Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
An American Tradition
For the record, I am one of those bleeding hearts who supports letting refugees in. And you have heard from people on this side of the fence believe that immigration is what founded America and makes it great: its diversity. There’s another part of that story though that is not told and explains why one minority group can side against another.
While it is true that America is made up of immigrants, Native Americans aside, it also true that much of that history was those same immigrants in conflict with each other. It goes back as far as when Caucasian peoples first started arriving here. The first immigrants were people looking for religious freedom to practice their own brand of Protestant Christianity. However these included people from Germany, Britain, and the Netherlands, so the baggage of national heritage and rivalry, coupled with various Protestant religious sects and some Catholics, produced some conflict.
This increased as America established itself as a separate nation and no longer a colony for the British. Children and grandchildren of those first refugees began referring to themselves as natives of America: Native Americans not really counting to most of them. I hear many people today talk about the idea that the founding fathers built this country and its constitution on for freedom and letting people in. I highly doubt what out nation looks like now was what they meant or intended though. Immigrants, who came over, were from Western Europe and slaves brought over from Africa.
By the mid 19th century, people from other parts of Europe were beginning to enter though, having different values and faiths: over 1,000,000 people by 1850 according to some estimates. And new sub groups began appearing based on religious schisms as well, forming their own communities. Each new group was seeking new opportunities. Much of these conflicts however were lessened by the expansion of the immigrants and European Americans westward. This of course brought them into conflict with the Native Americans.
However between new comers and their American-born families, this allowed for each group to seek their own people and carve out their own space. More space meant less contact with different people. They were not pressed together or interacted with other communities to any kind extreme degree except in the case of war with the British, the Mexicans, or native tribes. It led more peace, but more ignorance, thus more latent prejudice.
This was not the case in urban cities. As the 19th century progressed, many people, some now second and third generation descendants, and other just off the boat, began looking for jobs. Unlike the frontier, this basic need brought different groups into close proximity with each other and began forcing more battles, with competition and racism to fueling the rivalries. Inherent differences were easily identified to tell who was from where like modern gang signs and those differences were exaggerated and caricaturized.
After 1880, new influx of immigrants was arriving from other parts of Eastern and Southern Europe in large numbers now: Italians, Sicilians, Slavs, and Jews. And after the Civil War ex-American born Africans began to enter into this volatile mix. Sucked in together by the gravitational pull of the land of opportunity, they came into conflict with those descendants who now saw themselves as native-born. Even the western frontier was not safe, as Chinese immigrants began coming over via San Francisco from the Orient.
The American tradition of immigrant opportunity was now getting out of hand for those who were already here, either forgetting their ancestral history or believing themselves exempt. Things eventually got to the point where both state and federal governments began implementing immigration control laws…or bans, on new immigration.
The more people heard about American opportunity and conditions worsened in their homelands, the more different races, cultures, and beliefs arrived on both shores. The more that arrived, the more vicious the competition, and the more vicious the competition, the more volatile cross-cultural interactions became.
Since the 1960’s somewhat reset our version of American history, we easily forget that our progressive attitudes were near non-existent until very recently. From a historical view, progressivism is still in its infancy. In contrast, racism was the excepted norm and people sought the company of their own if they help it. Different groups seeking to prosper and live their lives saw other different groups as threats to their survival and achievements and displayed the same racism that the more dominant White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant population imposed upon them. In fact, this standard would remain and not truly be fundamentally changed until the 1960’s Civil Rights movement.
What does this tell us then about this latest immigration crisis we face under President Trump? It tells us that what he is doing and what his supporters believe is in fact as much a part of our American tradition as our diversity that we who support immigrants believe in. More poignant is that our modern view of that diversity being somehow harmonious is a falsehood that had been vile and prejudiced until very, very recently. Or as someone recently pointed out to me, if there was an awareness of it, it was believed to be a thing of the past. Not something that could be reborn. Either way it was still swept under the rug and not dealt with.
Much of this is the fault of basic human nature rather than numbers, nationality, and creed. People will seek out their own, especially in unknown lands where survival is paramount before human rights. People are creatures of habit, at ease with the familiar and recognizable. People want borders: legal, moral, mental, or physical. What is different from us and that we don’t recognize in close proximity is a threat. And differences are easy to identify as well as easily create offense.
America has so much conflict with differences because its very existence stands in direct contradiction to these fundamental elements: not only human nature but the tide of human history as well, which has always been about groups competing with each other. Honestly, it is truly amazing, or fucking miracle that we have even gotten this far as a society. So does this American tradition justify Trump banning Muslims entering the country? No.
The Evolution of Diversity
Whether by divine providence or just American stubbornness, America is still here. Yes, the progressive spirit that we should embrace different people is new, not even a century old I say, but it is a clear improvement because we made this shit work!
It has taken us generations, and many, many decades, a ghastly amount of lives and injustices too numerous to count, but American ideals of equality are becoming more a reality. Many of us are finally realizing that making diversity work is better than the prejudiced and provincial thinking that has ruled our perspectives and much of the world for so long.
America is built on immigrants, with those immigrants fighting with each other and their descendants working to seek out not only peaceful co-existence, but to strive to live by a higher standard as well to eliminate that conflict. But be aware: there will be culture clashes as new immigrants come over. They will bring beliefs that we may find too conservative or strange. They may see secularized America living as hedonistic and lacking in any spiritual and moral substance, and the internal conflict between segregating and integrating ourselves as something unnatural.
But the hope that all of America needs to emphasize is that we work those out, not run from them or resort to violence. The American true dream is not being happy with the white picket fenced house, but overcoming our base instincts and prejudice that is a part of being human, which them ideally creates those results. That is my hope in working against the immigrant ban.