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Posts from July 2019

The Color of American Citizenship and What Our Founders Had In Mind

Nancy Pelosi hit the news last week when she criticized Donald Trump’s now-abandoned proposal for a Census citizenship question, and when she described it as motivated by racial resentment:

Pelosi Says Trump Seeks to Make America White Again in Census

By Steven T. Dennis
July 8, 2019, 2:15 PM CDT Updated on July 8, 2019, 4:42 PM CDT

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused President Donald Trump’s administration Monday of wanting to make America white again with its plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

You know his hat? Make America white again. They want to make sure that people, certain people, are counted, Pelosi said at a press conference on election security. It’s really disgraceful and it’s not what our founders had in mind.

–Steven T. Dennis, Pelosi Says Trump Seeks to Make America White Again in Census
Bloomberg, 8 Quintilis 2019.

It’s not unusual for me to disagree with Nancy Pelosi about politically salient topics. But let me mention a few things that I certainly agree with her about:

  1. A lot of Trump’s political proposals coming are, obviously, fundamentally antagonistic to free immigration, hostile to immigrants as people, and harmful to immigrants and their families.

  2. This proposal for a citizenship question is pretty surely an example of that.[1]

  3. A lot of Trump’s anti-immigrant politics are driven by — or sold on the basis of — white racial resentment, and by more or less explicit anxiety about non-white immigrants and large-scale trends in race and demographics. The citizenship question is probably an example of that, too.

  4. That (#1, #2, and #3) really is disgraceful.

What I have to disagree with, here, is that bit at the end. The bit about what our founders had in mind. It’s really not that different from what they had in mind at all. It would have been nice, and it would have been better for America and the entire world if the Founders had something very different in mind from immigration policies crafted to Make America White. It would have been nice, but it isn’t so, and Patriotically Correct aspirational history can’t make it so.

Here’s what the Founders had in mind: in 1790, when Congress passed the first Naturalization Act for the newly-constituted United States, the language of that act directly stated that immigrants had to be white to become part of the citizenry of America: being a free white person was an explicit prerequisite for naturalization. Here’s where the Founders wrote down what they had, explicitly, in mind:

Section 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That any alien, being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof, on application to any common law court of record, in any one of the states wherein he shall have resided for the term of one year at least, and making proof to the satisfaction of such court, that he is a person of good character, and taking the oath or affirmation prescribed by law, to support the constitution of the United States, which oath or affirmation such court shall administer; . . .

— An Act to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization (March 26, 1790)
United States Statutes at Large, First Congress, Second Session, 103ff. (Source: Legally White: Naturalization Act of 1790)

Every amendment to the Naturalization Act passed from 1790 up until 1952 repeated the free white person prerequisite formula, or a close variation on it.[2]

The Founders’ generation wrote the prerequisite of being white, quote unquote, over and over again, into constitutions and laws specifying the rights and obligations of citizenship more broadly, at the federal level and at the state level. Skin color prerequisites, nearly identical to the federal prerequisite, were written even more pervasively into the state constitutions and legal codes of antebellum Southern states. For example, in Alabama, the same formulas made white skin color an explicit prerequisite for the franchise and for political office. At the federal level, to take another example, in 1792 Congress said that the color of your skin (as well as your gender and citizenship) mattered to your eligibility, and obligation, to serve in the militia:

Section 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That each and every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective states, resident therein, who is or shall be of the age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years (except as is herein after excepted) shall severally and respectively be enrolled in the militia by the captain or commanding officer of the company, within whose bounds such citizen shall reside, and that within twelve months after the passing of this act.

— An Act more effectually to provide for the National Defence by establishing an Uniform Militia throughout the United States (May 8, 1792)
United States Statutes at Large, First Congress, Second Session, 271-274. (Source: Legally White: Uniform Militia Act of 1792).

There is no question that the Founders conceived of the United States government, and framed it explicitly, as a racial state, and that whiteness was an explicit condition on citizenship and political participation. I don’t mean that a tacit desire to Make America White shows up if you read between the lines of political rhetoric in a slaveholding Republic; I mean that they wrote down the words white person in laws as a prerequisite. It directly shaped their conception of citizenship; it was explicitly part of their immigration and naturalization policy. If you weren’t a white person, you couldn’t become an American citizen.[3] That shouldn’t be very surprising: our Founders founded the United States as a slaveholding nation. Of course what they had in mind closely linked whiteness with immigration and citizenship. What else would you think they had in mind?

I hope it should go without saying that this is not any kind of argument in favor of racially discriminatory immigration politics, or whites-only naturalization laws, or the desire to whiten or re-whiten the American citizenry. The fact that the United States has a long tradition — going back to the Founders themselves — of racially discriminatory immigration and citizenship laws isn’t any reason to think kindly of the traditional, white supremacist approach. It’s a reason to think worse of the United States government, to be much more skeptical of traditional American patriotism and veneration or invocation of our Founders, and to put a lot less political weight on what our founders had in mind. Those fellows had some good ideas. They also had some really awful ideas. When it comes to questions of race, or to questions about whiteness and immigration specifically, the bad ideas were pretty prominent. Whatever deeper values Nancy Pelosi might find implicit in the best versions of the Founders’ very best intentions — and however much she might think or hope that the old racial prerequisite law was an aberration or an inconsistency — there is just no way that you can reasonably pretend that Make America White Again is something different from what they had in mind when they came together in Congress assembled and wrote laws like the Naturalization Act of 1790. Trump’s race-baiting immigration politics are certainly disgraceful. But then, so were theirs. You shouldn’t try to make your political points against the one with this kind of whitewashing of the other, or by substituting this sort of aspirational liberal self-identity in place of the much messier historical fact.

See also.

  1. [1]In that it seems to be mostly motivated by a political agenda to gather information that would be useful for anti-immigrant politics and for concrete policies to politically disadvantage communities with large immigrant populations (for example, by encouraging Republican-dominated state governments to use the information for apportionment and redistricting of legislative seats). In the current political climate, the question would be intimidating or actually dangerous to immigrants who are asked to fill out Census forms — and especially to undocumented immigrants. The possibility of real danger is an outside chance, but not a wild speculation. It’s not necessarily a very auspicious sign when the United States government becomes really interested in finding and counting politically controversial populations. And that information was turned over, at least once in American history, to other branches of the government, who used it to find targeted people and imprison them. The Census Bureau says that there are legal protections in place that prevent them from turning over the information to other branches of the government. But there were supposed to be legal protections in place in 1940, too. The legal protections were repealed in the midst of the war crisis. Maybe the government won’t ever do it again. But there is not much reason to be very certain about that.
  2. [2]In 1870, in the wake of the Civil War and Emancipation, Congress began to add other categories of race, color and nationality to make other, non-white groups eligible for naturalization, beginning with aliens of African nativity and … persons of African descent in 1870. But for the next 80 years they continued to use the racial prerequisite as a means to exclude any non-white immigrants who didn’t fall into one of the favored groups. From 1870 to 1924, they allowed them to immigrate but excluded them from citizenship; after 1924, they excluded them from immigrating at all, as aliens ineligible to citizenship. Throughout those eight decades, a series of prerequisite cases in the federal courts — beginning with In Re Ah Yup — repeatedly affirmed that being white or non-white absolutely did matter to a person’s eligibility for American citizenship. The difficult issue that they litigated over and over again was the uncertain or porous legal and social boundaries of who counted as white, or at least as white enough for government work. For example, Chinese and Japanese immigrants did not; Mexican immigrants did. For many immigrant groups, including Arabs and South Asians, different courts made numerous, sometimes inconsistent rulings. A good, standard reference on this series of cases is Ian F. Haney-Lopez’s White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race.
  3. [3]A standard historical shit’s complicated caveat: the Naturalization Act of 1790, and all the later amended acts that kept the free white person formula intact, were laws that governed naturalization, that is, citizenship; they were not — at the time — laws that restricted immigration. Until 1875, the U.S. had no federal laws that restricted free immigration to the United States or prevented aliens from residing in the country. Until 1924, the U.S. had no laws preventing aliens ineligible to citizenship from immigrating to or living in the country. So in the Founders’ day, there were plenty of non-white immigrants who could legally move to and live in the U.S., but who could never become U.S. citizens. That said, there’s percious little evidence that any of the Founders thought it was particularly desirable for lots of free but non-white immigrants to come to the U.S. It’s just that the use of large-scale, systematic immigration controls as a means of excluding supposedly undesirable immigrants are really the product of much later generations, and of a much more expansive and centralized national government.
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