The phrase “nation of immigrants” (1883) is often applied to the United States, especially by its scholars, journalists, presidents and schoolteachers.
Last week, President Obama put it like this (on November 20th 2014):
“My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forebearers were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like or what our last names are, or how we worship.”
His words do not apply to about 40% of the nation:
- Not to Native Americans who were wiped out or driven west.
- Nor to Black Americans who were brought in chains.
- Nor to Chinese Americans who were killed or driven out of the western US in the late 1800s.
- Nor to Mexican Americans deported in the 1930s.
- Nor to the people whose lands the US took over: Native Americans, Northern Mexicans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, Puerto Ricans, Guamanians, Palauans, Eastern Samoans, Northern Mariana Islanders or Virgin Islanders.
- Nor, given the perpetual foreigner stereotype, to Asian Americans.
- Nor to most British or Dutch Americans, who were not immigrants (people who move to a foreign country) but colonists (people who create an offshoot of their mother country). Calling them “immigrants” would mean they joined Native American societies. They were conquerors and invaders, not “immigrants”.
In English the word “immigrant” only goes back to 1792. The phrase “nation of immigrants” does not appear in print till 1883, not in the New York Times till 1923. It was still a surprising idea at Harvard University in 1945, even for historian Oscar Handlin, who grew up in New York City as the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. It did not take off till the 1960s, when President Kennedy wrote a book for the Jewish Anti-Defamation League called “A Nation of Immigrants” (1964).
So when Obama says, as he did in 2010, 2013 and 2014:
“We’ve always defined ourselves as a nation of immigrants.”
He is reading history backwards. It is an idea that did not catch on till the Third Enlargement of Whiteness, which took in southern and eastern Europeans.
Obama on Independence Day, 2012:
“We say it so often, we sometimes forget what it means – we are a nation of immigrants. Unless you are one of the first Americans, a Native American, we are all descended from folks who came from someplace else – whether they arrived on the Mayflower or on a slave ship, whether they came through Ellis Island or crossed the Rio Grande.”
The “nation of immigrants” thing colour-blinds US history as if it were not much affected by racism – genocide, slavery, settler colonialism, imperialism, etc – as if Italian and Jamaican immigrants are pretty much the same, or English colonists and African slaves, as if US institutions protect everyone’s rights regardless of race and the Bootstrap Myth is true.
Thanks to Kyle for suggesting this post.