To confront the serpent of rising white supremacy, we must look at our past

Donald Trump announces 2020 presidential campaign

President Donald Trump announced his re-election campaign on June 18, 2019 in Orlando, Florida.
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President Donald Trump announced his re-election campaign on June 18, 2019 in Orlando, Florida.

President Donald Trump and his amen corner dismiss white nationalism as a hoax or insist that the president is not promoting white supremacy. Our history, from its origins to the present, belies those claims. White supremacy, to our shame, has had a central place in the unwritten American creed, and has reasserted itself with Trump’s ascent to power.

From Europeans’ first contact with native Americans in this land, the colonists asserted by their actions that this was meant to be a white man’s country. African Americans, who constituted a fifth of the colonists at the time of the American Revolution, were, whether enslaved or not, considered extraneous to the republic we were forming. That conviction was written into law when, in 1790, the very first Congress limited eligibility for becoming naturalized citizens to white immigrants. In the South, the colonization movement grew as a means of removing free blacks from our society. In the North, the message for free blacks was the same as Donald Trump has for asylum seekers on our southern border today: “we don’t want you here.”

Indian removal throughout the nineteenth century marked the pursuit of our “manifest destiny” as Providence’s ethnic darlings. A ginned-up war with Mexico in the middle 1840s expanded the country by a third. Mexicans had no more right to their land than did the Indians.

A floodtide of immigrants in the decades before the Civil War instigated the rise of a powerful nativist movement, whose major target was Irish Catholics, found deficient in both ethnicity and religion.

When Lincoln’s election threatened slavery’s future, eleven southern states formed the Confederacy, to preserve, in the words of the Confederacy’s vice-president, “white supremacy,” with slavery its institutional bulwark.

Following the Union’s triumph over the Confederacy, three Amendments to the Constitution, highlighting the Reconstruction Era, integrated African Americans as full citizens. That legal and social revolution set off a fierce backlash in the South, and a significant one in the North, that restored white supremacy by the latter 1870s.

By the end of the nineteenth century, an emerging pseudoscience was classifying northern Europeans (British, French, Germans, Scandinavians) the most fit for our society, those from its southern and eastern parts (Greeks, Hungarians, Italians, Jews, Slavs), the least fit. This new nativism triumphed in the legislation of the 1920s which virtually limited immigration to those from northwestern Europe

In the wake of the Holocaust and the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, United States immigration policy had become a moral stigma. The Immigration Reform Act of 1965 established uniform quotas for all nations, giving preference to family unification, occupations in demand, and refugee resettlement. Although not the framers’ intent, the act produced a radical change in immigration. Latin America, Asia, and to a lesser extent, the Middle-East, became the leading senders to the United States.

The result was an increasingly heterogeneous society, one made all the more visible by the civil rights regained by African Americans through the bipartisan legislation of the mid-Sixties. President Lyndon Johnson recognized all too well the political cost for Democrats: the massive defection of southern whites. At the same time, Republican leaders increasingly sought white votes, particularly among the working class, through coded racial messaging. Over the last half century, the Democratic Party became ever more multi-ethnic, while the Republican Party, once demonized as “black Republicans,” became more and more the refuge of threatened whites.

Barack Obama’s presidency at first appeared to signal that we were entering a post-racial era. Donald Trump’s election in 2016, largely achieved by his stoking of racial grievance, has given white nationalism the patina of respectability. His overwhelmingly white base, many of whose ancestors were victims of earlier manifestations of white supremacy, thrill to this Trumpian version. Hard-core white nationalists, buoyed by the Trump administration’s curtailment or elimination of programs to combat them, have acquired a virtual monopoly on domestic terrorism.

If slavery was the nation’s original sin, white supremacy was the serpent that beguiled seventeenth century colonists into imposing it. Four centuries later we are still living with the consequences.

Abraham Lincoln once warned us that we cannot escape history. But neither do we have to be captured by it. That means acknowledging our conflicted past and the ongoing struggle to overcome our darkest racial instincts. We badly need, before it is too late, to recommit ourselves to building a society that cherishes the diversity that has made us such an exceptional democracy.

Robert Emmett Curran of Richmond is professor of history emeritus at Georgetown University.