Episode 62: Sanitizing Our Settler-Colonial Past With ‘Nation of Immigrants’ Narratives

Citations Needed | January 16, 2019 | Transcript

Citations Needed
30 min readJan 16, 2019
“The Hyphenated American” by J. S. Pughe, published in “Puck” magazine (August 9, 1899)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: Yeah, so thank you everyone. This is our second show of 2019, so happy new year to everyone tuning in and away we go.

Adam: It’s a trope we’ve heard very often, so often we probably don’t even notice. “The US is a nation of immigrants” the Daily Advocates’ Vivian Blevins tells us. “We’re a nation of immigrants — whether the Trump administration likes it or not” so the Houston Chronicle says. Quote, “We are a ‘nation of immigrants’ then and now” H.L.M Lee writes. It’s a phrase we hear constantly, often spoken with the best of intentions. In today’s environment, it’s oftentimes meant as a rebuke against President Trump and his white nationalist administration.

“The Mortar of Assimilation And The One Element That Just Won’t Mix,” C.J. Taylor, Puck Magazine, June 26, 1889.

Nima: The metaphor of the “melting pot” serves a similar purpose: the United States is strong and noble because its a place that takes people in from across the globe, its inclusive, welcoming, compassionate, an in-gathering of humanity, the teeming masses, “e pluribus unum,” out of many, one. It’s a romantic idea — and often evoked as a counter to xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Adam: But how historically accurate are these phrases? And, what if, instead of combating white nationalism, the idea of a nation of immigrants, helps promote the idea of white nationalism? This week we want to dissect this notion that the US is simply a collection of disparate groups coming together and breakdown how, in many ways, this absolves us of our past and present as a violent, white-settler colony.

Nima: Later in the show, we’ll be speaking with historian and author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.

[Begin Clip]

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: The total dehumanization was you know based on a, you could say Euro but what we would now call white nationalism. What became because of colonialism on identity, I mean, these were the first people with identitarians. They created the white race and then racialized others as a lower species.

[End Clip]

Adam: The idea that we’re a nation of immigrants is a trope we hear time and time again.

[Begin Clip Montage]

Man #1: As a nation of immigrants celebrates July 4th, a battle on the border explodes along cultural lines.

Man #2: We are a nation of immigrants.

Woman: The reminder that America is a nation of immigrants.

Man #3: We’re a nation of immigrants.

Man #4: We are a nation of immigrants, as you know.

George W. Bush: We’re also a nation of immigrants and we must uphold that tradition which has strengthened our country in so many ways.

Hillary Clinton: As a nation of immigrants.

Barack Obama: My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants.

Man #5: America is a nation of immigrants, it has always been a nation of immigrants and President Trump cannot change that with an executive order.

[End Clip Montage]

Nima: The concept of a nation of immigrants was first introduced in a tract by then-Senator John Kennedy that he wrote at the request of the Anti-Defamation League. The book, literally entitled, A Nation of Immigrants, was released posthumously in 1964, and the book argued that the United States should change the National Origins Act’s quota system. Upon becoming president, two years later, Kennedy proposed a bill that created a system for allowing immigrants into the country based on family ties and special skills which was called the Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the Hart-Cellar Act.

Adam: The Hart-Celler Act abolished the quota system that existed that was based on national origin that had been American immigration policy since 1924 and this marked a huge change of U.S. policy that historically that had discriminated against non-northern Europeans. The 1965 Act removed racial and national barriers to immigration.

Nima: So the point was really to open up the idea of what a good immigrant would be beyond the constraints of just Irish and German and Scottish and Welsh, etcetera, etcetera. And so, um, so it had that opening up quality, but without opening that up too wide. So Irish and Italian and Jewish immigrants were now on the good side. However, Kennedy’s book, A Nation of Immigrants, makes no mention, this is in the, in the late ’50s when he wrote it, makes no mention of Mexicans specifically or Latinos more broadly. This idea of a “nation of immigrants,” is historically really about expanding the definition of whiteness rather than directly combating that concept.

Adam: The term since then has been frequently evoked as a kind of liberal bromide. The general thing also to note is that a lot of the anti immigration laws in the 1920s were really about excluding Asians, about excluding Japanese, Chinese, uh, there was a real sense that Asians were a unique threat to the racial hegemony of the United States.

Nima: Yeah, the “yellow peril.” And so you saw in that time of mass Asian immigration as well, many immigrants being forced, like shuttled into into Chinatowns that were in every urban center, many of which were first formed because of this idea of otherness and of a threat and of a perennial foreignness that Asian immigrants kind of have in this country. Japanese Americans, obviously, were interned during World War II and Jim Crow was the law of much of the land. And so despite all of that, even with that happening, with Jim Crow being, literally, the current legal system of apartheid in a large part of the country, and just over a decade after Japanese internment camps, Kennedy writes this book about a nation of immigrants.

Adam: Yeah.

B.C. Saturday Sunset, August 24, 1907

Nima: But let’s back up a bit. The nation of immigrants narrative itself is very cleverly designed to obfuscate history and the truth of settler colonialism, transatlantic slave trade, indentured servitude, racist discrimination and the like under the under the kind of banner of positivity that a phrase like “nation of immigrants” brings. So let’s be perfectly clear, the puritan pilgrims of the Plymouth colony were not immigrants. Africans kidnapped, tortured and brought to the Americas in chains were not immigrants despite how Ben Carson, Trump’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, described slaves as, “immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships.” The first real wave of immigration to the United States was the mass influx of Irish in the 1840s when John F. Kennedy’s own ancestors emigrated here. That was followed by decades of immigration from Scandinavia, Eastern and Southern Europe, as well as East Asia. Notably, when the California gold rush began. There were actually no federal immigration laws at all until the 1875 Page Act, which was named after its sponsor, Republican Congressmen Horace F. Page of California who was himself a notorious anti-Asian racist who saw the growing Chinese labor population in California as a distinct threat to white civilization. Um, later that same year the Supreme Court determined, in the Chy Lung v. Freeman case, that immigration policy as an arm of foreign relations should rest solely in the hands of the federal government, rather than at the discretion of individual states as it had previously. The Page Act was followed by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, yes, that’s a real thing, the same years’ Immigration Act and subsequently the Immigration Act of 1891. So, fast forward to JFK’s post-World War II, ADL-commissioned Nation of Immigrants book and we see that the point was actually to further open up, further expand the definition of the so-called “good immigrant” beyond it’s formerly WASP-y constraints, uh, but without opening it up too wide.

Adam: Yeah. And so you have this idea that they’re expanding the definition of what it is to kind of be white in a sense. Right? So now Italians, Jews, Irish are now sort of in the club. And this was promoted by the Anti-Defamation League, uh, which used to be a pretty good civil rights organization before it became a pro-Israel lobbying firm. But in the 1930s they were, they promoted this idea of Judeo-Christian values because they kind of wanted to lump Jews in with Christians for their own self preservation to prevent the rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism in the twenties and thirties, you know, with Father Coughlin and Lindbergh was a huge, huge problem, right? When Kennedy wrote this, this tract in 1958, it was about sort of vaguely broadening the definition of good immigrants. In their defense, this was, I, I believe, probably what they perceived as a winnable thing, right? Like they’re sort of white, you know, they have similar core values, they’re good wholesome anti-Communist, so why not let them be part of the club.

Nima: Right.

Adam: And then they slowly morphed to the idea of, nation of immigrants slowly morphed into this kind of liberal bromide. Um, and very often it was done, it was evoked directly before or after anti-immigrant rhetoric. So Clinton’s 1995 State of the Union address, uh, is a really good example of this.

[Begin Clip]

Bill Clinton: We will try to do more to speed the deportation of illegal aliens who are arrested for crimes, to better identify illegal aliens in the workplace as recommended by the commission headed by former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. We are a nation of immigrants. But we are also a nation of laws. It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years, and we must do more to stop it.

[End Clip]

Adam: So yeah, right before and after he smears illegal aliens and talks about going hard on illegal criminals and sort of does this whole vial, you know, this was a great 1990s trend of beating Republicans by talking like Republicans, Clinton then does this whole platitude about how ‘well we’re a nation of immigrants’ and hear this a lot. People say, ‘oh, we’re a nation of immigrants, but we’re also a nation of laws and we’re about certain immigrants.’

“The Spirit of America,” Norman Rockwell (1974)

Nima: (Laughs.) Right. Well, which is also immediately putting up a false dichotomy, right? Or like a mutually exclusive notion of what an immigrant is and that they have to conform because so much of this is about assimilation and even a more kind of aggressive form of Anglo-conformity. So it’s like that’s the notion of immigrant communities here are deemed to be good as long as the immigrant communities aren’t totally closed off and totally insular, that assimilation is good. And then on the other side of that, you see more nativist rhetoric about keeping those people over there and these people over here and it all gets kind of mixed together. Also, when you talk about the notion of multiculturalism, where community should be respected for their own differences and that the mixing together, the melting pot aspect of this idea, of this concept, of this trope really becomes problematic. So, you know, before we continue, I should note that the idea of saying “melting pot” or “nation of immigrants” oftentimes is used as a flattening and glossing over phrase of real issues regarding the movement of human beings across arbitrary colonial borders, across borders that are created and maintained by, by violence and by military. And that these phrases supplant real conversations and real movement toward understanding justice, understanding not only our own history, but the vicious and violent creation of our society and its borders. So this flattening of history masks settler colonialism, it masks slavery, it masks systemic inequities under this really kind of benign and banal narrative of we’re all interconnected, everyone is quote unquote “tolerant.” It serves the same idea of like, ‘Oh yeah, like if, if we could just be colorblind, then everything would be okay.’ And it’s a total glossing over of entire communities’ lived experience.

Adam: Yeah. And of course as we talked about offline, even the concept of, of the melting pot itself, and you know, others have criticized this this term as well, but who’s involved in the pot? Who’s in the pot and who’s being melted has expanded. You know, it started off as largely or exclusively white European countries and they thought it was super cute that a French guy and a Scottish guy got along as long as they were sort of within the proper domain of Christendom.

“The Great American Melting Pot.” Music & lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Vocals by Lori Lieberman. (‘Schoolhouse Rock’, ABC-TV, 1977)

Nima: Right, exactly. So the first use in American literature of this concept of all these different cultures, all these different immigrants getting melted together, fusing together into this new American culture as distinct from European culture, the first use of this was really found in the writings of J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur. He wrote Letters From an American Farmer in 1782 and in it he basically asked this question quote, “..whence came all these people? They are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes… What, then, is the American, this new man?” End quote.

Adam: Yeah. Because again, it was somewhat of a novelty, right? You didn’t have that much cross-ethnic mixture in Europe. So to the Europeans writing America was this sort of experiment in kind of cross-European mixing but of course that is a very limited idea that was limited to a certain number of people. The history of our notion of immigrants is really a history of evolving notions of whiteness. And this is still the case today.

Nima: So the phrase “melting pot” really became popular in 1908 when a Jewish playwright from England, Israel Zangwill, wrote and produced a play called The Melting Pot. And it was about immigrants coming to America and standing in front of the Statue of Liberty and it’s this thing about fleeing the Czarist pogroms in Russia and finding a new, a new world of freedom and democracy here stateside. So the play opened in 1908. It first premiered in Washington, D.C., and there’s this anecdote that Teddy Roosevelt, President Teddy Roosevelt, was in attendance that night and following the play, like shouted out, “That’s a great play, Mr. Zangwill.” And Roosevelt, as we’ve discussed before on this show, was a huge proponent of what is known as Americanization. He is known for saying quote, “We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language.” And so, you know, we know that Roosevelt was a huge white supremacist in his treatment of indigenous people all over this hemisphere. And so this play, The Melting Pot, really spoke to this, this massive, then recent influx of Eastern Europeans, of Germans, of Jews, some 18 million new American citizens came into this country between 1890 and 1920.

Adam: Yeah. And it’s like, it’s the old joke, right? Everyone goes into the melting pot and comes up Presbyterian.

Nima: (Laughs.)

Adam: Um, that’s, that’s really, that’s really what they wanted.

Israel Zangwill (credit: Encyclopaedia Brittanica)

Nima: Right. It should also be noted that Israel Zangwill, the playwright who created and popularized the phrase, “the melting pot,” was also the Zionist sloganeer behind the phrase, “The land without a people, for a people without a land,” which is a very famous pro-Zionist phrase about Palestine, that there was this empty land just waiting for a people and that the Jews, this far-flung exiled people were in need of land and that they would then return there as the Zionist mythology would have it. Now Zangwill, who you know is doing the melting pot thing in America and then a state for only Jewish people in Palestine, there’s a real conflict there one would think. And also Zangwill knew perfectly well that Palestine had plenty of people in it. He even said, quote, “There is, however, a difficulty from which the Zionist dare not avert his eyes, though he rarely likes to face it. Palestine proper has already its inhabitants,” he wrote that in 1904 just four years before he then penned The Melting Pot.

Adam: Yeah, they’re evidently not included in The Melting Pot. But uh, yeah, it’s the same idea. But our guest today who, um, whose, whose writings on this and lectures on this were the impetus of the show has a lot more to sort of expand on this. So we’re super excited to have her on.

Nima: We will be joined in just a moment by historian, professor and author of many books, including An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by historian and author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. So great to talk to you today on Citations Needed.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Good to talk to you.

Adam: So you write a lot about the notion of these kind of liberal cliches about “nation of immigrants” and “melting pot,” that they’re kind of toxic on political discourse, which is the subject of the show. Now a lot of quote unquote “well-intentioned” liberals use the term because they want to sort of give the idea that they want to push back against right-wing attacks against immigration. So kind of set the table for our listeners. Can you start by saying what you feel like is the primary problem with the cliche “nation of immigrants” and what are the kind of ideological externalities of that?

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (credit: reddirtsite.com)

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Yeah I think its problematic because its actual origin is in the 1950s with JFK as a senator writing The Nation of Immigrants, and to me there’s this shift after World War II and particularly after the Brown versus Board of Education desegregation decision, national liberation movements around the world that the United States’ ruling class which at that time was what we would call liberal capitalism, the Rockefellers and so forth. That not obviously right-wing white nationalists like we have now, but I think they were very smart and they saw they wanted to keep their position as a world power and also too tamp down any, especially black people in the United States that they had to make some changes. And of course the, the court itself. So its Justice Warren as Chief Justice. He had been governor of California. He was a Republican. Um, and in fact he asked for the order to incarcerate the Japanese, of the Americans of Japanese descent during the war, wartime relocation. So he was also, and that Supreme Court, was a product of the Franklin Roosevelt New Deal packing the court, had in mind to create a liberal kind of order. And so this nation of immigrants, that was not really a very welcoming thing when you realize that in the entire little book there’s no mention of Mexicans or the Mexican border. And of course we, then and now, really think of that border as the problem border. Not people flying in and overstaying their visitor’s visa or Irish coming in great numbers as undocumented anytime and not, you know, not being investigated. I think they actually wanted to build a, um, some kind of new, say, national narrative, rather than the pioneer, going across country, of settling the land and to really cloud the origins, the true origins of the United States. Which the patriotism at the time was not very subtle about, you know, the Ku Klux Klan was very active than the 1920s. The extreme of it was that it was an Anglo Germanic Christian Protestant country. And that was the extreme but that was pretty much the national narrative on, you know, what got studied and who got studied. And so I think it was very intentional. I don’t think it was just something they had just decided to, to write, to say immigrants are welcome, but actually to create a paradigm of the United States. And then of course, John F. Kennedy was elected president. During that time when he was the senator and writing this book, this Operation Wetback was going on. This violent seizure and deportation of over a million Mexican migrant workers in the Southwest, Texas, Arizona, California, principally in California.

Nima: And it was actually called that.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: It was called that, that was its title. And he was in congress. He was a senator. It had been set up under Eisenhower a year after he became senator, but it went on and went on through his presidency, this policy. And then they, Harlon Carter was in charge of it. And this man went on to form the Second Amendment Foundation in 1974 up in the state of Washington and that white nationalists and took over that organization, took over the NRA. And that’s when the National Rifle Association became a right-wing white nationalist organization. So that was the person in charge and he was a boarder chief and the son of a border chief. So these atrocities were taking place at the time and to not even mention Mexicans that um, I’m not sure that was intentional, I think it’s just that it was taken for granted that the Mexican was not a legitimate immigrant. That’s why people have to be very precise about who’s an immigrant and who is a settler and US settler colonialism across the country which included making war and seasoning the northern half of Mexico and creating that 1848 border that exists today. So I think it’s a subgenre of Indian hating is the Mexican hating and it’s not really Latino hating or Hispanic hating. Precisely its Mexican hating and a form of Indian hating. So since he also left the Indians out or called them also immigrants, that there had actually been aboriginal people there that these people came in and pushed them out. So they were the first immigrants.

Nima: Yeah. That’s a really strange aspect of the immigrant narrative where not only are all kinds of people who came to this continent flattened under the same narrative so that slaves are somehow now immigrants and white colonial settlers are somehow immigrants. And the crews of the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria are immigrants and you know, those traveling on the Mayflower, all immigrants and this flattening of it goes all the way where Kennedy made the argument that Native Americans aren’t even indigenous. Can you tell us about how that twist of history, uh, works?

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Well, it’s interesting because it was just a sentence or two in which he said that, and I’m trying to find out how far back this white nationalist theory, if you want to call it that, pseudo theory, that Europeans actually had discovered North America and that they were the aboriginals. Europeans were actually the aboriginals. He implies that but it’s actually the basic position of most of these white nationalist groups. That well, you know, the ones with Christian identity, the ones that are really homegrown and not just adopting Hitlerism or [unintelligble], purely anti-Semitic. So the ones who see black people as mud people, not really human. And so it’s very interesting that it really popped out at me when I read it because I thought, that is, you know, does he, is he aware that he’s stating an extremely racist proposition that the native people who existed in this time, were not really the indigenous people.

Nima: Right, that the immigrants were those who came over, like on the Bering Strait, right? Like that somehow that is a wave of what is known as immigration.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Right? And they killed off all of the implied European.

Nima: Right, all of the actual natives who are somehow European. Yeah. That’s fascinating.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: So the Mayflower, you know, they’re just retaking their territory.

Nima: Right. (Chuckles.)

Adam: And as you, and as you point out, this was something that, a lot of the European settlers in Africa, specifically South Africa claim too. They claim that they actually had lineage to Africa because of some dubious theory, but the Africans didn’t. And this is a very common trope and a lot of anti-Native American tracks at the time or pro-colonial tracks at the time, which is the idea that the native doesn’t marshal the land that they kind of waste it. Um, and there’s this idea that the United States wasn’t really the United States until the Europeans came and cultivated the land and built roads. Can we talk about this trope and how much of this gives kind of moral cover for what are neo-colonial attitudes?

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Yeah, you know it’s very interesting that these days it’s easiest to explain the United States by explaining a contemporary reality that many of us, I myself was ten years old when it happened, is the state of Israel. That is the idea of return, but also the idea of making the desert bloom.

Adam: Yeah.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Palestinians were farmers and they’ve been growing those olive trees for a thousand years or so and you know, every inch of the land, it’s not a big territory they were working. So I’ve used that as an explanation for people to kind of understand that this return in one way it’s a reenactment of the Bible, you know, the chosen people returning and that’s how the people of the Mayflower spoke as the chosen people who are actually returning to a land and that the people who were already there, of course, are savages, not quite human. And even though this area that they’re colonizing east of the Mississippi, North America, is one of the seven sites in the world of the origins of agriculture along with Central Mexico and the Andean region and the Euphrates-Nile system, the Po River in China that, you know, that is in science books, biology, but it’s that these were intensive farmers, very productive and it’s densely populated. So it’s just the opposite of the disappearing act. So their daily, you know, attacking these farmers, killing them, taking their land, looting even their graves because people buried their own sacred items and sometimes they had value or, or whatever. But they were also just taking land, the oyster beds, just simply appropriating everything because these people were like dogs, you know, make them from settled dogs to stray dogs, push them out because, you know, they’re just animals, like you push animals in the periphery. So that was, you know, the total dehumanization was you know based on a, you could say Euro but what we would now call white nationalism. What became because of colonialism on identity, I mean, these were the first people with identitarians. They created the white race and then racialized others as a lower species and that became codified and so-called “science,” the British, the “apes and angels.” I don’t know if you’ve heard that theory, but when Darwin revealed, pretty much proved evolution, the scientists thought it really couldn’t be questioned, but they said there is evolution, but it’s the dark people of the world and they included the Irish in that which was interesting, came out of the mud or you know, were apes, related to apes and the white Christians were actually created by god. So they recognized evolution, but they still have white Christian Protestant as created by god.

Adam: You talk about white nationalism being the bedrock of contemporary white Evangelicalism, which is, I think, something that’s super interesting and I think worth dissecting here and you see this a lot where a lot of kind of incredulous liberals and media types will be shocked that Trump has such high support amongst white Evangelicals, citing all these kind of vile things he does, his swearing so forth. But I guess from your estimation, this kind of misses the point which is that the white Christian or kind of white Protestant Evangelicalism is really subservient to this notion of white nationalism. Can you talk about that, the kind of origins of that and why, why it may not be a strictly theological issue?

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Yeah. Studies of religious development, Christian religious development under settler colonialism in the United States and I would say Calvinism in Southern Africa, and Northern Ireland as well with the British colonization in Ireland, there’s some pretty good sources on this that understand that Calvinism itself a colonial, not necessarily saying this is what John Calvin had in mind when he, its named after him, Calvinism, but it’s basically an ideological theory that is the basis for belief system in Capitalism, the privatization of everything and individualism, worth and whether or not they are chosen, elected as they put it or not. So I think it’s unique to these particular places and to some extent that’s also in Canada and Australia and New Zealand. And it’s quite a disparate colonialism. I mean, there are no good colonialisms, but it so happens one of them became the most powerful in the world and is destroying it right now. So it, you know, sort of does pale the Spanish and Portuguese.

Nima: So, this notion of being an immigrant and you know, that common sense that I think a lot of people have around that term pretty much always requires, let’s say crossing an ocean, but certainly always crossing a border of some sort and I think borders are really often understood as these neutral or natural parts of the environment that just somehow exist outside of any kind of human action. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of Texas and perhaps relate that to the current military operation that’s going on at the so-called US-Mexican border right now?

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Yeah, and of course it’s the whole border that got created, but it started with Texas that was a part of Mexico and the Mexican Revolution, Independence from Spain was a long and bloody process of 19 years and when independence was finally, when the Spanish were finally driven out in 1821, immediately, even before that, when it was still Spanish territory, there was, you know, the mission of the, Pike mission. He was what you would now call a special forces guy, you know, kind of CIA, specially trained and intelligent officer and his little crew that Thomas Jefferson sent to map that territory, to map it all and the Spanish didn’t have much control and in the north so they had access. So from the Monroe Doctrine, you know, was pronounced before the independence of most of the Latin American republics before Mexico and James Monroe’s, this was basically, it adds up to one day, the whole hemisphere will have one religion, one capitol and one language and we can guess that that wouldn’t be Spanish or Catholicism —

Nima: Or indigenous.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Or Mexico City. So that was stated policy in 1816, 1818. So it really started then and it was encouraged and the way your settler colonialism works, I have another book on the Second Amendment, history of the Second Amendment, and the settler militias and, you know, this dance between the state and those who are grabbing the land, who have these individuals really, who want to be landlords, you know, they had been given this, this possibility. So there it is. So it’s the bare knuckles bloody wars they make directly on native peoples, so really anything went and then it can be indemnified and legalized supposedly by the United States as a fait accompli. ‘Well our people are there we have to protect them now.’ So it’s basically these plantation owners, but also led by mercenaries like Davy Crockett and Sam Houston, these people were like the early John Smith, you know, they, they were mercenaries. They had been long, cause this was in the 1820s and it had already been generations of these people who, who developed as the John Smith of the early colonization who were sent by the British to be the mercenaries to organize raids and so forth. And they had men in Turkey fighting the Ottomans, they’ve been, you know, they’ve been all over the place. And so these people had become completely Americanized and by then, but they had that same, I mean they were, they were brutal killers is what they were. And so they kind of lead the settlement of transfers from the cotton kingdom that was developing to incorporate that area of Texas, the lower part of what is now the state of Texas. But the lower part of it, which was the settled part of Mexico but it had just become the Republic of Mexico, San Antonio was the provincial capitol. So these were slave owners, wealthy slave owners, bringing their slaves. Mexico had outlawed, all the Latin American republics outlawed slavery because of Haiti’s example, it was just the natural normal thing to do, It was only the United States that didn’t. So Mexico had outlawed slavery, but they were desperately disorganized and in poverty. They had lost their, their trading connection in the Port of Veracruz, the Spanish left. They didn’t come back with supplies, you know, the trade relation, they punished all their former colonies by destroying a lot, wrecking the country before they left but also just like the Portuguese did in Angola, the British in Africa and so forth. They were not happy to leave. And so they had no trade relations. So they, the traders from St. Louis, you know, began also trading and the Mexican government actually was seeking settlers or investors, you would call them now investors.

Nima: Right. That sounds way better.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Yeah. (Laughs.) Investments. Like Donald Trump. These planters were businessmen, you know, they weren’t farmers, you know, they were corporate giants for that time. We should just use that kind of terminology to understand their status, um, very wealthy because the slaves they own were valued at what would now be millions and millions of dollars, just their bodies, you know, not even just the labor and the land that they still had in the cotton kingdom or that they sold to go to Texas and take land. So they set up a slave system in that whole area down to the Rio Grande, San Antonio, that strip that is now the contested border.

Adam: For your kind of good-willed, good-natured liberal who wants to protect immigrants and protect people from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, or even from Muslim countries, from Trump and his kind of neo-fascist brand, what do you think is the right phraseology? Is it, “nation of immigrants” is something you think is problematic, but what would you say in lieu of that?

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Well, it’s not a matter of just saying, like in Canada the same situation, without the world power aspect to it, exists and they’re much more organized, of course, the same thing, the settlers and then the later immigrants, then the refugees that they take in and the indigenous peoples, but they have an organization there called No One is Illegal. This young South Asian woman who started it about 15 years ago now, they bring new immigrants together, and they’re almost all third world, together with the indigenous people, you know, leadership, so that they, there’s a learning process. They really have a choice that they’re going to become settlers or if they’re going to be immigrants, which is a respectable thing to be. But that would mean that they would be in a resistance position, which there is a kind of critical mass in Canada so it can be done, how that would be done here, you know, it’s just that no one has really tried that. The immigration organizations, all of which I know and I’ve been trying for years to get some kind of collaboration with native groups, also Black groups. So until there’s a consciousness and I think that can only come from the left, it’s not going to come from the Democratic Party or you know, from the top, of really educating ourselves and it’s very hard to do because it’s mostly this perspective has come from Native American scholars who have gained some voice and so you have pockets of like the American Studies Association where there’s a kind of clarity on this, but these are scholars, so we need community activists. So there is, you know, down on the border near Albuquerque, the Red Nation formed about four years ago and they’re really taking this on. So I think they’re building something that can then be a template for the rest of the country. And just to name settler colonialism, but not put that label on immigrants unless it fits them. Uh, just because they’ve come in, most immigrants since the industrial, later than the industrial revolution in the 1880s and 1890s have not come to take land and be on the land. Those people are still up in rural areas in the middle of the country. It’s still pretty solid settler colonialism. But of course now there are also Mexican migrants in all of these places who have come for jobs and labor is needed. So I think we have to find a different category for Mexicans as migrants, but also as that border being illegitimate.

Nima: Right.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: So it’s not just a one thing and to not use Latino or Hispanic to refer to oppressive immigration. Now the Muslim thing, this is something new, of course, with, it’s not new new, you know, ever since the Iranian Revolution there’s been this, this Muslim hating, invading and killing and harassing going on and it’s built up and up and up til now with Trump, it’s um, it is a major issue and I think it just is a category that’s different because many of the Muslim people come to this country really should be called refugees, you know, from US wars, who get out and that again, is a different group of people, legally they’re a different group of people. And so, you know, it, everyone is just put on the, you know, in a state of fear. So many people in the country. So I think that we have to, at least those of us who are social justice organizers, we have to study this and understand it in our rhetoric and our organizing and how we bring people together and then it can, you know, we couldn’t lobby these new liberal representatives in Congress and here, you know, in local areas, of course in Albuquerque this mixture is all there. Those people, they are doing something. So I think we just should stop saying, it’s a nation of settler colonialism that immigrants need to feel, I think, some, actually, desire some distance from being identified with that.

Nima: Yeah. I’m really struck by the common trope of ‘oh, I’m not anti-immigrant, I’m anti-illegal immigrant’ which really just conveniently always presumes a very favorable point of the start of history of what ‘legal’ means. So —

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Exactly.

Nima: But, yeah. Roxanne, before we go, can you tell us about the book you are currently working on?

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Well, I’m working on a book that I’m working under the title of Nation of Immigrants? Question mark, and it sort of laid out, what the thesis is I am going to make a center of that book about the Mexican War, you know, about settler colonialism in general, but about that border to really clarify because I think even for Mexicans and Central Americans themselves who, um, are fleeing US imperialism and occupations and covert wars and everything else, they feel soothed by being called an immigrant because that means they’re not, you know, it, it seems to have some dignity. They try to make the United States into this nice, liberal place that’s just been taken off track by this awful evil Donald Trump. We know very well that Obama was the Deporter-in-Chief. He just did it very quietly. He wasn’t bragging about it, you know, and now he probably wishes he had because, uh —

Nima: (Chuckles.) Because it seems to be working out. Well, we will leave it there. Thank you so much for joining us, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, historian, activist, writer, professor emeritus of Native American Studies at Cal State, author of so many books, including Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie, Outlaw Woman, Blood on the Border and her most recent book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment. Professor Dunbar-Ortiz, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Thank you.


Adam: Yeah. That was informative. If you haven’t had a chance to read her books, I definitely recommend doing it. I know that An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States is a really eye opening text for the sort of proto-woke or recently woke. It’s a really, really good book.

Nima: Yeah, it’s really amazing.

Adam: It makes you see things in a different way. And I think, um, I think what it does first and foremost is make people who are Americans who criticize Israel a little less sanctimonious. Not that that’s not a good thing to do, but it really does show how like these white-settler patterns have so many precedents and so many antecedents in Africa, in North America and South America and each empire, each settler colony, and each settler colonist is, to paraphrase, ‘evil in its own way.’ Um, you know, whether it be Calvinist or Puritan or Boer or American or, or Zionist —

Nima: Or Zionist. Yeah, sure.

Adam: And so it’s interesting to get that perspective and to realize that-

Nima: That’s what white people have been doing to the rest of the world for a very long time. So it is always good to, to remember that. And I think we can leave it there for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And an extra special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. Thank you again for tuning in everyone. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant as Josh Kross. Associate producer is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, January 16, 2019.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.