The history of border walls is a long unbroken series of failures. Erecting an imposing physical barrier to keep aliens out is a fool’s errand. Case in point, the present occupant of the White House — a man who knows nothing of history and is fueled by a pretentious belief in his own power to act as savior and protector of white America — is fixated on the idea of a wall on the southern border to keep Latin American immigrants out. This wall, too, will fail.
Walls mark borders. They do not make borders impenetrable. Inevitably, people find their way through or around, no matter how long or how strong the wall.
I understand well the attractions walls hold. Like so many others, I am in awe of the majestic expanse of the Great Wall of China. But as a student of Chinese history, I also know the devastating human cost of its construction. Ultimately, the agonizing labor and lost lives suffered by countless generations of ordinary Chinese families were in vain. The Great Wall of China did not prevent the Mongols, or the Manchus, or, for that matter, the Japanese, English, Russians, Germans, French, or Americans from entering and taking what they wanted of China.
Even so, a walled-off Middle Kingdom made sense in the context of the dominant preoccupation of Imperial China’s rulers for the past two millennia — preserving the purity of Chinese civilization and culture by insulating the empire from foreign incursion. Emperor Qianlong’s response to the trade delegation sent to China by King George III in 1792 typifies this perennial Chinese stance on relations with outsiders. Qianlong, famously, rebuffed everything the British asked for in a letter he sent to King George containing, in part, the following explanation:
“You, O King, from afar have yearned after the blessings of our civilization…but [your Ambassador’s] proposal is not consistent with our dynastic usage and cannot be entertained…our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There was therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.”
Now, more than two centuries later, in the context of the current China-U.S. trade war standoff, it is not hard for me to imagine both sides claiming to possess “all things in prolific abundance” and asserting “no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians.” Qianlong’s expression of disdain for all things foreign is mirrored in the sentiment encapsulated in the Trumpian mantra, “America First.”
Chinese Walls are Great, American Walls, Not So Much
I possess a particular form of expertise on Chinese and American walls, an outrageous claim, perhaps, but in the limited way I intend, passably accurate. I have thought a lot about walls, during the three years I lived in China, and in the thirty plus years after. My interest was spurred by a wall my Chinese hosts began but did not complete, a wall they planned to build to surround me.
Part of my expertise on Chinese and American walls is the result of personal experience. The rest comes from reading history. The historic American wall I know best is the one I learned about because some of my ancestors helped construct it, the wall built across the width of lower Manhattan during the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652–1654).
On March 13, 1653, Petrus Stuyvesant convened the leaders of New Amsterdam in an emergency meeting to discuss defensive measures needed to prepare for a possible attack on the city by English troops rumored to be gathering in New England. Among the decisions made that day was a resolution “…to surround the greater part of the City with a high stockade and a small breastwork…”
Through a combination of slave and free labor, a plank-section and post wall, a less expensive alternative to the originally-proposed palisade, was soon completed. The wall spanned Manhattan from the East River to the North (Hudson) River and it was periodically repaired and enhanced until the English tore it down in 1699.
Had the English not named a nearby pathway Wall Street, very few contemporary Americans would have any reason to recall the New Amsterdam wall. The wall never served its intended purpose of repelling an English attack from the north. When the English came to take New Amsterdam in 1666, they came by sea, and Petrus Stuyvesant surrendered the city to them without a fight.
The building of the wall and the quick surrender to the English were clear signs of New Amsterdam’s weakness, and, specifically, its failure of to attract enough immigrants to hold off English encroachment. The relatively small population of New Amsterdam was no match for the booming population of settlers in the English colonies to the north and south.
My seventeenth-century white American ancestors — hundreds of them were part of the seventeenth-century English settler population boom in New England and Virginia — were more medieval than modern in their thinking. I imagine they loved the idea of building walls, though with limited resources, they mostly built fences. For my early American ancestors, fences were more than a visible mark of property boundaries, they were also a symbol of order imposed on the American wilderness by civilized white people.
Over time, my Colonial American ancestors lost their love of walls, or so I imagine. They were more inclined to move than to dig in and stay in place. When they did put up physical barriers — stockades and fences, for the most part — it was a temporary strategy to make themselves feel more secure on the frontier. I grew up believing freedom of movement and love of wide open spaces were core legacies of my American cultural heritage.
I have moved a lot in my life. For three-years during the Reagan Administration, from 1984 to 1987, I left America and lived in China. At the start of the second year of my stay, I moved from a small teacher’s college on the outskirts of the northeastern city of Changchun, to an equally small, but more prestigious, science and engineering college in the heart of the city. At each school, I was the first foreign English teacher.
It was the early days of Deng Xiaoping’s “Four Modernizations” policy. The Chinese government saw hiring foreign experts like me as a high-risk, high-payoff proposition. The perception of risk was reflected in living arrangements for foreigners. Bigger Chinese universities and other large enterprises accommodated foreign staff in substantially-walled compounds. Smaller work units, like the Changchun colleges I worked for, had to improvise.
At the teacher’s college, I lived in a faculty apartment building. The college itself was isolated. It was several miles outside the city, at the site of a former May 7 School, a place where Communist Party Members were sent for “rural re-education” during the Cultural Revolution. The entire campus was walled and anyone entering or leaving would have to pass through the main, always manned, gate.
When I moved to the technical college in town, the Foreign Affairs staff of my new work unit had no choice but to house me in a faculty apartment in a residential neighborhood of the city. Several months after I moved in, I noticed construction underway to build a high brick wall to fully enclose the two-story building containing my apartment. I immediately contacted my Foreign Affairs minder to ask why the wall was being built.
My English-speaking Foreign Affairs minder passed the word up to his boss, a man who spoke no English, and the latter soon paid me a visit. Though my Chinese was still rudimentary, I believe I expressed my feelings quite forcefully in the conversation. I reminded the head of the college Foreign Affairs office that I was an American, and I told him Americans could not be content living behind a wall. My closing argument, in Chinese, was this: wo xinli bu shufu, “I [will feel] discomfort in my heart [state of mind].”
I later wondered if I had overstated my potential distress in my choice of words — the Foreign Affairs boss might have thought I was saying I would become psychologically disturbed— but the words had the desired effect. Construction on the wall stopped and did not resume during the year I lived there.
Walls still make my heart uncomfortable. In particular, I am deeply disturbed by the wall Trump wants to build and by the concomitant abuse of refugees and immigrant families on the southern border even more so. The crimes against humanity being committed by our government in the name of national security are profoundly at odds with core American values of equality, freedom, and justice for all. I am optimistic in my belief that the majority of Americans, eventually, will wake up and will drive from power all those who dehumanize and abuse others in the name of “America First.”
Elections alone will not bury American white nationalism. White nationalism draws its lifeblood, not from popular support for physical border walls and harsh treatment of immigrants, but from much more pervasive, intangible, yet very real walls embedded in American culture, the walls created in our hearts and minds by racist thinking.
Tearing down visible barriers to racial equity is a start, but ultimately, white Americans will also need to see what so many of us fail to see, that by our words and deeds, what we do and what we do not do each day, we perpetuate the injustice of institutional racism and white privilege.