This is who we are: A nation founded on racism

"Abolish ICE" protestors outside Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, New Jersey on November 27, 2020
"Abolish ICE" protestors demonstrate outside a Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility at Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, New Jersey on November 27, 2020 Photo: Shutterstock

While a young 18-year-old white man pulled the trigger in a Buffalo, New York grocery store, shooting 13 and killing 10, most of whom were black, the system of Christian white supremacy provided the bullets.

Since colonial days, racism has been a pervasive feature, the very foundation, of the United States of America, even though great strides have been made over the centuries to turn the tide.

Related: Christian Americans have a history of using the Bible to excuse the worst in humanity

We must not, therefore, dismiss the recent mass racist shootings and rallies in the United States — from Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston to the Walmart in El Paso, from the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg to the Pulse Bar in Orlando, from the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville to the Capitol insurrection, and so many more —  merely as acts by deranged individuals acting out their sickness, but, rather, understand these incidents as individuals acting out our country’s longstanding sickness of racism in a growing normalization of domestic terrorism.

Is this who we are as Americans? I argue that it is because of our history and our socialization.

Christian Colonialism

Nowhere in the world have we experienced a truly post-colonial society. Imperialism remains, though at times in less visible forms.

From a series of papal decrees beginning in the 1100s, began expressions of territorial sovereignty for Christian monarchs supported by the Catholic Church. These established what would come to be known as the “Doctrine of Discovery”: a spiritual, political, and legal justification for colonization and seizure of territories not already inhabited by Christians.

Pope Nicholas V issued his “Romanus Pontifex” in 1455 granting Portugal a monopoly trading status with Africa and authorizing the enslavement of indigenous populations.

And Pope Alexander VI issued “Inter Caetera” in 1493 to justify European explorers’ claims on land and waterways they “discovered,” and to promote Christian domination in Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Americas.

The United States justified its Monroe Doctrine in the 1880s by declaring dominion over the Western Hemisphere, and its claim of Manifest Destiny of westward expansionism to control all land from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

In 1823, in the Supreme Court case, Johnson v.M’Intosh, the Doctrine of Discovery became part of U.S. federal law used to dispossess Native peoples of their lands. In a unanimous decision, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands” and Native peoples certain rights of occupancy.

This edict gave license to the genocide of black, brown, Asian, and non-Christians across the world. It was the stimulus for Columbus’ travels and is based on patriarchal Christian white supremacy.

Racism as Official U.S. Immigration Policy

Beginning the first day Europeans stepped foot on what has come to be known as the Americas, decisions over who can enter the United States and who can eventually gain citizenship status have generally depended on issues of race. U.S. immigration systems have reflected and have served as this country’s official racial policies at any given point in time.

Europeans established domination based on a program of exploitation and genocide against native populations. For example, the Puritans left England to the Americas to practice a “purer” form of Protestant Christianity. They believed they were divinely chosen to form a biblical commonwealth with no separation between religion and government. They tolerated no other faiths or interpretations of divine precepts. In fact, they murdered and expelled Quakers, Catholics, and others.

The American colonies followed European perceptions of race. A 1705 Virginia statute, the Act Concerning Servants and Slaves, read, “[N]o negroes, mulattos or Indians, Jew, Moor, Mahometan [Muslims], or other infidels, or such as are declared slaves by this act, shall, notwithstanding, purchase any Christian (sic) white servant.”

In 1790, the newly constituted United States Congress passed the Naturalization Act, which excluded all nonwhites from citizenship, including Asians, enslaved Africans, and Native Americans, the latter of whom they defined in oxymoronic terms as “domestic foreigners,” even though they had inhabited this land for thousands of years. Congress did not grant Native Americans rights of citizenship until 1924 with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, though Asians continued to be denied naturalized citizenship status.

They employed scriptural justification to support the institution of slavery, for example:

Ephesians 6:5-6: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.”

And Luke 12:47: “That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows.”


Later, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate states asserted, “[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.”

Many slaving ships had on board a Christian minister to oversee and bless the passage. Slaving ships included the names: “Jesus,” “Grace of God,” “Angel,” “Liberty,” and “Justice.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), decided a case on U.S. labor and constitutional law. It judged that “a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves,” whether enslaved or free, could not be an American citizen and therefore, could not sue in federal court; and the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in federal territories acquired after the creation of the United States.

Dred Scott, an enslaved man of “the negro African race” had been taken by his slave masters to free states and territories. He tried to sue for his freedom. In a 7–2 decision written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the Supreme Court denied Scott’s request, and Scott remained enslaved.

The Irish and Asians

In reaction to increasing numbers of European immigrants into the country in the 1850s, a movement calling itself “The American Party” (also known as “The Know-Nothings”) formed to “purify” the country by limiting or ending Irish Catholic immigrants and others, and also ending the naturalization of those already here.

The American Party established itself as a Nativist anti-Irish Catholic movement by instigating fear among the larger population that the U.S. would soon be dominated by Irish and German Catholics unless their immigration was ended. The movement perpetuated the illusion that the Pope had been plotting to control and dominate the U.S. While a small movement in relative numbers, its primary supporters were European-heritage Protestant men.

In 1875, Congress passed the Page Law, which specifically reduced the immigration of women from Asia.

The editor of a newspaper in Butte, Montana wrote in 1870, “The Chinaman’s life is not our life, his religion is not our religion. His habits, superstitions, and modes of life are disgusting. He is a parasite, floating across the Pacific and thence penetrating into the interior towns and cities, there to settle down for a brief space and absorb the substance of those with whom he comes into competition. His one object is to make all the money and return again to his native land dead or alive….Let him go hence. He belongs not in Butte.”

The U.S. Congress passed the first law specifically restricting or excluding immigrants based on race and nationality in 1882. In their attempts to eliminate the entry of Chinese (and other Asian) workers who often competed for jobs with U.S. citizens, especially in the western United States, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to restrict their entry into the U.S. for a 10-year period, while denying citizenship to Chinese people already on these shores.

The Act also made it illegal for Chinese people to marry white or black Americans. The Immigration Act of 1917 further prohibited immigration from Asian countries, in the terms of the law, the “barred zone,” including parts of China, India, Siam, Burma, Asiatic Russia, the Polynesian Islands, and parts of Afghanistan.

The so-called “Gentleman’s Agreement” between the U.S. and the Emperor of Japan of 1907, to reduce tensions between the two countries, passed expressly to decrease immigration of Japanese workers into the U.S.

In the Supreme Court case, Takao Ozawa v. United States, a Japanese man, Takao Ozawa filed for citizenship under the Naturalization Act of 1906, which allowed white persons and persons of African descent or African nativity to achieve naturalization status.

Asians, however, were classified as an “unassimilable race” and, therefore, not entitled to U.S. citizenship. Ozawa attempted to have Japanese people classified as “white” since he claimed he had the requisite white skin. The Supreme Court, in 1922, however, denied his claim and, therefore, his U.S. citizenship.

Following U.S. entry into World War II at the end of 1942, reflecting the tenuous status of Japanese Americans, some born in the United States, military officials uprooted and transported approximately 110,000 Japanese Americans to Internment (Concentration) Camps within several interior states far from the shores. Not until Ronald Reagan’s administration did the U.S. officially apologize to Japanese Americans and pay reparations amounting to $20,000 to each survivor as part of the 1988 Civil Liberties Act.

Though the Magnuson Act of 1943 gave Chinese immigrants a path toward citizenship and the right to vote, until 1952, federal policy disqualified immigrants from most other Asian countries citizenship status and voting rights.

Eugenics and Scientific Justification

In 1883, Sir Francis Galton of England, a cousin of Charles Darwin, coined the term “eugenics,” from Greek meaning “well born,” “of good origins and breeding.” He established a new branch of science to “improve” the qualities of a race by controlled human breeding.

Harry Hamilton Laughlin became superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office from 1910 until 1939. He advocated for mandatory sterilization of “the unfit,” and he crafted his “model sterilization law” for the “uprooting of inborn defectiveness.” His law included involuntary sterilization for “the feeble-minded, the insane, criminals, epileptics, alcoholics, blind personal, deaf persons, deformed persons, and indigent persons.” Most U.S. states passed sterilization laws, and as late as 1992, 22 states still had these on their books.

Between 1880 and 1920, between 30-40 million immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe migrated to the United States, more than doubling the population.

Madison Grant, a U.S. eugenicist, co-founded the Galton Society for Study of Origin and Evolution of Man. He wrote The Passing of the Great Race in 1916, detailing the so-called racial history of Europe (a work that has come to be considered as a treatise of scientific racism, but one that had a great influence on restrictions in U.S. immigration policies. Great divided European “races” into four distinct and separate categories in his racial hierarchy.

On top as the superior of all the races, he placed the “Nordics” of Northwestern Europe: the natural rulers and administrators, which accounted for England’s “extraordinary ability to govern justly and firmly the lower races.”  Next down the hierarchy, he placed the “Alpines” of Central Europe who were somewhat inferior: “…always and everywhere a race of peasants” with a tendency toward “democracy” although submissive to authority.

Then came the “Mediterraneans” of Southern and Eastern Europe who Grant claimed were inferior to both the Nordics and the Alpines in “bodily stamina,” but superior in “the field of art.” They were also superior to the Alpines in “intellectual attainments,” but far behind the Nordics “in literature and in scientific research and discovery.” On the very bottom as the most inferior of all were “the Jews” from anywhere. According to Grant: “…the Polish Jew, whose dwarf stature, peculiar mentality and ruthless concentration on self-interest,” present themselves in “swarms.”

“The result of the mixture of two races, in the long run, gives us a race reverting to the more ancient generalization and lower type. The cross between a white man and an Indian is an Indian, the cross between a white man and a Negro is a Negro, the cross between a white man and a Hindu is a Hindu, and the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew.”

Former President Theodore Roosevelt said of Grant’s book: “The book is a capital book; in purpose, in vision, in the grasp of the facts our people need to know. It shows an extradentary wide range of reading and a wide scholarship. It is the work of an American scholar and gentleman; and all Americans should be sincerely grateful to you for writing it.”

Grant’s book was translated into German and provided added justification to Adolph Hitler in the writing of Mein Kampf. Hitler wrote to Grant and referred to Grant’s book as his Bible. The book not only influenced Hitler but impacted U.S. immigration legislation in 1924.

You Are (Not) Welcome

Fearing a continued influx of immigrants, legislators enacted the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act (“Origins Quota Act,” or “National Origins Act”) setting restrictive quotas for immigrants from Asia, and Eastern and Southern Europe, including those of the so-called “Hebrew race” (the law placed restrictive quotes on Jews, Poles, Italians, Greeks, and Slaves (the acronym (J-PIGS). The law, however, increased immigration from Great Britain and Germany.

Jews continued to be, even in the United States during the 1920s, constructed as nonwhite. It is interesting to note that during this time, Jewish ethno-racial assignment was constructed as “Asian.” According to Sander Gilman (1991): “Jews were called Asiatic and Mongoloid, as well as primitive, tribal, Oriental.” Immigration laws were changed in 1924 in response to the influx of these undesirable “Asiatic elements.”

The National Origins Act of 1924 established quota percentages based on the census population in 1890. The number of immigrants to be admitted annually was limited to 2% of the foreign-born individuals of each nationality living in the U.S. in 1890. This severely restricted immigration rights almost exclusively to northwestern Europeans in order to “protect our values … [as] a Western Christian civilization.”

It functioned to prevent Catholics, Jews, and other non-Protestant groups from immigrating to the United States.

President Herbert Hoover at the end of the 1920s promised to cut immigration from Mexico by 90%, what became known as the “Mexican Repatriation” efforts of the late 1920s and early 1930s. He authorized a wave of illegal and unconstitutional raids and deportation of as many as 1.8 million Mexicans.

With the imminent outbreak of war on the European continent, by 1939 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 quota 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.

Though the bill was roundly supported by religious and labor organizations, conservative and isolationist groups mounted wide-scale campaigns to prevent its passage.

Public opinion polls (Wagner-Rogers Act) at the time showed that 83% 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 Congress, and it died, like the children it could have saved.

Also in 1939, 937 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 St. Louis entered Cuban waters.

Faced with this unforeseen development, the ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, turned St. Louis toward the Florida coast of the United States in hopes that U.S. government officials would allow passengers entry on refugee status by processing their visa applications. Unfortunately, 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 several 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.

Indigenous People and Latin America

Central to the European-American conquest of territory was the concept of Manifest Destiny: Providence destined U.S. expansion from the Atlantic to the Pacific (“from sea to shining sea”) by the “Anglo-Saxon race.” This was the justification for the theft of Indigenous people’s territories and a war with Mexico.

To “civilize” Native peoples and make them “productive” members of European-American society, between 1879 and 1905, white Christian teachers operated 25 Indian boarding schools for the U.S. government throughout the U.S. This system was organized by Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt, who founded and personally supervised the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.

As Pratt related to a Baptist audience regarding his theory of education: “[We must immerse] Indians in our civilization, and when we get them under, [hold] them there until they are thoroughly soaked.” And, “We must kill the Indian in him to save the man.”

Pratt and the white teachers stripped Indian children of their cultures: they cut males’ hair short, forced them to wear Western-style clothing and to take a Western name, prohibited students from conversing in their native languages, confiscated and destroyed all their cultural and spiritual symbols, and they imposed the adoption of Christianity. For disobeying, children were often whipped with a leather strap, and/or isolated from their peers.

In the summer of 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower approved a policy directive for the immigration service to enforce a campaign of mass deportation of approximately 1.1 million Mexican nationals.

Finally, in 1952, the McCarran-Walters Act overturned the discriminatory quotas of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act. It passed despite President Truman’s veto. Framed as an amendment to the McCarran-Walters Act, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed “natural origins” as the basis of U.S. immigration legislation.

The 1965 law increased immigration from Asian and Latin American countries and religious backgrounds, permitted 170,000 immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere (20,000 per each country), 120,000 from the Western Hemisphere, and accepted a total of 300,000 visas for entry into the country.

Beyond Immigration

The 1965 Immigration Law, however, was certainly not the last we saw race used as a qualifying factor.

Prior to 1967, several states within the U.S. prevented consenting adults from engaging in sexual activities, let alone marriage, with anyone from another race. One could argue that these laws treated everyone equally: White adults could have consensual sex with and marry other White people, but they could not have sex with or marry people of any other so-called race. Black adults could have consensual sex with and marry other Black people, but they could not have sex with or marry people of any other race, and so on.

In the case of Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court disagreed, ruling against equality and in favor of equity. They declared the state of Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, unconstitutional, thereby ending all race-based legal restrictions on adult consensual sexual activity and marriage.

The plaintiffs in the case were Mildred Loving (born Mildred Deloris Jetter, a woman of African descent) and Richard Perry Loving (a man of White European descent), both residents of Virginia who married in June 1958 in the District of Columbia to evade Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act.

After two of President Trump’s travel bans from majority Muslim countries were struck down in the courts, the Supreme Court approved his travel ban from five majority Muslim countries, plus North Korea and senior government officials from Venezuela. In Trump, President of the United States, et al. v. Hawaii, et al., by a narrow 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that “The [Trump] Proclamation is squarely within the scope of Presidential authority,” on national security grounds.

In a blistering dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, “The majority here completely sets aside the President’s charged statements about Muslims as irrelevant. That holding erodes the foundational principles of religious tolerance that the court elsewhere has so emphatically protected, and it tells members of minority religions in our country ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community’.”

In an Oval Office meeting, Trump became frustrated with legislators when they proposed restoring protections for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries as part of a bipartisan immigration plan. “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump said, referring to African countries and Haiti. He then suggested that the United States should instead bring more people from countries like Norway.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted scripture to justify the Trump administration’s choice to follow a government policy (not law) – never-before enacted – to physically separate thousands of children of undocumented migrants seeking sanctuary as they flee oppression in their native countries into detention centers.

Romans 13: “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent and fair application of the law is in itself a good and moral thing, and that protects the weak and protects the lawful.”

Ruthless Americanization

Immigrants who enter the United States are pressured to assimilate into a monocultural Anglo-centric culture and to give up their native cultural identities. Referring to the newcomers at the beginning of the 20th century, one New York City teacher remarked: “[They] must be made to realize that in forsaking the land of their birth, they were also forsaking the customs and traditions of that land.”

An assimilationist movement was in full force with the concept of the so-called “melting pot” in which everyone was expected to conform to an Anglo-centric cultural standard with obliteration of other cultural identities. President Theodore Roosevelt was an outspoken proponent of this concept.

“If the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself (sic) to us he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else,” he said. “But this [equality] is predicated on the man’s (sic) becoming in very fact an American and nothing but an American. There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American but something else also isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language, for we want to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.”

Many members of immigrant groups oppose assimilation and embrace the concept of pluralism: the philosophy whereby one adheres to a prevailing monocultural norm in public while recognizing, retaining, and celebrating one’s distinctive and unique cultural traditions and practices in the private realm.

The Jewish immigrant and sociologist of Polish and Latvian heritage, Horace Kallen (1915), coined the term “cultural pluralism” to challenge the image of the so-called “melting pot,” which he considered inherently undemocratic. Kallen envisioned a great symphony orchestra, not sounding in unison, but rather, one in which all the disparate cultures play in harmony and retain their unique and distinctive tones and timbres.

Social theorist Gunnar Myrdal traveled throughout the United States during the late 1940s examining U.S. society following World War II, and he discovered a grave contradiction which he termed “an American dilemma.” He found a country founded on an overriding commitment to democracy, freedom, and human dignity, coexisting alongside deep-seated patterns of racial discrimination.

Amnesty International describes racial profiling as “when race is used by law enforcement or private security officials, to any degree, as a basis for criminal suspicion in non-suspect specific investigations.” Racial profiling constitutes a form of discrimination and “undermines the basic human rights and freedoms to which every person is entitled.”

If we learn anything from our immigration legislative history, we can view the current debates as providing a great opportunity to pass comprehensive federal reform based not on race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, or other social identity categories, but rather, on humane principles of fairness, compassion, and equity.

Today, the United States stands as the most culturally and religiously diverse country in the world. This diversity poses great challenges and great opportunities. The way we meet these challenges will determine whether we remain in the abyss of our history or whether we can truly achieve our promise of becoming a shining beacon to the world.

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