Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
Two days after the elections were over, I was drinking in a bar after a workout. I struck up a conversation with a short, haired red headed woman who seemed very anxious. When I asked her why she was nervous, she said she was afraid that based on the recent homophobic and racists acts in Rochester and California, that it would be “open season” on women and gays. She herself had just knocked out someone the previous night because the stranger attempted to assault her. While we came to an understanding of acknowledging the hate coming out of the woodworks, it was insightful to me to hear why certain groups in America were very concerned about the next four years. As I thought it over, I at the same time to saw how it wasn’t as far-fetched as many said, and how there was still hope.
Donald Trump’s campaign was largely known for running on two promises: that he was going to build a wall to separate Mexico from the United States to stop immigrants and return those who had gotten into the country, and also to ban Muslims from entering the country, having those already here register as well. The country was split between those who agreed with Trump’s agendas to some degree and those who thought that it was the most xenophobic, racist rhetoric they have ever heard live. Seriously, most modern Americans have only heard this type of language from a public figure on the history channel or in school. Whether they thought it was something from the past or surprised that such sentiments ever existed at all, the truth is that in reality Donald Trump is hardly the first president to propose such forced coercion. Here are two well-known examples.
The Trail of Tears
Since America was first founded, there had always been conflicts with the Native Americans tribes. Some would be your friends, others would be your enemies, and both could easily flip flop at any moment. Prejudice towards these first inhabitants had always existed, even in the young American government, but the most notorious was concerning President Andrew Jackson, seventh to hold the office. Having an extensive and volatile political career that capped off years of fighting in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the First Seminole War, he finally became president in 1829.
The Seminole War in particular had won him notoriety because of his preemptive invasion of Florida: a then Spanish territory. Andrew invaded the territory during the war with the Creeks and Seminole tribes, hoping to cut off safe havens for runaway slaves. The former Indian fighter's prejudice for the native inhabitants was well known and in 1829, he proposed to congress forcibly removing them west of the Mississippi river. This was in response to a second war with the Seminole nation and the increasing conflicts with Americans and Native Americans. This would attain security for the settlers and stabilize the region. This action would also leave 4,000 Cherokees dead on the journey, known as the Trail of Tears.
The most deplorable aspect of this order was that it was challenged by the Cherokee Nation in 1830 in the Supreme Court. In Cherokee Nation vs. the State of Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled that Jackson’s removal of the tribe from their lands was illegal. However, the President of the United States ignored the ruling and used the US army to enforce it anyway.
Because of the intense animosity between the competing populations, racist attitudes were an accepted, way of life and most Americans made an exception to Jackson’s illegal act. This was especially true of frontier settlers who bore the brunt of the wars which were often waged as total war with no rules of engagement. The southern tribes were a threat to American expansion and considered savages barely worthy of the right to be treated with civility. Though this policy would continue through out the century, the Trail of Tears is perhaps most notable in that one of the main offices of the United States government, designed to prevent either the President or Congress from taking too much power, utterly failed.
The second most notable act of American forced removal of an ethnic group happened some 113 years later, during World War Two. In 1942, America was starting to get into the full swing of another total war. A year prior, Pearl Harbor was attacked and ignited an anger in previously isolationist America for revenge. Unfortunately that hostility was also directed inward as well as outward.
Many claim that the Pacific war stood out from the rest of the savagery of World War Two because it was not just about nations warring with each other. It was a race war, where the hatred was not just over what Japan had done to America, but that the oriental savages who had acted without honor (ironically) were considered to be inferior to begin with. More tragically, this view was also shared by many of their enemies towards Americans. So Roosevelt’s next decision to evict Japanese Americans whole sale, who had not attacked their home or had no intention of spying, could be considered an extension of this race war.
By 1942, Executive Order 9066 was signed by President Roosevelt and forcibly removed 150,000 American born Japanese from Hawaii and the west coast. This time, both Congress and the Supreme Court, supported the evictions. Transported to camps further inland, Order 9066 remained until 1945. In Ex parte Mitsuye Endo, Supreme Court finally ruled that incarceration of Americans who were not traitors was illegal: regardless of where they came from.
The damage had already been done though, with families losing homes and possessions when they were moved to the camps, and a stain that many argue rivals the concentration camps in Germany during the same conflict. Many claimed psychological trauma from forced evictions and the issue of reparations continued long into the rest of the 20th Century.
Walking In Another’s Shoes
Now in 2016, 71 years now since the internment camps were shut down, and 187 years since the Trail of Tears, new groups fear history repeating itself. The commonality that these events share is that they were all failures of not only checks and balances, but the will of the American people.
Why? Because the targeted populations were generalized as threats as well as considered inferior and sub-human. War just made those sentiments easier to embrace, fueled by intense hostility and mistrust towards those groups and under the guise of national security.
It’s understandable therefore why Muslims, Latinos, and even members of the LGBT community now feel afraid. Two foreign wars, terrorism, threats to the economy, and the media calling American social state of affairs a culture war? My conversational friend's fear is not entirely out of place, there’s a track record. However there is a light here in 2016 that didn’t exist in 1829 or 1942 that should be addressed.
America’s failure was only made possible by the prevalent and majority rule of racism in the American psyche. No, this isn’t another minority playing the race card, but a historical fact. One need only look at the records back then to see what Americans fought were people who were both racially and culturally different from them, and at war with. This went both ways and hate breeds hate, and people will often seek out the company of their own, even when there is no conflict to be had. There was ignorance at play as well as hostility, and that ignorance allowed for stereotypes to breed, creating misshapen ideas of both populations that was both partially true and utterly false.
However, since the 1960’s Americans have been slowly-very slowly-growing from that ruling shadow of prejudice. Racism, whose existence was for most of humanity’s existence considered just another staple of it, is now openly seen as an undesirable human quality and even fought against. Trump’s proposals for the Mexican great wall and Muslim ban, while agreed to by many Americans, are also openly and vehemently challenged by other Americans. Just look at the protests that erupted the day after the election for proof. That didn't happen in 1829 or 1942. The landslide of racism that once covered an entire population now has resistance and hopefully, people willing to fight for it.
Whether these proposals were bullshit served to an eager population to get elected to the highest office, or the actual intention of the president elect, it will not be on a silver platter like what Jackson, Roosevelt, and other past presidents had. Yes, America has a history of moving people who are deemed too alien and different. But also now has a solid history of resisting the mistakes of the past. And that is what I hope people will focus on during the next four years.
Leslie McCowen from Cape Cod, USA on November 21, 2016:
i certainly hope you are right. but, as we also know, the order-maintaining mechanisms have also progressed.
since the early 2000's, we now have ready-to-go cyborg forces should conflict break out anywhere in the world.
boston bombing and ferguson riots showed us that military force will now be used against american citizens.
and, of course, they are trying to incrementally slip in the criminalizing of any protest at all.
in so many authoritarian regimes around the world, people who protest receive long prison sentences.
i actually find our situation very dire.
but, honest to god, i hope you are right.