Citizenship has nearly always protected white Americans, served their needs, and promoted their priorities. Of course they’re afraid of losing their safety net.
Update: On June 26, 2018, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold the Trump Administration’s Muslim ban.
I think most people who pay regular attention to U.S. current events knew the travel ban was coming eventually. Some predicted the impending ban during Trump’s campaign trail, understanding his various brazen promises as actionable statements, and his supporters as a litmus for the country’s future. Still others recognized the possibility more than a decade ago, realizing that the shockwaves of 9/11 would resonate for generations to come.
Still, when nearly one year ago today, Trump signed his first executive order essentially blocking an entire religion, it shook the nation. Had it not been challenged by multiple judges, the order would’ve banned entry from seven majority-Muslim countries across the Arab region for 90 days, in addition to suspending the entire U.S. refugee admissions system for 120 days.
Since then, the Trump administration has soldiered on in hate, signing a second executive order last March, also challenged in the courts and eventually kicked up to the Supreme Court, which opted to temporarily revive part of Trump’s original order; and then signing a third executive order — because why not? — this time declaring permanent travel restrictions on eight countries, which was temporarily halted by a federal judge in Hawaii.
Never one to pass up the opportunity to be as xenophobic as possible, the president then used the October attack in New York’s lower Manhattan neighborhood to call not for more extensive travel bans, but for tighter immigration restrictions, saying that he wanted to “step up our already Extreme Vetting Program,” and push for “Merit Based immigration.”
There’s already an extensive entry process for refugees and immigrants in place in the U.S., and the national security rationale for increasing travel restrictions has been excellently debunked by the Washington Post.
So why the extreme (and targeted) urgency in regulating our borders? Why the aggressive panic and guardianship over citizenship? The answer, one year ago as today, is rooted in a troubling history and racist brand of nationalist identity too few of us are willing to face.
White America, regardless of class or geography, has always been primarily comprised of enthusiastic flag-waving patriots, inciting a kind of nationalism that appears harmless and uncomplicated. American citizenship was first built to acknowledge and prioritize white bodies as legitimate, as protectable, as worthy of state recognition — so for White Americans, citizenship appears uncontentious. Their sense of belonging and livelihood are not at odds with the American state.
Americans have long been taught to follow a self-consolidating model of understanding their own identity: We know best what American-ness is, only after defining what American-ness is not.
Citizenship — the sister-sentiment to American-ness — acts as the legal marker of belonging that supposedly precedes the American Dream. In a nation that totes its “land of immigrants” moniker so proudly, citizenship is the first, tangible piece of legal recognition the government can give to a person. We’re taught to be grateful for it, and for the shape of American belonging with all its flimsy, valuable luxuries — safety, protection, visibility, access to the economy, to democracy, and more.
We’re also taught to be intensely defensive of it, willing to kill others and be killed over it. This, we learn to understand, is the definition of patriotism and honorable sacrifice.
Although this violent shade of patriotic pride has been simmering for some time, our current U.S. President and his associates are actively fueling a newer kind of nation-based extremism that requires attention. With an administration so openly aggressive and, at times, willfully antagonistic, the United States’ traditional cupcakes-and-barbecue July 4th patriotism has since been warped into a forceful nationalism. And like American-ness, nationalism and citizenship go hand-in-hand. If citizenship is the legal identifier, then American-ness is the spectrum by which it’s measured, and nationalism provides the geographic and cultural boundaries by which it is confined.
We know the United States, built on stolen land and with stolen labor, was the hardened dream of (lost) empire-minded, “god-fearing,” white supremacists, who constructed their governments and institutions according to that same archetype. In order for us to gain citizenship today, to legally belong to a nation-state established by men such as those, we’re compared to the American archetype relentlessly. If we don’t match up, as black folks, brown folks (immigrant or otherwise), and Muslim people of color do not, then access to the benefits of citizenship are limited. Traditional staples of democracy like voting, public education, and equal access to the economy are all restricted.
Americans have long been taught to follow a self-consolidating model of understanding their own identity.
Even the right to protest, a supposed bedrock of this country’s history, is inaccessible for people of color. The countless NFL players who took a knee in protest back in mid-September (following Colin Kaepernick’s public protest, and a string of protests by WNBA players before that) were criticized by the usual #BlackLivesMatter trolls and naysayers, alongside claims of being unpatriotic. People across the country, President Trump included, fervently argued that kneeling during the national anthem was un-American. On the flip side, some #TakeAKnee supporters argued the exact opposite: that acts of protests were not only fundamentally American, but evidence that people loved their country enough to fight for a better version. But you know the drill — protesting taxes (by wasting copious amounts of tea) is admirable; protesting systemic violence against black people? Less so.
Loving your country is one thing; being recognized as a full citizen by your country is another.
In the midst of Trump’s presidency, citizenship is especially contentious. We’ve watched the legal moniker rapidly develop into a weaponized ideal eagerly leveraged against people who don’t fit the American archetype. The anti-Muslim fear that ballooned after 9/11, continued throughout our wars in the Middle East, and became bloated during Trump’s presidential campaign fed an intense need in white America. Trump’s sizeable base is anxious and desperate, overwhelmed by the coming dissolution of American-ness, of nationalism, of citizenship — as they understand it. Their readiness to justify racist aggression is palpable. Their willingness to elect a presidential candidate who regards Nazis as “very fine people” is telling. Even aside from Trump’s base, there are millions of white Americans unwilling to look critically at what the American flag represents to other people domestic and abroad. To consider and speak out against what American citizenship has cost entire countries. To openly condemn and call for the end of the violence it has justified.
But citizenship has nearly always protected white Americans, served their needs, and promoted their priorities. Of course they’re afraid of losing their safety net. Of course they’ll go to great lengths to protect it. And so, defending the borders of American citizenship comes in the shape of violent rhetoric, aggressive wars and occupations, deportations, violent border patrol police, travel bans, and more. Foreign populations are subjected to violence and harassment under the guise of national security, patriotism, freedom, or whatever else. This is the cost of American safety, the price of promoting nationalism based on a white supremacist view of both the United States and the world at large. This is what happens when you wield American citizenship like a weapon against people that white supremacy identifies as a threat to its own power.
But for those of us who are permanent U.S. citizens, American “citizenship” poses new questions: Are we willing to dismantle a fundamental part of our identity to protect those it would be wielded against? Are we willing to challenge a thing that feels safe if it means protecting others?
As a person committed to uprooting the white supremacist, militaristic, capitalist violence leveled against my people and those I’m in solidarity with, I’ve found that parasitic ideals like American-ness, nationalism, and citizenship are no longer things I’m deeply invested in. I’ve spent the last three July 4th holidays warding off firework-induced panic attacks, still triggered by memories of tear gas cannons exploding across the St. Louis sky. I’ve watched American-ness become the banner for both treasonous white supremacists, and well-meaning but revisionist liberals managing to find freedom and democracy where I only see a young nation-state already falling apart at the seams. I am, as Danez Smith writes, “sick of calling your recklessness the law,” and distrustful of any “peace” or “order” that displaces accountability.
Are we willing to dismantle a fundamental part of our identity to protect those it would be wielded against?
I am troubled by a citizenship that renders the indigenous people of this land invisible. A citizenship that only has the capacity to humanize those who fit squarely within its boundaries. I am physically, cognitively, and politically at odds with a kind of citizenship that requires the destruction of other people of color in other plundered, destabilized corners of the world in order to keep me…“safe.”
If we know that citizenship and American-ness, as it currently exists and functions, requires the disenfranchisement of certain people in order for the construct to remain in tact, then what worth is it to us, really?
Building a new world calls on those of us intent on bringing it forth, to take more critical risks. To take the time and care to sharpen our own perspectives, imagine more broadly, and redefine the traditional details of our world in a less violent, less exploitative, more liberatory way. Part of that radical intellectual work involves pushing ourselves to reconsider things many of us have taken for granted, or previously assumed were unshakeable — things like safety, citizenship, statehood, and freedom. The Muslim Ban is political fallout from a kind of American nationalism that depends on rigid, white supremacist notions of each of these details in order to exist. It’s time to shake the bricks loose, destabilize our assumptions, and usher in something new.