The wall hits the ocean near Tijuana

Donald Trump & the Myth of the Melting Pot

This week we talked about American xenophobia and how we got from this 1980 debate — Republicans sounding sane and humane on immigration…

…to this:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

That June speech was just the beginning. As Donald Trump climbs in the polls, the attacks on immigrants and foreigners have gotten worse. On our podcast, we asked why the attacks seem to be working? And how did Trump know to push this particular button?

Aziz Rana, author of The Two Faces of American Freedom, said that the xenophobia button is always ready. America is a nation of immigrants, but we have a Janus-like record with the people who come here. The immigration invitation is always grudging, conditional, and exclusive:

Who counted as properly American really changed over time. What English colonists and their descendants realized almost from the beginning is that you’re not going to be able to create a new white American republic in North America unless you have enough people. So they created polices to induce the right kind of migrants — migrants that were people that could share the same basic culture and commitments to republican institutions and economic self rule. At first, really what they were looking for was European Protestants. So Catholics were not allowed. But this started to shift in the mid-nineteenth century because of a simple fact: If you want to settle the continent, you need people, and who’s coming? In the 1840s and 1850s, it was overwhelmingly German and Irish immigrants, and a large chunk of those were Catholic…
In the second half of the nineteenth century, some 250,000 Chinese migrants came. But Chinese were viewed at this time as culturally unfit… The thing that’s concerning to me is that this basic framework that combines inclusion with exclusion has remained persistent and continuous. It’s just that which communities we place in which boxes has changed depending on domestic politics and, especially, on American foreign policy. The difference between now and then wasn’t really about the Chinese, it was about the fact that China and Japan in the early twentieth century were viewed as growing, potentially threatening, self-assertive new powers. Today we tend to see the threats as coming from instability in the Middle East in a way that wasn’t the case then.
The Know-Nothing flag

So, America is a welcoming place for the people we have chosen to welcome. Welcome for specific purposes; welcome, sometimes, to “self-deport.” Back then, Catholics and Chinese navigated the maze of inclusion and exclusion. Today, it’s Mexicans, Salvadorans, and even Syrian refugees — beckoned with one hand, pushed away with the other.

Claudio Lomnitz, the anthropologist who mapped Mexico’s fascination with death, told us that this American attitude turns migrants into ghosts:

There is a historical debt of recognition that Americans aren’t even beginning to visualize. They have Mexicans right in front of them all the time and those Mexicans are treated as if they were like phantasmic figures, like you can just see right through them.

But the myth of the melting pot — the universal nation that incorporates all comers — persists. Rana said it’s a handy idea for people like Trump, who claim that their ancestors were more willing or better able to assimilate than the new “huddled masses.”

Mexican women entering the United States, photo by: Dorothea Lange, June 1938.

The opposite is true, said the sociologist Helen Marrow. New migrants from Latin America want to integrate, they’re equipped to do so (yes, with English skills), and they do extraordinarily well despite enormous obstacles.

That’s the reality that Trump avoids when he says “they’re not sending their best”. In a nation of immigrants, you need an excuse to treat immigrants this way. Lucky for Trump and others, it’s never been very hard to find one.


Thanks for listening, commenting, and subscribing on iTunes.

— Pat Tomaino