Go back. If you’re a nonwhite American, chances are that you’ve heard this taunt at some point in your life. Maybe it came from bullies in the schoolyard. Go back. We don’t want you here. Or it was delivered as a joke, told by colleagues around the watercooler. Hey, if you don’t like it here, you can always go home. Or it came from one of your own relatives, in the middle of a heated argument during Thanksgiving dinner. America, love it or leave it. The locale may change, the wording may be different, but the idea remains the same. You’re not fully American.
The president gave this racist message his executive approval when he tweeted that four progressive female representatives—all of them from racial, ethnic, or religious minority communities—should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime-infested” countries “from which they came.” This was followed up by a rally in Greenville, North Carolina, where he once again dressed down the four duly elected legislators, focusing his ire on Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN). The predominantly white crowd responded to his rant by chanting, “Send her back!”
The demand to “go back” rests on an assumption that the archetypal American is white—an idea that dates back to the early days of this nation. The first piece of legislation to delineate the boundaries of Americanness was the Naturalization Act of 1790, which limited citizenship to “free white persons.” Some of the rights that came from this status, such as the right to vote, were further restricted to propertied white men. Under this view, rich white men were to be governed by consent, and everyone else was to be governed by force.
Over the next 230 years, restrictions on citizenship—and the rights and liberties associated with it—were incrementally loosened and tightened and loosened again. For example, the 14th Amendment granted citizenship to all people born in the United States, including formerly enslaved people, but it was followed by a slew of laws in the South that made it virtually impossible for black people to vote. Other limitations on citizenship flowed from immigration laws, like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, that sought to prevent or decrease the arrival and eventual naturalization of different groups of nonwhite people.
So when the president tells his supporters that four female representatives of color should “go back,” he’s articulating this antiquated idea, rooted in settler colonialism and white supremacy, about who gets to be American. It’s a philosophy that regards whites as full citizens, who are entitled to all rights and protections under the law, and nonwhites as conditional citizens, whose rights are subject to challenge if they dare to express criticism of their country.
Donald Trump is the man who titled a book Crippled America, complained that “the American dream is dead,” and called our country “stupid.” But when Omar and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib speak candidly about government policies and their effects on the most vulnerable among us, he tells them to “go back.” America is their home only if they are silent or in agreement with him.
This racist approach to citizenship has been central to Trump’s political career. Three years ago, for example, when Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan appeared at the Democratic National Convention to share the story of their son and to denounce Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration, the Republican nominee and his allies attacked their son’s allegiances. Capt. Humayun Khan, who died in the Iraq War in 2004, was smeared as a stealth jihadist. At the time, I wrote in this space about the conditionality of the Khans’ citizenship: Even after their son made the ultimate sacrifice for his country, they did not have the right to speak freely.
Much of what the president has done or championed since taking office—the Muslim ban, the border wall, the family separation policy, the metering of asylum entries at the southwestern border, the proposal to tighten immigration laws—can be explained by his desire to preserve white dominance in the United States. This is likely to be a losing fight: If demographic trends continue, whites may well be a statistical minority within a generation. The only way to maintain the political dominance of whites is to enshrine a view of citizenship that ties it to race or, failing that, to magnify the power of white voters.
Indeed, the administration spent months fighting—and ultimately failing—to add a citizenship question to the US census, which would have given an enduring electoral advantage to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites. But the Republicans won another battle when the Supreme Court ruled that federal courts could not stop partisan gerrymandering and that state legislatures were free to redraw electoral districts however they wished. As a result, permanent minority rule is now a possibility in several states.
None of this is to say that whites, particularly those who are poor or without a college education, don’t struggle. Of course they do. The loss of manufacturing jobs and the opioid crisis, to name just two issues, are urgent challenges that demand lasting solutions. But it is to say that when white Americans blast the government for not solving these problems, they are not told that they should be silent or that they should “go back.”
Americans must decide whether they want to live in a past in which the rights and privileges of citizenship are ranked depending on one’s race, ethnicity, or creed or if they want to step boldly into a future in which citizenship is enjoyed equally by all who claim this country as a home.