Let us cut to the chase, at the heart of this diatribe regarding the “un-American” and the “foreigner” is what is actually being said to the American-born person of color or the recent non-white immigrant: You are not white; therefore you are not and cannot be a real American.
Good morning Americans, it’s the year 2016 in the U.S. of A. Or is it 1640? No wait, is it 1882, 1896, 1942 or 1950? This past week we have heard the terms “un-American” and “foreign” flung around with great (and some would say alarming) frequency. The aforementioned dates are not arbitrary or random; they represent instances in our American history when the un-American card was played. Further, they tell the story of who gets to determine what or who is truly American.
In 1640, the legal system had begun to single out Africans for distinctly different treatment. In that year, a Virginia court sentenced a black indentured servant named John Punch to “serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural Life here or elsewhere.” No white indentured servant in Virginia ever received such a sentence. At about this time, court records and wills indicate that other blacks were being treated as slaves. Distinctions that were not previously made were now being made — profoundly impacting in colonial America who could be seen as a real citizen and over a century later who would be defined as an American.
Chinese-Americans targeted for exclusion
The year 1882 brings us to the first time in U.S. history that we see any restriction on immigration to the United States in the form of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Professor Roger Daniels put it this way: “The Chinese Exclusion Act … is the hinge on which all American immigration policy turned. Prior to the Exclusion Act there had been no significant restrictions of any kind on any immigration to the United States. There was no such thing as an illegal immigrant. After 1882 … there are successive restrictions placed on all immigrants.”
Yet, this exclusionary attitude toward those from China did not begin in 1882. In 1854, the California Supreme Court, during the case of the People v. Hall, had this to say in determining the validity of the testimony of a Chinese individual:
“The same rule which would admit them to testify, would admit them to all the equal rights of citizenship, and we might soon see them at the polls, in the jury box, upon the bench, and in our legislative halls.”
“This is not a speculation which exists in the excited and overheated imagination of the patriot and statesman, but it is an actual and present danger. The anomalous spectacle of a distinct people, living in our community, recognizing no laws of this State, except through necessity, bringing with them their prejudices and national feuds, in which they indulge in open violation of law; whose mendacity is proverbial; a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point, as their history has shown; differing in language, opinions, color, and physical conformation; between whom and ourselves nature has placed an impassable difference, is now presented, and for them is claims, not only the right to swear away the life of a citizen, but the further privilege of participating with us in administering the affairs of our Government.”
Do we hear traces of these sentiments in our current political and social discourse? These same ideas are being forwarded — maybe not as dramatically or overtly, carelessly and callously — even as we speak. Not by some fringe societal element in a dark corner of No Place Particular, USA are these notions being floated, but in the highest halls of government at the state and federal levels.
Black Americans are discriminated against