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By Judith Heilman

February 18, 2017

No doubt about it. Xenophobia in the United States is alive and thriving. It pretty much went afire during the 2017 presidential primaries and then became a conflagration immediately after the Inauguration. Now, with the Muslim ban that our new president and supporters want to enact, there is major pushback on xenophobia from immigrants and those supporting immigrants. That push back is completely justifiable and I’m one of those actively resisting. But…

There is a single lens – a single frame – that many look through on this issue and it needs to be pointed out. We read it in the statements and on the signs which say, “We Are All Immigrants.” We see it in, “This Nation Was Built By Immigrants.” Both viewpoints exclude the obvious fact that Indigenous in this country were here for tens of thousands of years before anyone else set foot on this land. Both frames completely disregard that nearly all the Black folk in this country are descendants of independant people brought here against their will – kidnapped – in chains, ripped from their families, miraculously surviving marches sometimes thousands of miles long and a sardine-packed prison journey across the Middle Passage. They were slaves who helped build this country's economy (and the White House) with the scars of whippings on their backs.  

Both Native Americans and African Americans managed to survive near genocide in the name of colonialism, but not without lasting trauma existing to this day in their very DNA (google "epigenetics.")

But, even more insidious than these myopic and dismissive frames, is the statement about immigrants that goes something like this. “They (immigrants) endured so we could prosper. They suffered getting to this country and the discrimination that we faced here so we would be fed. We stand here today – on their backs.” Why is this view so troublesome? Let me break it down for you.

First, know that I agree that Irish and Italians and Poles, etc., etc., etc. definitely did not have it easy upon arrival in America. But, you know what? Our country’s Indigenous and African Americans were always – always – at the bottom of the heap and remain so. It’s the nature of our country’s caste system to always place brown skinned people (and those with almond shaped eyes) at the bottom. Most of the immigrants from non-English speaking countries were eventually accepted. Not only that, but many actively oppressed Indigenous and Black folk. Take Montana for example.

That big statue of a soldier on a horse with sword raised in front of our State Capitol? Well, that is Thomas Meagher. He was our acting governor for two years. He was a very proud Irish man. And he was an Indian killer. He died on his way to get a shipment of arms to kill Sioux in Montana Territory.

The ratio of Black folks to White in Montana was never so high as it was in the early 1870’s (The Census listed African Americans in Montana Territory as almost 1% of the total population.) But in the late 1870’s, the Black population across the state dropped off and has never recovered. This happened when an anti-miscegenation law was passed by the State Legislature and when the Ku Klux Klan began to thrive throughout the state. Being Black in Montana became downright unsafe. The Black population in Montana is now about .4%.

“We stand here today – on their (immigrants) backs.” That may be so, but plenty of immigrants got to where they are today, prospering, on the backs of Native and Black folk. It’s best to acknowledge and reconcile the trauma of that truth right up front so we can move forward and resist today’s xenophobia – together – on the same page.