Melissa Harris-Perry: Hi, everyone. It's Monday and you're with us on The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Fewer than 200 people attended the Justice for J6 rally in Washington, D.C on Saturday. There were more police and journalists than angry protesters on hand for the gathering. It had been advertised as a show of support for the rioters who attacked and breached the Capitol on January 6. Sparse attendance this weekend should not be understood as a triumphant defeat of the troubling ideologies which fueled insurrection as violence in January.
Stopping further acts of violence by political extremists is critically important, but it's only a starting point for responding to January 6th. It's equally important for us to understand and interrupt the ideologies that fueled those actions. University of Chicago professors Bob Pape and Kevin Ruby studied the Capitol rioters and found that they were distinct from the general profile of the far right. The overwhelming majority had no ties to established right-wing groups, and these rioters were far more representative of the general population.
In a discussion of their study results published in The Atlantic, Pape and Ruby write, ''Unlike the stereotypical extremists, many of the alleged participants in the Capitol riot have a lot to lose. They work as CEOs, shop owners, doctors, lawyers, IT specialists, and accountants.'' In short, it's possible the violence of January 6th was not the result of American extremism. It was an outgrowth of American mainstreamism. In July, US Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn testified before Congress and he recounted his terrifying encounter with rioters who understood their actions as wholly American, even responsive to the directive of the American President.
Harry Dunn: More and more insurrectionists were pouring into the area by the speaker's lobby near the Rotunda, and some wearing mega hats and shirts that said Trump 2020. I told him to just leave the Capitol, and in response, they yelled, ''No, man. This is our house. President Trump invited us here. We're here to stop this deal.
Melissa: If American identity is at the center of the Capitol insurrectionist rage, it's about this fundamental struggle over whose house this is and who has a right to hold power. American identity is sometimes unspoken at the center of many of our current debates, voting rights, a struggle over who deserves to wield power. Critical race theory, a struggle over who deserves to shape the story of American history. Immigration policy, a struggle over who will write the story of America's future. Here to help us understand the content and context of these struggles is Mae Ngai, a Professor of History and Asian American studies at Columbia University, an author of The Chinese Question. Professor Ngai, welcome to The Takeaway.
Mae Ngai: Thank you for having me, Melissa.
Melissa: Professor Ngai, you've written, if we don't understand the history of exclusion, we cannot understand racist hatred. What are some of the connections between policies of exclusion and white supremacy?
Mae: Melissa the United States is unique among most nations because people who are immigrants actually have a path to citizenship, that is if they're legal immigrants. It's fairly easy to become a citizen if you are an immigrant. If you really want to keep people out of the citizenry, you have to keep them from coming from the country and that's where immigration restriction and exclusion are intimately tied to the question of citizenship.
Melissa: Is this also when you talk about the relative ease of citizenship. Is this also about the 14th amendment birthright citizenship? Is this something that we see in other nations around the world?
Mae: Absolutely. Some other countries that have birthright citizenship also restricted to descendants of citizens or even ethnic restrictions. The United States does provide citizenship fairly easily to anyone born here and anyone who can naturalize after five years of residents and a clean record.
Melissa: What's valuable about US citizenship. Why desire it? Why is it valuable for those who come in and seek it?
Mae: Citizenship in the United States gives you basically two things. First is the right not to be kicked out, right not to be banished or deported, and the second is the right to vote. Hence you see a lot of the fewer around citizenship around voting rights right now because it has the right to vote that's at stake.
Melissa: When you hear Make America Great Again, and then even after the end of the Trump presidency, the desire to hold on to a presidency that for some group was making America great again. What else do you hear in the undercurrent of that?
Mae: What I hear is make America white again or make America controlled by white people again. I think this is really problematic because citizenship has always been contested. It's always been a question about not withstanding the legal rights to citizenship that are afforded to broad swaths of people. It's also been the subject of controversy about who should even have that access. Immigrants from Europe had a very easy path to citizenship in the 19th, but people of color have been kept out of that circle. Obviously, we know about Dred Scott which denied Black people the right to be citizens including free Blacks.
After the civil war with the 14th amendment and the creation of national citizenship for all including African Americans, and we know the 14th amendment essentially repeals Dred Scott, but then you have the problem of other peoples of Chinese in particular who were not even coming in large numbers but the idea that Chinese could become a community in the West Coast, to begin with, and then later in the country was abhorrent to mainstream white Americans. Hence you have the exclusion laws keeping Chinese from immigrating and keeping all Chinese from naturalized citizenship.
Melissa: I remember you and I were colleagues at the University of Chicago and it was grappling with your work that for the first time as a Southerner, I'd heard all the stories of basically Atlantic immigration and forced in-migration through the triangle trade of enslavement. Then, of course, the European stories about the immigration that was voluntary. Then, of course, our country has been obsessed for years now with the migration across the Southern border, but I was less aware of the ways that we had policed the Pacific migration and in-migration. Can you say a few words about that and what we can learn about the American story from the Pacific theater of immigration?
Mae: The Pacific story is actually very connected to the south and the Atlantic because what drove Americans, white Americans especially across the continent in the early 19th century was the struggle to extend slavery. Western expansion is driven by the sectional conflict over slavery. Each side wants more states so they can have more control in the Congress. Western expansion is driven by sectional politics over slavery, and it's also driven by an ideology which we call Manifest Destiny which is the idea that the entire continent belongs to White people. That it's God's gift to White people. It doesn't matter if you roll over Native Americans along the way, dispossess thousands and hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples from their land.
It's this whole idea that the continent belongs to whites. Once they get to the Pacific Coast, they can look behind them to see what they've conquered but they also look towards the Pacific and they see all new possibilities of more conquest, but they also see the possibility of people from Asia coming to North America. This combination of racism and expectation leads to a racially driven movement to keep out people from the Pacific while still encouraging people from the Eastern United States to go West. People who went West were not just Northern white Americans, they also came from the South. During the Gold Rush, white Southerners went to California and a lot of them brought their slaves with them to help them mine for gold.
Melissa: Can you also just reflect for a moment on the Dawes Act of 1924. There is a moment when citizenship is actually imposed on indigenous communities.
Mae: The Dawes Act starting in the late 19th century created a different policy towards native Americans which was to forcibly assimilate them by saying that, ''Oh we'll give you your land that you can own in fee simple. You can own your land as individuals, and then maybe you'll learn to be like a white person by being a farmer.'' This was really a trick to have Native Americans sell their lands to white people. There's this process of forced assimilation or stripping of their sovereign rights as native nations or tribes. Then in 1924, there's a American Indian Citizenship Act which imposes citizenship on all Native American peoples. In my view that is not an act of inclusion. That is an act of final exclusion in the sense that native peoples are stripped entirely or almost entirely of their sovereign rights. This is where the treaties really go down the drain.
Melissa: Many times in our contemporary discourse, I feel like we presume that exclusionary immigration policies are partisan. Particularly during the administration of President Trump, there was a lot of media coverage of some of the horrors that we saw at the Southern border, but it's worth noting that both President Trump's predecessor and his successor, President Obama and now President Biden have been fairly exclusionary in their immigration policies and practices. How do we get past this partisan narrative about it to really think about how American it is to try to close our borders, exclude, and push folks out?
Mae: I think Biden's proposal for immigration that's now in the Congress-- it's not moving anywhere right now. Obviously, because they have other things that they're prioritizing. That's actually a good reform, I think. It really does open up immigration that reunites families, it increases the number of green cards that will be available for people, but Biden is still saddled with the problem of America's geopolitical imperial legacies in parts of the world, which are driving refugees to leave their country's violence in Central America.
He has to grapple with that problem. It's a problem he didn't make, but it's a longstanding problem of American politics. Actually, when it comes to foreign policy, Biden is not as progressive as he is on many domestic policies. Immigration is both a domestic question, and so far, it concerns communities that live among us and who are us also, and who have rights in this country. It's also very much a foreign policy question. This is where I think the Biden people fall down in many ways.
Melissa: Mae Ngai is a Professor of History and Asian American studies at Columbia University, and author of The Chinese Question. Thank you for your time and for your insights.
Mae: It was great talking with you, Melissa. Take care.
Melissa: Thanks. Now, we ask for your reflections about American citizenship and identity. We ask you to take one sentence and tell us what the word citizenship means to you.
Jane Hillson: Citizenship equals being a good neighbor. Jane Hillson Ill, Centennial, Colorado.
Keith: Hi, this is Keith from Dallas, and being a US citizen, having citizenship is one of the most important things to me. I appreciate it almost every day. My father fought in World War II. I taught in public schools. I pledged allegiance to the flag. I fly my flag proudly, even though we're in a terrible time right now, I'm glad to be an American citizen.
Dwight: It means being part of something bigger than myself. Dwight from Bardstown, Kentucky.
Female Speaker: I am a Native-born American citizen. For me, being an American citizen is about having the freedom to vote, the freedom to pursue whatever makes me happy, and the freedom to say whatever I would like to say.
Kim: Hi, my name is Kim from Bellevue, Nebraska. What does citizenship mean to me? It is absolutely a joy. I served in the military for six years, but it's more than that. I find it wonderful and joyous and challenging to be an American. I appreciate the freedoms and the responsibilities I have as a citizen. I'm also in the only country on earth that calls itself in its founding an experiment. That's where the challenge comes in. Our nation was built with a good deal of racism and classism and misogyny and colonialism. Our challenge to move forward is how can we be a great country and move away from those bad things. We can do it. We can do it.
Bayley: Hi, this is Bayley from Morehead, Minnesota. To me, America is about responsibility. We have so many choices left up to ourselves to make. To me, that means that we need to take responsibility to make choices that benefit more than just ourselves and our families.
Patrick: Hi, my name is Patrick. I'm calling from Los Angeles, California. I am luckier than lucky to have been born in the United States. The freedoms that are available to me demand that I give back to this country and pay my fair share for all the opportunities that I've been given.
Connie: Hello, this is Connie from Brownsville, Pennsylvania. American citizenship means not only do I have freedoms, I have a responsibility to ensure I am willing to stand for those Americans whose freedoms are challenged by prejudice and racism in order to ensure all Americans are guaranteed the unalienable rights stated in the first line of the constitution.
Melissa: We love it when you talk with us. Remember, you can send us a voice recording to email@example.com.
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