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America’s Love Affair With Xenophobia

by Thomas Essel

Nothing brings out the worst in people quite like a refugee crisis. On Tuesday, the internet went completely insane as governors and sheriffs and city councils tried their hardest to generate enough political pressure to convince the federal government to deny access to Syrian refugees. Of course, it didn’t work: President Obama reaffirmed that the United States would still take the beleaguered men, women, and children and chastised those attempting to stop the refugee program as cowardly.

However, this article isn’t about the asinine comments and assertions of fear mongers and bigots. No, this article is about America’s love affair with xenophobia.

protest against xenophobia
A demonstrator holds a banner through in Johannesburg during a march gathering several thousands of people to protest against the recent wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa. (Photo: AFP/Gianluigi Guercia)

Despite the erudite language on our monuments, America has never treated migrants with decency. Never.

The Irish, Germans, Poles, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, Hispanics, etc. have all experienced bigotry, hatred, threats of violence, and a generally unwelcoming atmosphere when they migrated to the United States. Now that yet another group of huddled masses is in need of help, safety, and comfort, the sad story continues.

The reason why is so obvious, I can’t believe that nobody (to my knowledge) has acknowledged the source of America’s xenophobia.

The very first colonists that came to the new world were not looking for freedom, they were looking to exploit the land and profit from it. The Jamestown colony (the first successful English colony) started out as an expedition looking for gold that wasn’t there, only to discover the cash crop of tobacco. Those colonists wanted to dominate economically, keeping all the resources of Virginia for themselves. The Puritans that settled Massachusetts weren’t looking for religious freedom, they were looking for a religious hermitage where they could establish a homogenous theocracy.

Each new group of people that arrived threatened either the economic or political supremacy of the group before them. The Scotch-Irish threatened the English, the Anglo-Americans were threatened by free blacks, post-Civil War Americans were threatened by Chinese, so-on and so-forth.

That is why you hear people demanding that we “solve the problem with our veterans before helping the Syrians” or saying “charity starts at home” as a way to dismiss the idea of helping Syrian refugees: it is in our DNA as Americans to be xenophobic bigots. It is part of our national narrative. It is how the current “in” group protects itself from outsiders.

Until we acknowledge our past – truly acknowledge it, not just pay it lip service – then the disgusting behavior of demonizing starving families will continue. Until we acknowledge, as Americans, that we are all complacent and complicit in the continuation of this morally bankrupt national narrative, nothing will change. Until we acknowledge that our history textbooks treat racism as something that happened in the past and ended with the civil rights movement, nothing will change. Until our history books stop glossing over Japanese internment camps – until they start calling the “Indian Wars” by the proper description: genocide – nothing will change.

We Americans have a serious problem coming to terms with the truth of our history. And no wonder: history is important; history is about identity. For our ingrained bigotry and xenophobia to end, our national heritage must be recognized for what it is: the “in” group attempting to maintain their privilege over the “out” group.

The good news is that each wave of migrants has eventually been assimilated into American culture, though unfortunately not before being demonized, mocked, and marginalized. The same will happen with the refugees of the current crisis. But, sadly, the same thing will happen to the next group, and the group after them. It is up to us as a people to acknowledge and work at expelling this sickness from our culture, but do we the people have the emotional and mental fortitude to accomplish that task before we yet again make imaginary demons out of real victims?

Not accepting refugees