Sunday, August 19, 2018

A Nation of Nations by Tom Gjelten

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This book seems particularly relevant right now. A significant portion of the [white] US population is in the middle of xenophobic and White Nationalist tantrum, leading to the election of an unqualified, malevolent, emotionally unstable ur-Fascist, who campaigned openly on said xenophobic and White Nationalist platform, and has governed accordingly. The results have been predictable: harassment of immigrants, children in cages, bans on entry from countries with an unpopular majority religion, and pushes to shut down most paths to entry into our country. Sadly, many of those pushing this agenda have the gall to call themselves by the name of “Christian.”

Tom Gjelten’s book, A Nation of Nations is a good antidote to the hate, ignorance, and malevolence of our time. I have written extensively regarding immigration history and law recently, and those are linked at the end of this post.

Gjelten is the descendant of Scandinavian immigrants (and his family’s story is given in the preface), and has been a correspondent for NPR for 30 years. This book is thoroughly researched, well written, and full of excellent information.

The book has a number of threads which connect to give a picture of the history, the law, some of the immigrant stories, and the challenges faced both by immigrants and by policy makers. Gjelten focuses on a particular place: Fairfax County, Virginia, which has seen a tremendous influx of immigrants from dozens of countries around the world.

The stories are of families from three very different backgrounds: Korea, Libya, and Bolivia. One might, perhaps, see three immigrant meta-narratives in these choices. The people fleeing political or religious persecution (Libya under Qaddafi), the people fleeing poverty and lack of opportunity (Korea in the aftermath of the Korean War), and the people fleeing the violence that comes with political instability (Bolivia during civil unrest.) My own ancestors fled the first two, and most immigrants today fit one or more of these categories. (To be sure, there are also enterprising sorts looking for opportunity - and there is no shame in that either…)

All of these immigrants were able to come to the United States because of a significant change in the law, enacted during the 1960s. Specifically, as part of a broader movement to grant civil rights to people who had non-white skin, our immigration laws were changed to eliminate exclusions based on national origin, which opened up our borders to people from places other than northern and western Europe. (I have blogged on the inseparability of immigration restrictions from naked racism in our past - and our present. See below for links.)

A Nation of Nations spends about a quarter of the book on the history of the 1965 law, and the details of how we got what we did at that time. Legislation is like sausage: it’s pretty messy to watch as it is made, and this law was no exception. In order to get to “yes” with enough legislators, it was necessary to claim that the law wouldn’t change the ethnic makeup of the United States. Whether the proponents of the law genuinely believed this is debatable, but they clearly had to pretend they did in order to pass the law.

In any event, this claim turned out to be ludicrously false in actual practice. As Europe became thoroughly democratic, the demand to immigrate from, say, England, Germany, and Scandinavia slowed to a trickle. As The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named has bemoaned, there just aren’t that many “Aryans” with blond hair and blue eyes wanting to come here. Instead, the demand has come from other places around the globe. You know, those “shithole countries” with people who have brown skin. Unsurprisingly, people don’t tend to leave a place unless they think they can do much better elsewhere - or if they have no reasonable option to stay. So people come.

From telling the stories of these families (whose stories return here and there throughout the rest of the book), then giving the history of the law, the author turns to the specific issues that integration of immigrants brings. In the case of Fairfax County, it meant some major changes to how things were done. The first work of breaking the white hegemony was done by African American activists in the Civil Rights Era. Gjelten tells some fantastic stories about this in one chapter. But, when the demographics of these historically black neighborhoods started changing, there was some tension. It is one thing to deal with one familiar prejudice in your school. It is another to figure out how to communicate with parents who speak 50 different languages - but are not fluent in English. Throw people who are fleeing violence into a neighborhood that already has its street gangs affiliated with different nationalities and ethnicities, and chances are, they will form their own to survive.

Gjelten doesn’t sugar coat the challenges. But he does defuse a lot of the common misconceptions about immigrants and immigration. He also counteracts a lot of the xenophobic propaganda from Fox News (among other idols of the Religious Right) with actual facts, not fear mongering.

I want to mention a few things that really stood out. The first one is Gjelten’s exploration of the objection to immigration that came from the Left when I was younger. Namely, the concern among African Americans that when “racially prejudiced employers have more workers to choose from, they may hire an illegal immigrant over an African American.” This is one of the few objections to immigration that I find morally defensible. However, as most of the Left here in the United States has realized, the damage to so-called “unskilled labor” jobs has been done far more by technology and the decline (or destruction, perhaps) of organized labor. The fear in this case (as in most justifications for immigration restrictions) turned out to be well overblown. Instead, the Left has, perhaps, realized that the problem isn’t immigrants, but prejudiced employers…

On a related note, in the excellent chapter on the history of diversity in Fairfax County schools, there is the anecdote of Robert Frye (the first African American appointed to the school board) on his efforts to get Martin Luther King Jr. Day added to the school calendar. “The first time I suggested it, you would have thought I had cursed in church.” He eventually succeed, but only by sharing the day with Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Echoes of our own time, perhaps.

One thing I definitely did NOT expect from this book was a change to how I viewed a politician of my own era. Admittedly, I have made some unpleasant discoveries over the years. Some were easy, like realizing that Jesse Helms and Roy Moore were racist assholes, not the paragons of Christian virtue Fundies would have you believe. I realized that as a kid. Less pleasant was noticing the racism of pretty much every white politician on both sides up through the 1950s. Or seeing that White Supremacy never went away - it just became unofficial Evangelical doctrine…

But there have been pleasant surprises too. I discovered that MLK wasn’t the tame, uncontroversial figure that he is often made out to me. He was a true prophet. I also discovered this utterly amazing speech by Robert Kennedy. I now understand why he was murdered.

In this book, though, I saw a very different side of another Kennedy. For a kid who grew up in the 80s, the old, drunk, and often incoherent crazy uncle version of Ted Kennedy was all I knew. I had no idea that he was one of the driving forces behind the elimination of exclusionary immigration laws. He plays a big role in this story, and his is that of the true hero, not the villain I was taught he was. Hmm. I wonder more and more just how much of the Fundie/Conservative bullshit has always been motivated by racism. More on that in a minute.

The last part of the book focuses on the backlash against immigration, starting with 9/11. It is difficult to remember now, but up until that point, Muslims skewed toward the GOP. Seriously. Did you know that?

As this book points out, Muslims generally integrated well into the US. The roughly 3.3 million Muslims here are, on average, better educated (and that includes women), more likely to be employed (and that too...includes women), and commit crimes at lower rates than the overall population. Immediately after 9/11, the Muslim community was prominent in donating blood, offering assistance, and more.

Unfortunately, while George W. Bush did his best to distinguish between the average Muslim and extremist terrorists, far too many on the Right started gunning for Islam as the enemy. As we can see today, a significant portion of the GOP is virulently anti-Muslim - and its politicians make their reputation by proposing ever more draconian measures. (Muslim registry, anyone? Travel bans?) And now, you will find American Muslims firmly in the Democrat party.

In discussing the backlash, Gjelten spends a significant amount of time discussing some of the objections to immigration and immigrants that you hear. One of them is the question of “integration” or “assimilation.” I hate the term “assimilation” personally, as it implies a Borg-like conformity. Or, perhaps more accurately, it reflects the expectation that immigrants “become white.” Which, of course, many of them can’t, any more than African Americans can in our racist society. “Integration” is better, I think. If we are a melting pot, then we reflect the various segments of our society. My own ancestors were quite different from the original English settlers, as were the Irish and Italians and everyone else who came here. We all changed the America we came to, just as it changed us.

In this context, one of Gjelten’s observations is spot on: when people are excluded, they tend to more fiercely defend their identity. Immigrants who are continually excluded from being considered “real Americans” are indeed likely to identify more with their own national origin or religion. As a pair of researchers who studied second-generation immigrants concluded, “Groups subjected to extreme discrimination and derogation of their national origins are likely to embrace them ever more fiercely.” No shit!

There is an interesting counterpart to this, though. In many places, Fairfax County included, various immigrant groups are intermingled. (This is true in many places in California too.) While often subjected to prejudice from whites, these groups have tended to develop interracial relationships. This is something I have definitely seen in California. Whites are the least likely to have interracial friendships, relationships, and marriages - although here in CA, interracial friendships are actually the norm, particularly among Gen X and younger. Unsurprisingly, forming relationships like this leads to less prejudice. If you want to understand why California loathes Trump so much, this is a good place to start.

I want mention as well, one final truth. There is nothing inevitable about political affiliation. At one point not that long ago, the GOP was, relatively speaking, the party in favor of immigration. One of the reasons that I was a Republican in my youth was this belief that opportunity should be available to all, regardless of race or national origin. (Please don’t laugh. The GOP used to believe this - it was Bill Clinton and the Democrats that were opposed to immigration in the 1990s, not us!)

This has, shall we say, changed, and changed dramatically. Gjelten notes a number of factors, from the Democratic realization that labor unions needed to embrace immigrants (and non-whites generally), to the careless blunders of many well-meaning Republicans on racial issues.

But the big tipping point can be boiled down to two things: the Tea Party and Fox News. Gjelten doesn’t quite say this. But the evidence in the three years since he wrote this book has sure been overwhelming. We now notice that Tucker Carlson and Ann Coulter are openly racist in their views about immigration. It’s not a dog whistle, it’s a bullhorn. But Gjelten quotes Bill O’Reilly as saying much the same thing in 2012. It is a concern about the “browning of America” that drives this. Aka naked, unashamed, evil racism. I’m not going to sugarcoat that anymore.

I want to end with one final thought on this book. The idea of “A Nation of Nations” is nothing new. The phrase itself came from Walt Whitman. As Gjelten points out, the idea goes back to George Washington (who urged that the US embrace not just the rich, but the poor of every nation), Alexis de Tocqueville (who noted that the US was unique at the time as being diverse, not an ethno-state), and others. It is the vision of an America that isn’t based on national origin, skin color, religion, or background. Instead, it is based on a commitment to uniquely American values: freedom - including freedom of religion, opportunity, diversity, human rights, justice for all, and other “universal” ideals. An America that hasn’t really ever existed in fact, but certainly has inspired as an aspiration. It is a commitment to the equality of humankind, the rejection of hierarchy, and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (Which at the time meant well-being - a decent life…)

Since the founding of our nation, this idea has always been in conflict with another, baser idea: that “America” is just another ethno-state, bound together by common skin color and common [toxic] civic religion, and justified in bullying and oppressing everyone else. That second ideal is, unfortunately ascendant in our politics right now, although I believe it is likely the last gasp of a generation of white bigots. Also unfortunate is that this evil ideal dominates white Evangelicalism to the degree that many of us who cannot go the route of White Nationalism are no longer welcome in the American church.

Gjelten wrote this book before the rise of Trump, and one wonders if the book would have been as optimistic had he known the future. I would like to hope that he would be. I believe the future, ultimately, will not be one of white hegemony. California is (as usual) on the cutting edge here. My kids grew up in a multicultural, multiracial, immigrant heavy world. They (much like myself) cannot imagine not knowing people of other races, religions, and national origin. That is what America means to us, and it is the vision that intend to work to see fulfilled in my lifetime.


My immigration series:

I still have more to write, when I get time. The five installments so far, I have looked mostly at the law and history. I hope to eventually write about my ancestors, the reasons we can’t have a reasonable discussion about the issue, and my vision for a more open world. Here are the parts so far:

1 comment:

  1. This review reminded me of a YA book called "Refugee" by Alan Gratz. I really liked it as a 34 year old adult, and from reading the rest of your blog I think your kids would also really like it (if you haven't already come across it!).