There are perhaps two equally dispiriting realizations to emerge from the president’s recent twitter spat with those four congresswomen of color.
The first is that we have every right to be dismayed at those supporters and politicians who have defended the president’s dreadful demand for said women to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” The second realization is that who gets to say what, and in effect get away with it, is very much color-coded.
In the years leading up to the 2016 election, Donald Trump constantly spouted comments that spoke to his perception of the dysfunctionality of the U.S. and its failure to win.
Indeed, much of his campaign seemed to be based on his belief that the U.S. had fallen into a wretched state of disrepair, he alone being the solution to the nation’s ills and lack of success in the world. There were not many commentators accusing Trump of being anti-American, unpatriotic, and not being a lover of his country.
It seems that if you are white and are privileged, you can say almost anything you want about anything you like, without much in the way of adverse comeback. And certainly, you won’t, under any circumstances, find your patriotism being questioned and your U.S. citizenship trampled underfoot.
Tellingly, not only were Trump’s pre-election comments doing down the U.S. passed over or downplayed, absolutely nobody told Trump he should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested place[s] from which [he] came.”
Americans of color, most obviously African Americans, have, for centuries, had the most tenuous grasp of citizenship. Research has shown Americans are more likely to perceive a white person as being American than a black person, even though the black person’s ancestry in the U.S. might go back to the 17th century.
As an American citizen of color, one is required to express one’s ideas for how the country can be made better, only within an extraordinarily restrictive template. As those congresswomen and numerous other black Americans have found, deviation from the template of docile jingoism can unleash a torrent of abuse that ultimately, or quickly, questions their very right to be in America.
When I was growing up in Wolverhampton, in the West Midlands of England, in the mid- to late 1970s, a nasty far-right party, the National Front, was in the ascendancy.
Under the cloak of the British flag, the group was avowedly racist and festooned the towns and cities in which they had supporters with stickers that declared “If They’re Black, Send Them Back!” With the black presence in Britain going back millennia, and with a country such as Jamaica having been a British colony since the middle of the 17th century (Scotland, by contrast, was brought into the Union in the early 18th century), the palpable nonsense of “send them back” seemed to be self-evident.
Four decades later, it is extraordinarily depressing to see that same ignorant worldview reemerging with such gusto, and with such profoundly negative implications for America’s citizens of color.
If we don’t call out this toxic rhetoric, our country will slide further toward the horrific prospect of its citizens of color: when speaking out about the nation’s shortcomings, being judged against a spurious and racially suspect yardstick of patriotism.
Without the right to call out particular failures of American foreign policy, and the economic and societal abusing of the less privileged among us, Americans of all ethnicities will ultimately find their status as citizens diminished. We surely cannot let such a backward slide continue unchecked.
One of the most overlooked aspects of this entire thing is that it is irrelevant where these congresswomen were born and what their respective genealogies might be. We know that the rights of certain Americans are worth less than the rights of other Americans, on the basis of ethnicity and skin color.
But even so, whatever their views and however they expressed them, as individuals resident in the U.S., the four congresswomen surely have the constitutional right to do so. And come Election Day, their constituents have the majestic privilege of passing judgment.
Eddie Chambers is a professor of art history and African diaspora art in the College of Fine Arts at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat, San Antonio Express News, Corpus Christi Caller Times, Abilene Reporter News, Lubbock Avalanche Journal, Austin American Statesman, and the Amarillo Globe News.