Tolerating intolerance in the US

A Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed a resolution to condemn President Donald Trump’s "racist comments" towards four Democratic congresswomen of colour. Does the American President’s actions signal not just growing intolerance but also its sanction by the holder of the highest office in the US?

Background

The US has a very long history of state-sponsored discrimination. In the 1700s, slaves, and people of color, in general, were treated as sub-human, and a long-standing pattern of discrimination emerged from this point, which has fed into the current culture of xenophobia.

During the late 1800s in southern America, we see the establishment of Jim Crow laws which enforced racial segregation in almost all spheres of public life including schools, churches, restaurants, public transportation, and even the military. 

In the 1930s the American federal government implemented a housing program which purposely segregated housing opportunities based on race. Richard Rothstein, the author of The Colour of Law, notes that the government's housing policies were "primarily designed to provide housing to white, middle-class, lower-middle-class families," while communities of colour were excluded from the initiative and pushed into urban housing projects. 

In the 1940's President Roosevelt sanctioned the establishment of internment camps where thousands of American citizens were forcibly removed from their homes and made to live in camps, isolated from the rest of society - for the sole reason that they were ethnically Japanese. Despite having American citizenship, their loyalties were questioned by virtue of their heritage, during World War II. This is very similar to today's scenario where the meaning of "American" has taken on a racial and ethnic slant.   

Analysis

On Sunday, President Donald Trump tweeted that Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib "originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe" and suggested that they should "go back".

Although Trump did not refer to the Congresswomen by name, the context made it clear that he was referencing the four Democratic Congresswomen, who are popularly known as The Squad. The Congresswomen, who are all American citizens, dismissed the comments as a distraction and urged people to focus on policies instead. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez swiftly responded to Trump with a tweet that read "Mr. President, the country I 'come from', and the country we all swear to, is the United States,".

Since then, leaders and political influencers have come out to condemn Trump's statements as being inappropriate, hateful, and even racist; while several members of Congress have also spoken out in support of their female colleagues.

It is against the House rules to refer to the President as racist, but in light of these recent remarks, the Democrat-controlled Congress pushed to vote on a resolution to denounce Mr. Trump's "racist comments that have legitimized fear and hatred of New Americans and people of colour".

"Every single member of this institution, Democratic and Republican, should join us in condemning the President's racist tweets. To do anything less would be a shocking rejection of our values and a shameful abdication of our oath of office to protect the American people. I urge a unanimous vote," said Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House.

The vote was preceded by an intense debate from both sides of the aisle. Democrat John Lewis said that "at the highest level of government, there's no room for racism", while Republican Dan Meuser referred to the allegations as "ridiculous slander".

Trump has defended his remarks on Twitter by exclaiming that he doesn't have a racist bone in his body. He also demanded apologies from the Congresswomen for "the foul language they have used and the terrible things they have said".

Soon after the vote, Democratic Representative Al Green filed articles of impeachment against President Trump.  Despite the fact that several Democrats have been pushing for impeachment, the party leadership seems hesitant to do so. This has caused somewhat of a rift within the Democratic party, escalating existing tensions in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election.

Trump being accused of spreading hateful, xenophobic, and racist thoughts is certainly nothing new. Ever since the President began his presidential election campaign in 2015, he has been known to make controversial (and sometimes derogatory) remarks against America's immigrant population.

At his presidential campaign kick-off in June 2015, Trump labelled many Mexican immigrants as "rapists." In 2017, he said there were good people on "both sides" of the clash in Charlottesville between white supremacists and anti-racist demonstrators. During a private White House meeting on immigration in 2018, President Trump mused about why the United States was admitting so many immigrants from "shithole countries", in reference to several African nations.

Trump has frequently described the influx of immigrants as an "infestation" and has been slow to condemn violent acts of white supremacy. He even launched his political career on a xenophobic platform by falsely claiming that President Barack Obama is a Muslim who was not even born in the United States.

Assessment

  • President Trump's candid expressions of xenophobic ideas have inspired a resurgence in white supremacy over the past three years, and this has manifested itself in the form of verbal and physical violence against communities of colour.  According to an FBI report, Trump's first year in office witnessed a 17% spike in hate crimes.
  • Perhaps Trump has strategically chosen to make divisive statements, and introduce divisive policies in an effort to attract voters from a demographic that has been relatively dormant in US politics. The phrase, "go back to where you came from" symbolizes a popular notion that people of colour are excluded from the vision of a "purely American" society. This redefines the American identity in a way that not only alienates millions of American citizens but also puts their safety at risk. It is clear that for a large number of people, US citizenship is no longer a sufficient criterion for being considered an American.
  • Increasing intolerance is not unique to the United States. We are witnessing a widespread rise in right-wing populism, alt-right politics, and white supremacy in "western countries" across Europe and Oceania. America is historically a nation built by immigrants for immigrants, which is why the current trends are rather alarming.

India Watch

The rise of racial intolerance in the United States has serious implications for Indians in America – both immigrants and US citizens alike. There are over 300,000 Indian workers currently in the United States on temporary work visas, primarily employed at tech companies. If the trend of intolerance continues to escalate, Indian workers may be dis-incentivized from accepting job offers in the United States. This could result in a significant skills gap in the US labour force, which could adversely impact productivity in the short run. Indian-Americans who are US citizens are also likely to look for employment opportunities in other parts of the world.

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