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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.

No Decency

Donald John Trump, 45th and current president of the United States of America, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, speaking to the press:

Q. Does the photo of the drowned immigrants[1] cause you to rethink any of your policies?

[Donald John Trump]: Well, that’s like I’ve been saying. If they fixed the laws, you wouldn’t have that. People are coming up; they’re running through the Rio Grande. It’s a rough — it can be a very rough river of sorts. I mean, there are times when going across the Rio Grande is very, very dangerous, depending on the time of year and the conditions and the rapidity of the water. And we know that.

And we have many, many guards there, but people go through the guards. If we had the right laws that the Democrats are not letting us have, those people, they wouldn’t be coming up. They wouldn’t be trying.

We’re building the wall. It’s under construction. It’s — a lot of it is under construction. We’ll have over 400 miles next year, by the end of the year.

But it’s very important. They can change it very easily so people don’t come up. And people won’t get killed. Women are being raped on the journey up. You have these caravans. Women are being raped. And one of the terrible things: Children are actually being brought into slavedom [sic]. If you look at what’s happening — the cartels and the coyotes, they’re getting rich because the Democrats refuse to change the loopholes. They refuse to change the asylum. In one hour, we could have it done.

They want to have open borders, and open borders mean crime. And open borders mean people drowning in the rivers. And it’s a very dangerous thing.

— Remarks by President Trump Before Marine One Departure (2019/06/26, 1:30 PM)

On the face of it, this is one of the most lunatic statements, one of the most wildly inhuman political responses, and one the most obscene instances of talking with a corpse in your mouth that I have seen to date from a man and a governmental administration that have spent their time in the White House doing little other than cranking a built-to-purpose outrageous political palaver garbage machine generator.

Perhaps it does not need saying that open borders mean precisely that no little girl ever dies drowning in a river again. Because open borders mean that people could and obviously would cross over rivers openly, on bridges or ferries, in cars or boats or machines flying safely through the air. Open borders means breezing past long-abandoned checkpoints without fear of criminalization, arrest, internment or deportation. Blaming the deaths of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, and his daughter Valeria, on open borders is like blaming the Tiananmen Square Massacre on freedom of assembly — it is insane, because if you had the latter there wouldn’t be any particular reason for the former; and it is obscene, because it is blaming the victim for a situation that is entirely and only created by Power’s choice to keep on relentlessly pursuing repressive force. Open borders mean safe and open crossings; they don’t mean drowning, any more than an open swimming pool does.

Perhaps it does not need saying that it is precisely the relentless, maniacal insistence on walling off frontiers and choking off border-crossing that sends families out into the most dangerous, most inaccessible places in order to try with cartels, coyotes, smugglers and the roughest passages that remain. The great crime and the great shame of the Democratic Party is that they have never once called for open borders, and when in control of the presidency they have — over and over again — played the leading role in building up the machinery of overregulated immigration, paramilitary border policing, closed crossings and mass deportation that we unhappily live with — or die at the hands of — today. Democrats don’t want to have open borders. I desperately wish they did. I desperately wish they ever had done even one little thing to move in that direction. But they haven’t, and they don’t, and they probably never will. So much the shame of Democrats.

Bordercrats know this, of course — they know that if borders actually were open, then people would cross safely, openly and frequently. They know that if borders actually were open, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, Tania Vanessa Ávalos, and their daughter Valeria would be safe in Texas today, starting out in a new town and looking for work. It is precisely for that reason that they politically oppose open borders — because they don’t want that many people crossing the border, or they don’t want those specific people crossing the border, or they don’t want some of the people who would cross the border, if the Ramirezes could cross the border, to cross it. That’s precisely what it means to close or control the border; there is no third alternative. You might openly embrace the misery, suffering and death that results. Or you might acknowledge it, regretfully, as the necessary human cost of your political policy, and of its rigorous enforcement. Perhaps there is a sense in which the desire to shift the blame instead of doing either represents a certain sort of vestigial, suffering sense of decency that even Mr. Trump, at long last, still has left. Perhaps there is a sense. But if so, it doesn’t matter very much.

See also.

  1. [1]Their names were Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, and his daughter Valeria. They came from El Salvador. He was 25. She was a little girl, only 1 year, 11 months old. She died trying to reach her father again. He died trying to save his daughter’s life. They are survived by Tania Vanessa Ávalos, Óscar’s wife and the little girl’s mother.

Market-Women and the Revolutionary Market-Place (Gold Coast/Ghana, 1947-1948)

From C.L.R. James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (1977/1982):

Chapter 3. The People in 1947.

. . . There was yet another social feature of Gold Coast life, which was specifically African and was to prove of enormous importance to the revolution. For the great mass of the common people the centre of African life has always been the market. The Ewe week consisted of four days, the day before market day, market day, the day after market day, and stay at home day. The traders for generations have been the women (Nkrumah’s mother was a petty trader), and this function has been maintained and developed until today a large proportion of the retail distribution of goods, and the main channel through which the distribution of commodities flows from the big wholesale importers to the private home is the market, in small villages as well as in the big towns such as Accra and Kumasi. Thus in Accra there are thousands of women in action in the market, meeting tens of thousands of their fellow citizens every day. European visitors and officials up to 1947 saw in these markets a primitive and quaint survival in the modern towns. In reality here was, ready formed, a social organisation of immense power, radiating from the centre into every corner and room of the town. [p. 56] Instead of being confined to cooking and washing for their husbands, the market-women met every day, dealing with the European and Syrian traders on the one hand and their masses of fellow citizens on the other. The market was a great centre of gossip, of news and of discussion. Where in many undeveloped communities the women are a drag upon their men-folk, these women, although to a large extent illiterate, were a dynamic element in the population, active, well-informed, acute, and always at the very centre of events.

Chapter 7. Positive Action.

. . . [p. 130] In cold blood, writing from documents and information, I find it hard to believe that Nkrumah expected the government to capitulate before the general strike. At best it could be the beginning of a new series of negotiations. At worst, the people might, without or with provocation, lose their control. There would be a horrible massacre. There was another by no means remote possibility. The people might, by the usual combination of force and persuasion, win over the local government forces and repossess themselves of their country and of themselves by force. They were perfectly able to do it.

There were other possibilities. There is no need to go into them. It is enough to understand that we are here in the presence of imponderables. With this objective before them and the people behind them, these young men, now at the climax of a long preparation, did not flinch. They threw down the challenge.

The party had taken no chances. The people were well prepared and knew what they were doing. During December they had been warned, sometimes from the public platform by Nkrumah himself, that they were to save their money and not spend it in Christmas festivities so as to be ready to endure the privations of the coming strike. The cooks of the Europeans found it difficult to buy food in the markets because the market-women were reserving the food [p. 131] for the strike days.

It may seem strange to the Western reader that the party seemed to be able to call a monster meeting at such short notice. The party propaganda vans would tour the city calling the people to the Arena. The market-women could get out thousands of people at the shortest possible notice, and Nkrumah’s often-repeated statement, the market-women made the party, conveys one of the great truths of the revolution. Here (and in many other places), we get curious reminders and indications of politics in that most political of social formations, the Greek city-state. In his speech on the crown, Demosthenes in an enigmatic passage describes how, at the news that Elatea had been taken, the high officials of the assembly went into the market, drove out the people and set fire to the wicker stalls while trumpeters summoned the population to the assembly. This was done from above and it was the last days of the democracy. The market-women in the first days of Gold Coast democracy did it from below.

— Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, 55-56; 130-131.
C.L.R. James, 1977.

See also.

Bolivarian Process, cont’d: 900

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