I’m so pleased to be speaking to you today as part of the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly, although I wish we could be together on this occasion. It’s a rather dark but hopeful time, with young people in the streets all over, mostly young people of color, calling for a different world. And we all are involved in making that happen.
It’s especially an honor and meaningful to me that you chose my book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States as the UUA Common Read for 2019–2020.
I want to express solidarity with Indigenous communities, especially the Wampanoag, whose ancestral home of more than 12,000 years, Patuxet, was invaded and soon occupied by the initial posse of Anglo settler colonialism that would ravage the Indigenous peoples of North America. Let us mourn, not celebrate, the 400-year anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival in 1620.
The United States was founded as a settler state, and an imperialist one, from its inception. It was founded under the European imperialist Doctrine of Discovery. From the mid-fifteenth to the mid-twentieth century, most of the non-European world was colonized under the Doctrine of Discovery, one of the first principles of international law that Christian European monarchies and the papacy promulgated to legitimize, investigate, map, and claim lands belonging to non-Christian peoples outside of Europe. It originated in a papal bull issued in 1455 that permitted the Portuguese monarchy to seize West Africa and enslave the inhabitants—the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade. This was followed by another papal bull, shortly after Columbus’s first voyage, permitting Spain to colonize the Western Hemisphere. Disputes between the Portuguese and Spanish monarchies led to the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, which divided the planet equally between the two Iberian powers.
Soon Protestant monarchies in Britain and the Netherlands were seizing upon the Doctrine of Discovery to legally justify their colonial adventures. But not only monarchies: following the French Revolution, all the French Republics up until the 1960s used this legalistic instrument for their nineteenth- and twentieth-century settler colonialist projects, as did the newly independent United States when it continued colonization from thirteen former colonies across the continent. In 1792, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson claimed that the Doctrine of Discovery, developed by European states, was international law applicable to the new U.S. government as well. In the 1820s, the Doctrine of Discovery was engraved in constitutional law by the U.S. Supreme Court under John Marshall in decisions regarding the Cherokee Nation.
The Doctrine of Discovery is so taken for granted it is rarely mentioned in historical or even legal texts published in the Americas. And yet the United States has used the doctrine to rationalize its colonial dominion over Indigenous peoples throughout its history, citing the Marshall court precedent as recently as 2005 in the Supreme Court case of City of Sherrill v. Oneida Nation of Indians, which denied the Oneida Nation’s land claim. Although this was the Republican-dominated Scalia-Alito-Thomas court, the Oneida case was decided 8–1, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writing the decision; the Doctrine of Discovery is a bipartisan issue.
The genocidal Doctrine of Discovery is still a fundamental law of the land, the legal framework that informs the U.S. colonial system of controlling Indigenous nations today. The reality of legalistic settler colonialism and its offshoot, white nationalism, calls into question the common belief that the United States is a “nation of immigrants.” The nation-of-immigrants concept offers a revised origin story. Categorizing the United States as a nation of immigrants obscures the country’s settler colonial history and erases the violence of settler colonialism, genocide, and slavery.
Yet this concept is only sixty-two years old. In 1958, two years before he was elected president, then-Senator John F. Kennedy published a best-selling book titledA Nation of Immigrants, which advanced the notion that this country should be understood as having been peopled by immigrants from its beginning. Leading U.S. historians such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a mentor of Kennedy’s, embraced this thesis, and it found its way into required schoolbooks. It is fitting that Kennedy would introduce this idea. He was the first president born of recent immigrants, albeit very wealthy ones, and the first Catholic president in a Protestant-dominated culture. Indeed, the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s was based on opposition to Catholic immigrants. Already aspiring to the presidency, Kennedy introduced a clear concept that could transform his perceived negatives into positives.
Today “immigrant” is practically synonymous with the Mexico-U.S. border, so it is striking that Kennedy never mentions Mexico or Mexicans or the border in his book, nor does he use the current vague euphemisms “Latinx” and “Hispanic.” Yet this was 1958, late in the period of the Bracero Program, between 1942 and 1964, in which two million Mexican citizens worked basically as indentured agricultural workers. Meanwhile, the burgeoning agribusiness industry in California recruited more Mexican workers outside the program, without documentation or civil rights, subject to deportation. Even more egregious was a federal deportation program called “Operation Wetback,” which began during Kennedy’s first year as senator and continued through his presidency. Operation Wetback rounded up and deported more than one million Mexican migrant workers in its first year, mainly in California and Texas, in the process subjecting millions of Mexicans, many actually U.S. citizens, to illegal search and detention and some to mistaken deportation, forfeiting all their property. Most were deported by air far away from the border to central Mexico, leaving those who were U.S. citizens stranded without documents. Operation Wetback itself was a repeat of the Hoover administration’s deportation of a million Mexicans in the 1930s, which it dubbed “Mexican repatriation.”
Regarding the status of Indigenous peoples in Kennedy’s nation-of-immigrants scheme, he wrote, “Another way of indicating the importance of immigration to America is to point out that every American who ever lived, with the exception of one group, was either an immigrant himself or a descendant of immigrants. The exception? Will Rogers, part Cherokee Indian, said that his ancestors were at the docks to meet the Mayflower.” Kennedy disagreed, though, claiming that “some anthropologists believe that the Indians themselves were immigrants from another continent who displaced the original Americans—the aborigines.” (This very scenario is the bedrock of U.S. white nationalist groups who claim that those original aborigines were in fact European.) Kennedy mentions Native Americans only one other time in the book, when he refers to them as “the first immigrants” while dismissing their presence as “members of scattered tribes.”
Equally unsettling, Kennedy included enslaved Africans as immigrants, although the book contains the infamous drawing of a slave ship with humans chained down on their backs, scarcely an inch between them, packed likes sardines, hauled thousands of miles from their villages and fields, naked and with no belongings, forcibly denied not only their freedom but also their languages, customs, histories, and nationalities, and used not only as forced and unpaid labor, but also their very bodies considered private property to be bought and sold, soon creating a thriving legal slave market, the total monetary value of which by 1840 was greater than all other property combined, including all real estate, all gold in circulation, and all bank reserves.
Regarding Asian immigration Kennedy notes that, although their immigration experiences were not always pleasant, “the Japanese and Chinese brought their gentle dreams to the West Coast.”
Besides being Kennedy’s strategy for winning the presidency, the nation-of-immigrants idea also signaled the then-liberal U.S. ruling-class response to the challenges of the post–World War II national liberation movements in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia Pacific, as well as to civil and human rights social movements domestically. The National Congress of American Indians was founded in 1944 by Indigenous activists, giving birth to a powerful Indigenous sovereignty movement. Native American activists were contextualizing the situation of Native nations within the decolonization/national liberation/transnational context. African American attorneys and other professionals at the same time were developing a legal strategy for desegregating public schools, while in 1951, more radical African Americans—Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and others of the Civil Rights Congress—petitioned the recently established United Nations with a detailed document titled “We Charge Genocide,” based on the 1948 U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
These were cracks in the racial order of settler colonialism and capitalism, constituting an extraordinary phenomenon. At the end of World War II, the U.S. social, economic, and political order was solidly and confidently a white, patriarchal, Protestant republic, dominated by corporations and investments and financial reserves, along with a massive military machine. Descendants of enslaved Africans lived under totalitarian Jim Crow in the former Confederate states and were ghettoized and discriminated against when they escaped to northern and coastal industrial urban areas that were stalked by urban police forces resembling slave patrols. Native Americans were abandoned on shrunken land bases that could not support life, forcing many to work in cities. As Congress began reversing New Deal reforms, the Termination Act in 1953 did away with Native American status and the land base for many tribes. On the other hand, Irish and southern and eastern European Americans, many Catholics, and Jews had made gains in being accepted as equal, insofar as they embraced white supremacy. On the West Coast, U.S. citizens of Chinese and Mexican descent were discriminated against and subject to deportation, while during the war U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were incarcerated in concentration camps, stripped of their property and citizen’s rights. Want ads openly offered lower wages to women and Black workers. Ivy League universities were overwhelmingly white and for men only, with quotas to limit the number of Jewish men.
It is no coincidence that between 1950 and 1954—when Native and Black activists were building powerful movements to challenge the very underpinnings of the United States, and when the peoples who had been colonized and exploited for centuries by European states were rising for independence—the ideology of anti-communism was manufactured. The ideology accelerated when an explosion cracked the white republic: the 1954 Supreme Court decision under Chief Justice Earl Warren that desegregated schools. (Warren, incidentally, was the governor of California who initiated the incarceration of Japanese Americans.) Immediately white citizens’ councils organized all over the United States, linking communism with racial integration. The Metropolitan Opera, for example, was deemed communist because it included African American artists. Within three years of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the white nationalist John Birch Society was launched by Robert Welch, heir of a candy fortune in Massachusetts. One founding member, Fred Koch, was the father of Charles and David Koch, whose fortunes still fund white supremacist legislation and movements to privatize everything and end all government benefits.
This was a counterrevolution that paralleled the ascendant liberation and anti-imperialist and youth movements that grew throughout the 1960s and 1970s, until it successfully brought the avatar of racist right-wing politics, Ronald Reagan, to the presidency. So began our current era. Parallel to the domestic counterrevolution, the CIA ran counterinsurgency operations against national liberation movements in newly established former colonies and states before and after they took power, including the 1955–1975 war in Southeast Asia. White supremacy and anti-communism were the connective tissue.
The first highly visible sign of the organized counterrevolution vying for political power was the evangelical anti-abortion movement that soared following the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. Then, in 1977, the rather benign century-old National Rifle Association was taken over by a politicized faction led by Harlon Carter, who had been head of Border Patrol and a leader of Operation Wetback. This is the moment when the Second Amendment became a white nationalist cause. The right wing was cognizant that the Supreme Court was reinterpreting the Constitution of the patriarchal white republic and began a forty-year movement to take back the Constitution through presidential appointments to the Supreme Court, which they finally achieved in 2018.
In the mid- and late 1960s and early 1970s, while the U.S. genocidal war in Vietnam raged, in order to maintain economic, political, and military domination the liberal ruling class in the United States sought ways of responding to social demands while maintaining power and military hegemony. So they offered multiculturalism, diversity, affirmative action, and, yes, a “nation-of-immigrants” ideology in response to demands for decolonization, justice, reparations, social and economic equality, and an end to U.S. imperialism and aggressive wars. To offset exclusive emphasis on pioneer history and “winning the West” as the national triumphal interpretation, a nation of immigrants was said to make the U.S. the greatest country on Earth. Despite the surging white nationalism during the twelve-year Reagan-Bush administrations, by the early 1990s, the nation-of-immigrants narrative that Kennedy had conceived was a consensus concept in public school textbooks, which set off the textbook wars over history standards, with the right wing pushing for and winning more pioneer patriotism and Founding Fathers iconography.
In both the liberal and right-wing versions of the national narrative, there is a misrepresentation of the process of European colonization of North America. Making everyone an immigrant serves the origin myth of the mostly benign and benevolent United States, and masks the fact that the Anglo-Germanic settlers in North America were settlers, colonial settlers, just as the colonial powers of Spain, Portugal, Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium said their citizens were settlers, not immigrants. Immigrants who arrived after the settler state was firmly established were required to aspire to the settler role in order to be successful.
The first set of arrivals were not immigrants per se, rather refugees of famine. Between 1845 and 1852 Ireland’s Great Potato Famine induced a massive influx of Irish refugees to the United States, some two million destitute people. Although they were mostly Catholic and despised by the Anglo-Protestant majority, they quickly became the nation’s second largest European ethnic group. Their mortality rates were high: more than half of the children born to the refugees in Boston died before the age of 6. Being peasants with few skills, they took whatever jobs they could find, working on the docks, pushing carts, or digging canals in transcontinental railroad construction. Tragically, they were recruited to work as slave patrollers in the economic powerhouse of the Mississippi Basin cotton kingdom and in other police forces. They were also inducted into the U.S. wars against the Seminole Nation in Florida in the 1840s and ’50s and the 1846–1848 war against Mexico.
In the nearly two centuries of British colonization of the North Atlantic coast and up to U.S. independence, the great majority of Euro-American settlers were Protestant Anglo-Saxon and Scots-Irish (the Scottish colonizers of Northern Ireland on behalf of Britain) and German-speaking settlers, before Germany was a nation-state. There was also a significant and growing population of enslaved Africans. Yet even during the influx of Irish refugees, there were no immigration laws or procedures until 1864, when the contract labor law allowed active recruitment of foreign labor. In 1875, the Supreme Court declared that only the federal government could create immigration laws. In the 1880s more than five million Europeans, mainly eastern Europeans, arrived in search of jobs in the burgeoning industrial sites in the Northeast. Many of these immigrants were fleeing pogroms against Jews; others were driven out by political repression. They brought with them strong organizational experience. More socialistically inclined immigrant-driven workers’ movements forced the reformulation of industrial capitalism, but their status as immigrants made them vulnerable to political deportation in the twentieth century.
The first federal immigration law was the blatantly racist Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, which suspended Chinese immigration and barred resident Chinese from U.S. citizenship. In 1902 the exclusion was renewed indefinitely. On the West Coast, trade unionism was corrupted by its support for barring Chinese workers, as well as for spreading “yellow-peril” racism. This kind of bigotry led to the internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent under the liberal Roosevelt administration. Legal immigration from non-European countries did not resume until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which set up the system largely in use today.
Although immigrant bashing is not new and has long targeted Asian and Mexican workers, it has crystallized in the past three decades, adding Muslims to the targeted groups, and accelerated in the last few years. Yet those who defend immigrants and immigration—mostly metropolitan liberals and people who are immigrants themselves—employ the idea of a nation of immigrants naively, without considering the settler colonial history of the United States and the white nationalist ideology it reproduces. Such advocates were caught by surprise and shocked when Mexican-hating led to a successful presidential election. The homogenization inherent in the concept of a nation of immigrants is further flattened when the generic and ahistorical term “Latino” is used as a euphemism not just for Mexicans but people from other Central American countries. (Fox News actually called Central America “Southern Mexico.”) I strongly dislike and discourage the use of the terms “Latino” or “Hispanic” and the most recent gender-neutral term “Latinx” to refer to Spanish-speaking people of the Western Hemisphere. The terms racialize various distinct nationalities as well as imposing the colonizers’ term, “Latin,” on Indigenous peoples of those nation-states. Each of these peoples has experienced U.S. imperialism once they freed themselves from Spain, while Puerto Rico remains a colony of the United States. But “Latinx” also erases the millions of Indigenous peoples who were colonized by the Spanish and who remain oppressed in the Euro-American nation-states that were their homelands.
Only one of the Spanish-speaking nation-states has a land border with the United States—a 2,000-mile border, a questionably legal, unstable border—and that is Mexico. Immigrant hating in the U.S. is almost always about Mexicans, not Latinos in general. No one hates Cubans. No one particularly hates Argentines or Chileans or Columbians. This is directly related to the unsettled border of 1848, after the U.S. invaded and then annexed half of Mexico under a dubious treaty—nearly half of the continental territory of the United States today.
By the 1990s, multiculturalism was at an apex. The “nation-of-immigrants” story even included Indigenous peoples who had been brutally displaced and murdered by settlers and armies. There were objections from some Indigenous educators and from African American educators for referring to enslaved Africans hauled across the ocean in chains as “immigrants,” but that has not deterred the “nation-of-immigrants” chorus.
We have a fundamental problem of white nationalism that isn’t new with Trump and Charlottesville but is inscribed in the founding of the United States as a European settler colonial expansionist entity, the economy of which was grounded in the violent theft of land and racial slavery. Its settlers have been armed to the teeth throughout its history. The U.S. population of 330 million owns an estimated 393 million civilian firearms, yet only 30 percent of the population own those guns, and 3 percent of the population own 50 percent of the guns. This minority of gun owners are primarily white men who are descendants of the original settlers and are presently the base of the Trump administration. These descendants—most obvious in the former Confederate States, but actually in pockets everywhere, due to Southern poverty pushing them to seek jobs in the North and West and Alaska—are the latter-day carriers of the national origin myth, a matrix of stories that attempt to justify conquest and settlement, transforming the white frontier settlers into an indigenous people believing that they are the true natives of the continent. It is essential to acknowledge the powerful influence of this cultural, religious, and demographic minority in order to understand persistent white supremacy and mistrust of immigrants of color as well as descendants of Indigenous North Americans, enslaved Africans, and Mexicans and Central Americans, and, more recently, Muslims.
The nation-of-immigrants liberal ideology was born again in 2015 during the Obama presidency with the Broadway musical Hamilton. In the play, Alexander Hamilton and the Frenchman the Marquis de Lafayette celebrate their actions at the Battle of Yorktown by proclaiming “Immigrants: we get the job done.” Of course, the United States did not even exist yet in 1781, when the Yorktown engagement took place, and neither of the men was an immigrant by any definition. Lafayette was a wealthy Frenchman, a militarist who threw his lot into the gunplay, as did numerous foreign thrill seekers, then returned home to France without a thought of remaining in North America in the new United States. Hamilton was a citizen of Great Britain, as were all secessionists who created the United States out of the thirteen colonies. British settlers and their descendants in the British settler colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America and in the Caribbean were British citizens, free to move from colony to colony or to return to England. They were British citizens wherever they were. Hamilton, born of British settlers in the Caribbean, moved to the British colony of New York in 1772 to enter the prestigious King’s College (now Columbia University). It was no different than, say, a young man from colonial South Carolina or Virginia moving to New York to attend college. The creator and original star of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was born and grew up in New York in a wealthy Puerto Rican family, presents himself as an immigrant, obfuscating the reality of Puerto Rico as a U.S. territory, whose residents have been U.S. citizens by birth since 1917, free to live anywhere they wish within the United States. The irony of portraying Hamilton as an immigrant, and thereby immigrant-friendly, is that he was the opposite. His Federalist Party introduced the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which allowed the government to imprison and deport non-citizens.
We need to ask ourselves why, in the early twenty-first century, an invented hagiography of the Founding Father and architect of U.S. capitalism, Alexander Hamilton, is so enthusiastically embraced by liberals. The Broadway musical employing hip-hop and Black and Puerto Rican actors playing white founding fathers, most of whom were either slave owners or speculators in the slave trade, while no enslaved people themselves appeared in the script, created near hysteria and ecstasy and became a hit among young people—white, Black, and especially descendants of immigrants—and is being reenacted and taught in K–12 schools. It is a cruel deception we need to think deeply about. That’s why I’m writing a book on the myth of the nation of immigrants.
This article is adapted from “Settler Colonialism and a History of Erasure and Exclusion,” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Featured Speaker presentation at the UUA General Assembly, June 25, 2020. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s book, Not a Nation of Immigrants: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion will be published by Beacon Press in May 2021.