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Immigration is the Heart of American Culture

Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Jeff Sessions, France’s Marine Le Pen, Holland’s Geert Wilders and other rising political leaders in the West have a common purpose: to rid their countries of the influence of recent immigration on each country’s culture. Make America Great Again or Make France French Again both mean to return these countries to a time when White, Christian dominance, and the values and culture that accompanied it, determined the tenor of Western societies. The impetus for these movements is the increase in immigration, in Europe from the war-torn Middle East and drought-ridden Africa and in America from Asian countries that produce large numbers of talented scientists and engineers and from violence or poverty-ridden Central American countries and Mexico, and to a lesser extent from the Middle East and Africa.

For Europe, the desire to return to a culturally and racially pure earlier time is ironic, if not hypocritical for countries that, less than a century ago claimed the very regions from which they are trying to disassociate themselves as their rightful national possessions. Remember the opposition to Algerian independence by many Frenchmen, particularly those in the military, in the early 1960s, who claimed that (Muslim) Algeria was part of France? At the end of World War II, when the fears of Europe were about the aims of Russia to subjugate Eastern Europe as part of its territory-hungry Soviet Union, Western European powers held possession of virtually all of Africa. On the Arabian Peninsula, partly as a result of the war and partly as a result of previous colonization, Great Britain controlled Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine while French occupied Lebanon, with independence to these Middle Eastern countries only being restored or granted in the post-war years. And of course the French continued to occupy Vietnam (French Indochina) and the British, Cyprus, at the time. The right and importance to a people of having a national identity was a privilege that was only recently and reluctantly acknowledged by Western European powers.

At least with regard to Europe, the nostalgia for a national cultural identity is inextricably entwined with the idea of the white man’s dominance and the hegemony of Christianity. It is the same sentiment that, in the past, fueled empire building and allowed anti-Semitism to lurk as a potent social attitude until it exploded into the holocaust. In America, the genesis of such yearning is less connected to an imperialist history, and more related to recurrent disagreements over immigration and the long history of subjugation of non-white Native American and African-American populations by genocidal wars and policies, by slavery and by segregation. Colonial and later American governments and social institutions treated Native Americans similarly to the way Europeans treated Africans when they took over their native territories, undereducated them, removed them from the most desirable lands and developed draconian laws affecting their freedoms, all the while promoting racist cultural ideas and practices that disadvantaged non-whites. The attitudes toward the rights, dignity and worth of African-Americans relative to White Americans under slavery and segregation became deeply ingrained in the consciousness of many, particularly Southern (but certainly not limited to them) Americans and exists to this day as modern American racism.

Non-Native American and non-slave American society has rightly been called a society of immigrants. Initially, the bulk of these immigrants were from Northern European countries, particularly Great Britain, The Netherlands and Germany, but gradually other nationalities, such as the Irish, Scandinavians, Greeks and Italians came also, each new group seen as a threat to the established culture, and occasionally, as with Italians and Jews, to the racial purity of the society that existed. When Asians arrived in large numbers, as with the Chinese, the fear of polluting the White American stock became even greater, since Chinese resembled Northern Europeans much less than Italians had, and they were less likely to be Christians. America reacted by limiting immigration on the basis of national origin, as well as by further segregating immigrant communities and fostering racist attitudes that extended to Asian as well as African and Middle Eastern races.

Over time, Asian Americans have been more completely integrated into American society, as had Southern Europeans in the past, although, those from South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc. often encounter greater prejudice than do others, particularly since anti-Muslim prejudice has increased and they are often (and in many cases, incorrectly) identified as Muslims or Middle Easterners. Many immigrants for centuries, and particularly over the last several decades, have also come from Mexico, Central and South American, groups we often lump in the categories of “Latinos” or “Hispanics” and they have encountered prejudice, much of it recently as a result of being (often incorrectly) identified as illegal immigrants, based upon their appearance. It is fair to say that the darker one’s skin, regardless of the country one comes from, the less easily one is accepted into American society.

Over 60% of Americans are classified as non-Hispanic White. Hispanic Americans make up 18% of the population, African-Americans 12%, Asian Americans 6%, and Native Americans 1%. These numbers are changing because of differences in birth rates between racial/ethnic groups and new immigration. The birth rates of Hispanic mothers are the highest of any group and Native American and Asians the lowest, but all birth rates are relatively low and immigration is a bigger influence on changing American demographics than birth rate. Asians are the fastest increasing group of new immigrants. By 2044 it is expected that non-Hispanic Whites will represent less than 50% of Americans, although they will still be the largest single ethnic/racial group.

Changing demographics disturb nationalists who want to keep America White and Christian and preserve what they see as “traditional” American culture. Racially and ethnically it is very clear that the demographics of America are changing and that, for someone who is in the 50-60 age range, for instance, the America they were born into was very different from the one in which their grandchildren will live as adults, in terms of demography. Culturally, the difference may be more or less dramatic, depending upon a number of things, race and ethnicity being only one, and perhaps not the most important.  Changing attitudes toward gender identity, gender equality, environmental preservation, class stratification, the privileges of money, the types of art and music that are appreciated, the role of religion in society, the role of government, and not least of all the use of technology, may be more important in the future than issues of race or ethnicity in terms of shaping culture and values.

America has evolved into a society in which the ethnic/racial composition, the foods, the music, the type of dress, the attitudes toward family and the elderly, the importance of religion, attitudes toward gender differences and sexual preferences are extremely varied. In some ways this represents changes that have been taking place worldwide or at least across the Western and the developed world. It also represents the outcome of building a nation based upon immigration as the primary way of increasing both the number and variety of our citizens. Turkey at Thanksgiving may be a uniquely American tradition, but nearly all other celebrations and the foods and observances that go along with them were adopted from other countries. It is the relentless, though fitful, push toward acceptance of variety, an inevitable result of welcoming immigrants onto our shores that is the real tradition of America. The variety that comes from living shoulder to shoulder with people who come from ancestors who didn't look like one’s own, who follow a religion different from one’s own, who eat different foods and speak to their grandparents in a different language, is what America is about; it is what Americans can embrace as representing the uniqueness of America. It is the very culture we should be trying to preserve when we want to “keep America great.”

Anderson Cooper recently interviewed Marine Le Pen, the French presidential candidate on “60 Minutes”. During the interview, she stated that not only the “Burkini” should be banned from being allowed to be worn in public, because it “is not French,” but also religiously based headscarves and even Jewish Yarmulkes. This is part of her solution for keeping France “French” and preserving French culture. Can we imagine such clothing restrictions, particularly if they are based upon religion, being instituted in America? The reason we can’t is because it is the protection of individual freedom of expression and of religious expression, even, or particularly, when that expression differs from the majority, that is at the heart of our American culture. Allowing differences is what America is about. And in America, many of our differences have traditionally stemmed from our different national, ethnic, or religious backgrounds as immigrants.

We live in a country where tacos are becoming as popular as hotdogs, where rice is supplanting potatoes as our most popular starch, where it is usual for a restaurant to list a Vietnamese “banh mi” on their sandwich menu, where a women’s clothing catalogue that showed only white fashion models would seem an oddity, where an increasing number of our children are learning more than one language early in school, so they can prosper in a multilingual world. America  and Americans are better fit to live in a modern world because they have encountered variety in every aspect of their life as they have grown up. That’s the advantage of living in a “nation of immigrants.”

Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Jeff Sessions have it wrong when they believe that immigration is a threat to American culture. Immigration is, in fact, the heart of American culture. It is what American culture has always been about.

Reader Comments (4)

Your initial statement is factually incorrect. Your interpretation of MAGA is your own spin on its meaning. No one has said we want a decrease of talented Asian immigrants. As many on the left do, you intentionally conflate legal immigration and all its benefits with criminal border crossings and illegal occupation by non-citizens of a sovereign state.

Also, you seem to confuse settlers with immigrants. The first people in the new world were NOT the descendants of the Beringia-crossing North Asian people who were here when Europeans first arrived but an entirely different people who took a southern, Oceanic route to get to the Americas. They may have even been wiped out by the late-arriving usurpers from the North who then went on to occupy the land for millennia.

Regardless, this was not a settled continent of laws and borders when the first Europeans arrived. There was no land ownership, no property rights, no constitution, no central government, no industry, no formal economy and no citizenry. It was a wild and lawless land that was largely unoccupied. In no way am I endorsing the manner in which this young country dealt with the people who were already on the land, but it was in fact, a land that was going to be settled sooner or later. So those first Europeans in the New World were definitely not immigrants- there was no country to immigrate to- but were in fact settlers, those people who created a sustained country of rights and laws, even if their methods were cruel and harsh at times.

To summarize, there were first-arrivers, a representation of humans all of whom are now gone. Then there were the second wave arrivals; those people who were here when the Europeans first began forming the country as settlers. Only thereafter does immigration actually begin to take place. So to call European arrivals to this land "immigrants" prior to the formation of the country is an unsupportable premise and undermines the contention of this entire article.

March 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom Wheeler

Yours is a thoughtful and accurate analysis of the problem, Casey. The commentator who talks about America being a land for grabs is merely exemplifying what in your argument you rightly identify as the European-American imperative for superiority and domination. Are we going to allow only the "talented legal immigrants" to continue to live here instead of have respect for those crossing the equivalent of continents and willing to clean U.S. toilets with their tongues to make a better life for their children? Why is it that so many of the country's "elites" who are nominated for positions in the Federal government have to decline because they've employed these "untalented illegals" to raise their children. The lack of sympathetic imagination in our times has led to the rapid abandonment of even minimal moral standards.

March 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

The idea that Bannon, Sessions and Trump are only interested in reducing illegal immigration flies in the face of both media reports, their words, and legislation introduced in congress. Steve Bannon’s and Jeff Sessions’ opposition to even legal immigration, even of educated engineers and scientists is outlined in a recent New York Times Magazine article. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/28/magazine/jeff-sessions-stephen-bannon-justice-department.html Bannon himself said these things in a radio interview http://www.vox.com/2017/1/29/14429984/trump-immigration-order-steve-bannon
Both men, as well as the other politicians named in the article, share the view that recent immigration, legal and illegal, have altered Western culture, for the worse. Trump’s position is outlined in a speech he gave in Arizona: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/trumps-proposal-for-legal-immigration/499061/ Trump’s ideas about reducing legal immigration have been taken up by Republicans in congress, who have introduced legislation to reduce new, legal immigration by half. http://www.npr.org/2017/02/07/513957928/republican-lawmakers-propose-new-law-to-reduce-legal-immigration
To say that the first colonizers of North America were settlers and not immigrants is partly a semantic issue, but also does not give credence to property rights or modes of self-government of the people who already lived here, which were estimated to number from 7-18 million (apparently because their system of government or establishing boundaries to their territories did not conform to European conventions). However, both the colonists and, later, the U.S. government recognized the Indian Nations, by signing treaties with them and, in many cases, purchasing land (as well, of course, as simply taking it). But even if the original Europeans are regarded as “settlers,” the population of the original colonies in 1650, was only 50,000 people. Those would be the “settlers.” Everyone else came by way of immigration through colonial America. Even waiting to call people immigrants until they came to an established country, by 1776 there were only 2.5 million initial U.S. citizens. By 1800 the number was 5 million, by 1900, 76 million, by 2000, 282 million, today it is approximately 300 million. The descendants of the citizens within the U.S. in 1776 are estimated to be 124 million (I am one of them). The remaining 176 million Americans are descendants from those who immigrated to the U.S. after that. That is 59% of the current population.

March 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Dorman

Although I never specifically said that the American continents were a land-grab opportunity, essentially any and all land on the planet has historically been open to a land-grab from any superior invading force. It's ridiculous to assign this motivation to a single historical group. This ongoing, perpetual dynamic thus demonstrates the need for all of the establishment components I listed in my previous comment to ensure the safe and continued maintenance of one's country, values and culture.

The primary reason I do not want non-citizens living or working in this country is quite simple: these people have not passed the governmental litmus test that demonstrates that they were either born under or have chosen to adhere to the US Constitution, which is our central core value and defines and unites us as Americans. Without that, you've got an unknown element- people living in our country whose loyalty and values remain unknown. No other country in the world abides this degree of risk and uncertainty. The government's primary responsibility is to protect the people it governs, not those desperate dreamers who enter the country illegally.

So what if members of government decide it's a decent idea to slow down the rate immigration? Again, they're working for what they see as the best interest of the people they govern. There's no reason to assume that's an innately negative thing. It could be seen as a part of ensuring the perpetuation of Western liberal democracy. The point is that any culture must have primary shared values in order to be successful. The US Civil War is a good example of what happens when basic cultural values become misaligned. It's still the bloodiest war this country has ever experienced.

With regard to settlers vs. immigrants, the point is not which of us is descended from settlers or immigrants or who among us is a current emigre-citizen; the point is that people become citizens of our country everyday and their dedication and contributions are greatly welcome by a large majority of their co-citizens. But THAT is the route that must be followed to be here. Anything else is and should remain unacceptable.

March 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom Wheeler

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