By Alex Mikulich, Ph.D.
If we are to understand the intersection between race, so-called “illegality,” and the immigration industrial complex (as some immigration scholars are now naming it), I suggest that we need to understand the historical dynamics of whiteness in relation to who is welcomed to become American.
It is not enough to examine external borders and outsiders; we also need to examine internal borders, internal outsiders, and the history of internal migrations, especially the history of lynching and Great Migration of African Americans in the 20th century, if we are going to understand the presence of the past today. 1
At least one condition of the possibility of justice for newcomers is remembering the history of lynching as a way to interrogate and dismantle the hidden border of whiteness.
Who counts as an American citizen—and who should be welcomed as one—is an enduring racial conflict that marks U.S. history. Some of the markers of this historical fact include the institution of slavery and the 3/5ths clause of the original constitution, the Indian Removal Act of 1830—more aptly named the Trail of Tears, the legalization of separate but equal in Plessy v. Ferguson, the exclusion of Asian Indians from citizenship in U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923), and Operation Wetback, the 1954 INS project to remove Mexicans—including Mexican American citizens—from the United States.
As the theologian Shawn Copeland puts it,
a white, racially bias-induced horizon defines, censors, controls, and segregates different, other, non-white bodies. Ordinarily, these bodies are “invisible” in the process of historical, cultural, and social creativity and representation, but should these non-white bodies step ‘out of place,’ they are subordinated literally to surveillance, inspection, discrimination, assessment and containment. 2
Even though interracial mixture has been a long-standing human reality, and even as racial identification becomes ever more fluid and unpredictable in a globalizing world, conscious and unconscious cultural practices of a white, racially-biased boundary reproduces historical patterns of who is excluded from American citizenship.
An example of this reality is the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has never defined “white,” despite the fact that the Court has consistently measured who is not white to evaluate citizenship appeals. The legal scholar Ian Haney Lopez’s analysis of 52 cases decided between the Civil War and 1952 reveals how the Court decided who should or should not become a citizen. Justices relied upon unscientific rationales of common knowledge that appealed to popular white racial conceptions. The failure of U.S. courts to define “white” is one powerful way our system maintains white as natural and, simultaneously, the perversity of white ignorance. 3
The dominant narrative of a Eurocentric “immigrant” nation continues to obscure internal border enforcement of lynching that gave rise to the Great Migration of African Americans in the twentieth century. Curiously, white Americans forget that in 1921, white citizens of Tulsa, Oklahoma, commandeered planes from the local army base to firebomb the city’s African American neighborhood. The fact that white Americans presume 9/11 as the nation’s first terrorist air attack on American soil, observes Jennie Lightweis Goff, “indicates how deeply the term terrorist is raced, since white communities are so often protected from its stigma.” 4
That the legacy of lynching is too often forgotten ought to disturb all of us. The historian Fitzhugh Brundage argues that “nothing about the history of mob violence in the United States is more surprising than how quickly an understanding of the full horror of lynchings has receded from the nation’s collective historical memory.” 5
White cultural amnesia perpetuates three myths about the reality of lynching: 1) that it was a cultural aberration practiced by a few racist Americans; 2) that it was only practiced in the South; and 3) that lynching ended with the process of modernization of the economy and culture in the twentieth century.
Lynching cannot be marginalized as an isolated Southern practice. Lynching was practiced first against Mexican, Native American, and Chinese immigrants in the West, and then migrated East where it was used to enforce Jim Crow. 6 Not only did the federal government and white northerners fail to interrupt lynching in any way, a critical way that the U.S. forged “reunion” after the Civil War was to allow white supremacist violence to thrive. In the North, internal migrants who were fleeing lynching were accused of poverty and cultural inferiority, were charged taxes to pay for projected welfare, and most often were excluded from labor unions that were critical for economic advancement.
The cultural logic of lynching enabled it to emerge and persist throughout the twentieth century, argues Jacqueline Goldsby, because its violence “fit” with broader cultural developments. Lynching—and forgetfulness of it—signals American dis-value of Black life. 7
The legacy of lynching becomes especially daunting when one considers new anti-immigrant movements against Latin@ migration. This contemporary movement includes rancher patrols, enjoys support of prison unions, and white paramilitary groups like the Minutemen who have terrorized Latino communities throughout the country. These same interests have also formed the political lobbying power to build a fence on the Mexican border and pass new laws to prevent Latino migration, all in order to define Americanness as white.
As one immigration scholar puts it, the complexes of the prison, military, and immigration industries share three fundamental features: i) they thrive on a rhetoric of fear; ii) they have been built by a powerful confluence of corporate and governmental interests; and iii) they rely upon a discourse of racial other-ization.
Because the brutality of lynching is so unspeakable and because the lives and bodies of black, brown, red, and yellow Americans are negligible concerns of white America—this cultural logic also concerns how the nation has disavowed lynching’s normative relationship to modernization in twentieth century America. Thus Goldsby speaks of lynching’s “secrecy” as an historical event. The spectacular secret of lynching is its hiddenness to American white identity and modernity and how the proliferation and publication of photos of lynching—widely publicized by whites in postcards and most recently recorded in Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, kept the African American experience of lynching secret.
As white America presumes knowledge in seeing—think of the contradiction between common white claims to colorblindness alongside the widespread police use of racial profiling—and because the forms of oppression in the late twentieth and early 21st century do not look like lynching, lynching could be disavowed again, as whites continue to ignore the wisdom of our black and brown brothers and sisters.
The forms of racial dominance that have followed lynching have been no less lethal. In fact, it is more accurate to say that the cultural logic of our current white racial dominance is more entrenched, more deeply institutionalized in the prison and immigration industrial complex that hyper-incarcerates black and brown men and women, and perhaps is even more widespread than the violent legacy of lynchings recorded by the Tuskegee Institute.
White America has yet to learn that our humanity is fundamentally linked to our brothers and sisters of color whom we incarcerate, detain, deport, and execute. Recognizing this deeper reality will elude white Americans until we contend with our complicity in the enduring legacy of racial violence and how this legacy contradicts our most fundamental claims to democratic equality.
1. I draw upon the work of Steve Martinot, “Immigration and the Boundary of Whiteness,” Race/Ethnicity, Vol I, No. 1, p. 17-36.
2. M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010, p. 15.
3. Ian Haney Lopez, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York: NYU Press, 2006, 10th Anniversary Edition.
4. Jennie Lightweis Goff, Blood at the Root: Lynching as American Cultural Nucleus. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011, p. 12-13.
5. Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia: 1880-1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993, p. 258.
6. See Ken Gonzales Day, Lynching in the West: 1850-1935. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.
7. Jacqueline Goldsby, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
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