What is an American?
Is it defined by borders, treaties, laws and the Constitution or is it a nebulous set of mutable ideas and fluctuating standards? And who gets to decide? Is it as everchanging as this country’s boundary lines or was it set in stone by the cabal of white men who first conceived of this experiment in democracy?
What constitutes an American has always been a fickle concept. The original Constitution was silent on the issue and the first immigration law, the Naturalization Act of 1790 (pdf), extended citizenship status to “free White persons of good character.” The Thirteenth Amendment freed the slaves in 1865 but it wasn’t until three years later that the Fourteenth Amendment would grant citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil (like Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib) and even the descendants of formerly enslaved persons such as Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.). In 1917, the Jones Act granted citizenship to everyone born in Puerto Rico after 1898, which includes the mother of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) became a citizen after her parents gained citizenship through the legally defined process, without any of the special exemptions received by people like Melania Trump.
Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley, and Tlaib’s bona fides as Americans are not only defined by U.S. legal code, the Constitution, and history, but by their service to this country as duly elected representatives of their communities. However, to many people, including the president of the United States and his core group of acolytes, while these women are citizens, they are not American Americans. Because there is only one enduring and eternal truth about the definition of “American”:
White people get to decide.
The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 gave government officials the power to deport citizens, disenfranchise immigrants and arrest those who “write, print, utter, or publish...any false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the government. In the mid-1800s, the Know-Nothing Party emerged from the conservative movement and tried to deport “radical leftists” (pdf) who belonged to a certain religion. Politicians accused these citizens of being “vile imposters, liars, villains, and cowardly cutthroats” who “hated America,” according to Carleton Beale’s Brass Knuckles: The Great Know-Nothing Conspiracy. But instead of Islamophobia, it was Roman Catholicism. And when Donald Trump’s father Fred was arrested at a 1927 Ku Klux Klan rally, those second-wave Klansmen were seeking to eject Roman Catholics, the Italians and Irish, like the ancestors of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway—who weren’t yet considered to be white. A Klan leader testified to the organization’s American ideals in a 1921 Congressional hearing:
[The Klan] stands for America first [emphasis added]—first in thought, first in affections, and first in the galaxy of nations.
If that sounds at all familiar, it is because the belief that America belongs to white people and white people only is embedded in the national consciousness. Anyone who is not a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant can never truly be considered a real American, no matter what the Constitution or the law says because the ones who get to make that determination are endowed with one unmentioned, inalienable right:
The idea of “send her back” is the timeless and indestructible pillar upon which this country was built. It is a clarion call that allows the upholders of white supremacy to believe black and brown bodies are as returnable as defective Amazon packages. Forty-one of the 56 founding fathers were slave owners. During and after the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln proposed sending blacks “back” to Haiti, Panama, Liberia and anywhere other than America. After World War I, whites initiated 38 anti-black riots during the “Red Summer” of 1919, in part because of black veterans returning to America with crazy ideas such as equality, owning guns and looking white people in the eye. In 1964, California Republicans barely blocked a proposal to include sending “Negroes back to Africa” on the state’s official party platform. Tea Party members and at least one Congressman were known for saying they wanted to send Obama “back to Kenya.”
But despite his hatred for John McCain, Trump has never insinuated that McCain should be sent back to the Panama Canal Zone where he was born. When Trump fought with Mitt Romney, he made no mention that Romney’s parents and grandparents are from Mexico. In his attacks on ex-Republican Justin Amash, he did not cite Amash’s Syrian and Palestinian heritage. Trump and his followers don’t think of Baron, Ivanka, Eric or Donald Trump Jr. as not Americans even though all four are the children of immigrants.
This is because Trump and his ilk believe that this country belongs to them and that everyone else—non-whites, non-Christians and people who use more than a “pinch of salt”—are not the real Americans. Because of this, they have the authority to do to us what they will, including the right to lynch, segregate, disenfranchise, miseducate and—if they so choose—to send us back.
And this is why they are also the most un-American of all.
Because, at the heart of their belief is their willingness to disregard the Constitution, the law, history and everything that they believe makes their country the greatest place on earth. They don’t truly believe all men are created equal, that Americans have freedom of religion or that there should be liberty and justice for all. To them, there is one thing more important than their country, their flag and the idea of America:
But this is not new. It is as it has always been. There is no difference between the slave owners, the Confederates, the Know-Nothings, Klansmen, the segregationists, the Tea Partiers and the MAGAts. They are all white supremacists.
And that, dear reader, is the most American thing of all.