Institute of Public Opinion and the Gallop Organization (Gallop, 1939) asked residents: “It has been proposed to bring to this country 10,000 refugee children from Germany – most of them Jewish – to be taken care of in American homes. Should the government permit these children to come in?” The results: 30% yes, 61% no, 9% no opinion.
White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility.
White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.
Robin DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” referring to how white people are reluctant to discuss racism. When the issue is raised, white people often become angry and defensive, or shut down and silent. This can as well relate to people of any dominant groups when raising issues of that dominant group’s unearned privileges.
When I raise issues of race in my university courses, often my white students either tell me in my office or write in their papers that they feel uncomfortable discussing the subject because they don’t want to say anything that might offend someone, and they don’t want anyone to tell them that they are racist. The topic of race itself makes them feel guilty and shameful for being white.
I bring into the discussion the negative consequences of sweeping the mess under the rug, that democracy is messy, and if we are going to move out of the morass of the legacy of racism in our nation, we must cease the sweeping and truly begin the cleansing of this legacy, which hurts us all of all racial backgrounds.
Jay-Z on Letterman
Jay-Z makes an insightful point when he told David Letterman that the election of Donald Trump – while seemingly disastrous for many people – is a “great thing” in the sense that Trump is “bringing out an ugly side of America that we wanted to believe was gone.”
Jay-Z’s statement connects directly with my notion that by ceasing to sweep the mess of racism under the proverbial rug, we can work on it and possibly develop a sort of resolution and a larger movement for progressive social change.
As hurtful as it is, when Trump refers to Mexicans as drug dealers and rapists, when he called an Indiana judge unfit to rule on cases affecting him because of the judge’s Mexican heritage, when he demeans members of the Black Lives Matters movement, when he calls for bans against Muslims entering our country, when he calls Haiti, El Salvador, and the entire continent of Africa “shithole countries,” when he says that some neo-Nazis and white supremacists are good guys too, Trump, by placing racism front and center in his way, has given us an opportunity to talk about race frankly in the hope of cleansing it.
I like to use preeminent scholar, Sonia Nieto’s, image of the great tapestry in representing our great multicultural society. From the back, all we can see is a giant jumble of threads and knots scattered haphazardly with no apparent order. But from the front – after the process of a mindful and consistent piecing together – we will one day have a beautiful and elegant piece of art.
Andrew Dunn, a viewer of my appearance on Fox to discuss Christian privilige, wrote to ask me what is the “end state” of exposing all the forms of dominant group privilege. I responded:
The “end state” for me, and I can only speak for myself, is to aid dominant group members in traveling through a developmental process: from DENIAL-RESISTANCE-RESENTMENT of the concept of dominant group privilege, to AWARENESS of their (our) dominant group privilege, to ACCEPTANCE of the fact that they (we) have dominant group privilege, to ACTION in working to share this privilege with those who do not have it on the basis their minoritized identity statuses.
This is an issue of power and control. I work to change the current system in which dominant groups attempt to exert POWER OVER others within a hierarchy of systemic power differentials to a system whereby people share power, a system of POWER WITH.
One in which the cycle of social oppressions (racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, adultism, ageism, cissexism, religious oppression, ethnocentrism, classism, lookism, xenophobia, etc.) are reduced and greater degrees of equality, liberty, and freedom among people of all social identities are ensured and maintained. I hold out the possibility that this is more than simply a pipe dream.
But as Norman Darish wrote me: “I consider myself open minded. Have reached the conclusion that we as a species are not ready or equipped to deal with others in a non-hierarchy-authority structure in the present….this will occur in our far distant future… If we survive as a species.”