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The Passport of Whiteness

Enri Canaj/Magnum Photos
African migrants, Sicily, July 17, 2017

“I don’t know anything about immigration.”

“You live with an immigrant,” my boyfriend said.

“But I think of you as an Englishman in New York. Just passing through.”

“Yes, I’m an immigrant just passing through.”

The exchange showed me how much about race immigration is.

Is there a distinction between xenophobia and racism? If there is, then it would be that in the case of xenophobia, people who have never seen these other people before may be frightened or whatever, but they wouldn’t be proceeding from a theory of superiority.

In 1598, Elizabeth Tudor ordered her council to promulgate an order to expel “blackamores” from her kingdom because they had become too numerous. Was it because they were black or, as some historians have suggested, because they were non-Christian? Did black skin mean non-Christian and did non-Christian mean primarily Moslem?

And what happened to the eighteenth-century black populations of London and Bristol? What do we really know about Bristol-born Cary Grant’s family tree? Beethoven had a black grandfather, one of the “Spanish fleas,” black troops that occupied the Spanish Netherlands, according to the black journalist and amateur historian J.A. Rogers. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Rogers published, on his own, a three-volume work, Sex and Race, arguing that there is no pure, unmixed race in the modern world (apart from the Japanese—and look what good that had done them). Rogers started reading in libraries across Europe in the late 1920s, and then returned after World War II, an autodidact who wanted to demonstrate that the history of the world is that of people in motion, migrating populations.

We live in the wake of a profound population movement. In the past twenty-five years in China, two hundred million people are said to have left the countryside for the cities, some of which did not exist a quarter of a century ago. For how long have we been reading about African youth drowned in the Mediterranean? How bad must things be back in the societies where they came from for them to be willing to take such risks, given what they know, what they’ve heard, and the hard life that awaits them in Italy, Spain, and points north in Europe?

Angela Merkel deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. She was very brave morally and politically in her position on the Syrian refugees, as were many Greek citizens who defied their own panicked government in order to help desperate families in flight. Jihadist terrorist attacks in Europe are as much aimed against these Arabs as they are against Europeans—secular Arabs, middle-class Arabs, moderate Muslims, people trying to get away from the kind of regimes we would also be trying to escape. The attacks are designed to isolate such people further.

The strike that closed the Channel Tunnel two years ago backed up trucks at Calais. Refugees and migrants from nearby camps and centers fell upon the stalled convoy and hid themselves everyplace they could. The UK’s Channel 4 News interviewed one man who had been pulled from his hiding place by French police. His face obscured, the man answered that he was from Aleppo. He was a teacher. He taught Shakespeare. And the correspondent, even the presumably liberal guy you’d expect from Channel 4 News, betrayed a note of incredulity in his voice when he asked, Oh yeah? What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?

The man began to recite from Romeo and Juliet, at length, and had to be interrupted. People who have never heard of Shakespeare also deserve to be free, but what have we to fear from this man, in particular?

A Bavarian Catholic, an unmarried woman in her forties, surprised me when she called Merkel unwise. The Cologne attacks had recently happened and she said that was very dangerous to have so many single Arab men on the streets of German cities.

I thought of the medal my boyfriend gave me, struck in Munich to protest France’s use of Senegalese troops in the occupation of the Ruhr after the Treaty of Versailles: on one side, a thick-lipped, helmeted black man in profile; on the other, a European woman tied to the shaft of a soaring dick.

Europe doesn’t have a Muslim problem. It has a race problem. One that doesn’t get talked about, a history that doesn’t get connected to what is going on today. Paris has had a sizeable Arab population since the late nineteenth century.

In the aging societies of Western Europe, youth is being wasted. Young men are growing up excluded and policed, because of race, because of the past, because whiteness is the only form of wealth some of the people in these societies have. Meanwhile, young Greek people emigrate to Australia, and Portuguese youth are moving in significant numbers to Angola. But how weird is this: the Pakistani community in Birmingham, England, voted overwhelmingly for Brexit, although many Brexit backers were that kind of obnoxious white British anti-immigrant toff or lout.

In the Western Hemisphere, a literature of immigration has emerged. Junot Diaz speaks of the shadow of the United States that hung over his childhood in the Dominican Republic. It’s almost too easy to catch out the Founding Fathers either for their proslavery or for their anti-immigration pronouncements. Never mind Thomas Jefferson, for once: Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton both had a particular animus against German immigrants. Was every German a Hessian mercenary to them?

A substantial proportion of the Germans who came after the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 were artisans. In the 1850s, half of the immigrants to the US were Irish peasants who settled in the cities of the eastern seaboard. In the nineteenth century, hardly any large city did not have riots between old and new labor populations. Immigration as a subject, and immigrants as voters to be manipulated, have always been a feature of American political life. Before the 1908 election in New York City, officials tried to move voter registration to Saturdays only, in an attempt to exclude observant Jewish immigrants whom they feared would support the Socialist candidate, Eugene V. Debs.

It has also been true of American life that one of the ways in which despised white immigrants gained acceptance and a share in national identity was by subscribing to the racial order of segregation. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 put a stop to competition from Chinese laborers for jobs in the West. The Dawes Act of 1887 created Indian reservations and was celebrated by white politicians as an honorable conclusion to the “Indian Problem.” In 1896, the Supreme Court upheld racial segregation as law in Plessy v. Ferguson. European immigration all but stopped in World War I, and white agents who went South in search of black people to fill places in factories were sometimes met with violence from white landowners. But 500,000 black people rushed northward during the Great War, having escaped “the idiocy of rural life,” as Marx once described it. Segregation existed in the North, enforced by real estate companies that controlled where blacks and whites could live, as Lorraine Hansberry’s family tried to tell us.

In 1922, the Supreme Court declared that Japanese people were not Caucasians and therefore not eligible for citizenship. Black American literature in the twentieth century not only deals with the subject of black people who pass for white as an individual solution to a mass problem, it also talks about the fluidity of Spanish or Latin American identity. Places where they’d be thrown out as black Americans would accept them as Cuban or South American. But again, that depended on where you were.

This tolerance was not necessarily found in literature set in the West or Southwest. With the Great Depression, America began a casual deportation policy of Mexicans, each case more or less at the discretion of whoever picked them up. By this time, there were quotas based on where immigrants came from, and we had learned that religious persecution abroad did not mean much to the US authorities.

The idea of America as a proud nation of immigrants was first made popular by John F. Kennedy in 1958, I remember reading in Samuel Eliot Morison’s The Oxford History of the American People.

One person is an expatriate, an exile, especially if that person is of bourgeois culture, someone who can be assimilated according to an obsolete cultural ideal that most white people couldn’t begin to describe. But a mass of people from elsewhere, especially a working-class mass, that is an immigrant population. What I find sad is that we all know this history. Even the white supremacists prepared to sue those who would call them white supremacists know it. Everyone knows we are a nation of immigrants, that immigrants are good for the economy, and that freedom seekers are our kin. What is sad is not the subscription on the part of so many to old settler attitudes, but that I had not thought that all those debates that we read about as nineteenth- or early twentieth-century history are back, to take a final stand. We did not think the ideal of liberal democracy, the open society, would have to be fought for all over again. We are so spoiled we thought that it just grew naturally with everything else we have in our gardens of relative good fortune.


Adapted from remarks delivered at a panel discussion on immigration at the Brooklyn Book Festival on September 17, 2017.