The Big Picture

The Big Picture: The Promise of Sanctuary

In June 2015, during the early days of his candidacy during the Republican primaries, Donald Trump declared: “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” These sentences seemed to signify a new low in anti-Latino speech, but they are not new. This hateful nativist rhetoric is part of the chronic political maladies of the United States. I had heard similar ideas a decade earlier when I watched CNN showcase the xenophobic voice of Lou Dobbs, or when Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly made Fox News the mouthpiece of the ultra-right that today dominates the House of Representatives and many state legislative chambers.

To some, Trump represents a crisis. Yet for those of us writing on the chronic problems of racial and ethnic injustice in the United States, Trump is something of a distraction. He is inviting us to focus our collective stare on a visible crisis, while the hidden structures of long-term inequality remain unnoticed.

But today is not simply yesterday’s future, and the crisis is not simply the chronic on steroids. Trump is evidence of the progressive erosion of the principles, the promises, and the very culture of liberalism among an increasing swath of US citizens. That this erosion is experienced by a population greatly defined by whiteness and citizen privilege is a matter of concern to the rest of us, the non-whites who are still a minority and will remain so for at least one more generation. Like yesterday, like last year, and like the centuries before that, we remain at the mercy of white citizens and the hatreds that so many of them seem to feel.

When will this end? When will Black Lives Matter actually change things in police departments? When will the prison system become humane? When will public school systems be structured by the rules of equity? When will the persecution and incarceration of undocumented immigrants end? When will hate speech be reason to excommunicate a person from politics?

Like yesterday, like last year, and like the centuries before that, we remain at the mercy of white citizens and the hatreds that so many of them seem to feel.

Today’s erosion of liberalism is different than other challenges to liberalism. What Trump represents is not the need to reform liberalism. Trumpism is not about changing features of liberalism to better accommodate the communities that support him. Trumpism aims to end liberalism, to energize tribal ways of doing community and politics. Trumpism proposes a system of power built on racial affiliation and the claim that the US territory belongs to the white race.

Nativism here is not simply a feature of Trump’s ideology. Rather, it is this ideology’s core. He tested the power of these tribal principles when he rose to public prominence on the “birthers” claim that President Obama was not a US citizen, and continued it with his call for a border wall. Trump represents a return to premodern politics, before liberalism ever existed: a sort of melancholic regression to a form of white patriarchy that existed prior to the 14th, 15th, and 19th amendments to the US Constitution. The good ol’ days of the good ol’ boys.

There is nothing ambiguous about the energized connection between white citizenship and territory. This tribal aspect of the movement Trump represents was evident on the evening of August 11, 2017, when hundreds of white nationalists gathered on the grounds of, and in the streets outside of, my institution, the University of Virginia, to start a weekend of protests against the City of Charlottesville’s decision to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. Lee and other military leaders of the Secessionist South are seen as heroes to contemporary white supremacists. Under the banner of “Unite the Right,” the diverse group of organizations—including neo-Nazi groups, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), and dozens of other white supremacist groups—came together to defend what stood to them as a symbol of Southern history and racial pride. The groups shared the core belief that the United States of America was and should remain a white nation.

These white nationalists marched, chanting two phrases unequivocally related to feudal ideas of sovereignty, whiteness, and place. They chanted “You will not replace us,” a protest cry meant to highlight the state of siege they believe is currently being endured by the white race in the USA. They also chanted “blood and soil,” a notorious borrowing from Nazi Germany that conveyed the idea that invaders would not succeed at uprooting them from the precious land that they have cultivated with their blood. The threat of displacement (“blood and soil”) and replacement indicated a siege of the nation, which white nationalists equate to their own racial stock. And this siege comes from African Americans, Islam, migrants from Latin America, Jews, gay US Americans, and the weak white elites, which include the intellectual class who embrace some form of cosmopolitanism.

The groups that gave shape to the Unite the Right rally may seem extreme examples that fail to characterize current political sentiments among the majority of US citizens. And I certainly recognize that most US Americans of all races find it distasteful to march with torches, guns, and armor to violently confront those wishing to change how the South memorializes itself. But the mainstreaming of the ideas behind “blood and soil” and “you will not replace us” has nothing to do with the Unite the Right rally. The feelings of being under siege, and of being under threat of replacement and displacement, are at the core of white supremacist movements, which for decades have targeted racial minorities and—to my point on the territorial character of these feelings—Latinos and immigrants. This affective structure of being under racial, ethnic, and territorial siege has fueled English-only movements for almost two centuries, anti-immigrant and anti-Latino labor movements in the Southwest, and the craze about undocumented immigrants that in the 1980s and 1990s drove nativist politics in California and that today drives it in Arizona, Texas, and elsewhere.

The evidence of progressive erosion is quite clear to those of us studying Latinas/os. We have witnessed and documented the mainstreaming of anti-Latino xenophobia and the federalization of the politics of nativism and hate. We have denounced the escalation of what began as local, nasty, politics against undocumented immigrants in the Southwest, and watched in horror as these same politics become the grounds for federal policies and actions that have betrayed every principle of the civil rights era, and every dream of racial and ethnic equality. In horror, we witness today how Trump is failing to attend to a Puerto Rico devastated by hurricane Maria, and how his response has been diametrically opposed to similar devastations in Florida and Texas. This progressive erosion accelerated after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, an event that gave credibility to those feeling under siege by dangerous global south forces. A feudalization of politics has, in the years since, followed.

Anti-Muslim and anti-Arab rhetoric quickly pave the way to hate crimes against citizens and residents from the Middle-East. Anti-Latino pundits began almost immediately testing a line of argumentation against migration along the southern border. They argued—without any evidence—that terrorists were “slipping” through the Mexico-USA border, and pushed for the increasing militarization of the region. But things did not end there. George Bush tried hard to build the wall that Trump later promised. All throughout President Bush’s two terms, nativists succeeded at eroding the legal and human rights of undocumented people and at making their hate reasonable, and acceptable, to large parts of the American electorate. Anti-immigrant, nativist state and federal legislation became the norm, damaging the life prospects of millions without significant push back from the left. Conditions in detention centers were horrid (they still are); widespread round-ups and deportations became commonplace (even during the Obama administration); and the rise and normalization of racial profiling against Latinas/os became legalized and/or accepted across the nation.

The Obama presidency saw a significant drop in the number of nativist civil society organization—for instance, the Federal Immigration Reform & Enforcement (FIRE) coalition was nearly defunct by 2013. But it is also during his presidency that we witnessed the establishment and rise of the Tea Party in Congress. Nativism had simply moved to the halls of Washington. I voted for President Obama, yet he ended up embracing a policy of mass deportation and failed to deliver on the promise of creating a path to citizenship. We could believe in his commitment to justice and equality only if we were deaf to the stories of the millions hurt by his policies. As importantly, the nativism of his policies continued to grow in the halls of Washington, waiting for a host, a spokesperson, a candidate.

There is a tragedy here. Trump, and the other “birthers,” opposed Obama on nativist grounds; and Obama, who embodied my personal hope for equality, continued feeding nativism, the most dangerous poison to liberalism.

The essence of liberalism and citizenship, at least as these terms are used in the United States, was hope more or less equally distributed among citizens. But this hope was never innocent. In fact, this hope was based on cruelty. Liberal hope had all to do with border walls. Liberalism and modern nations borrowed the architecture of the walled cities of Athens and Rome to imagine citizen equality, which was and is the reason for hope. Inside these cities, male citizens would be equal because they could participate in politics, and build laws that could foster further equality among themselves, the citizens. Meanwhile, the walls kept out non-citizens, those who didn’t share the polis’s rights and, by extension, duties.

Our ideas of citizen equality are borrowed from these city-states, and liberal hope has always been partly rooted on nativism and on exclusion, even if this root remains hidden to citizens in times of peace and abundance. To those outside the city walls—the barbarians, the slaves, and the foreigners—the nativist ground of citizenship is often plainly evident. This is why hope was and is the reserved purview of fully franchised citizens; and, perhaps unsurprisingly, why immigrants, African Americans, women, and LGBTQ communities have been always in the fringes of hope or plainly hopeless.

Trumpism harnesses the power of the siege to end the feeling of hope even among those lucky liberals living their lives inside the garrisoned boundaries of our affluent society. His vision is one of endless walls and permanent fear, a return to the politics of nativism unvarnished by the words, the promises, the lofty ideals, and the claims (however fragile or illusory) of universalism of the Enlightenment. The return to the tribal, represented here by the marriage of white citizenship to territory, is here to stay for some time. So, in such an era, it is worth asking fundamental questions about who we are and how we arrived here. Is there a vision for a future beyond liberalism and citizenship?

In a sanctuary, one is equal to others because as an individual one adds to the richness and diversity of life.

I believe so and I believe it should be based on a different political architecture for the nation. This vision is still blurry, but I continue being inspired by the metaphor of sanctuary, particularly as it is used by Nicole Waligora-Davis (2011). “Sanctuary”, she writes, “connotes … the sanctity of human life.” And though Waligora-Davis reminds us that sanctuary is always in a state of deferral for African Americans (and I believe she would extend this argument to other disenfranchised people), the promise of her vision is powerful enough to require another glance.

We must use ideas like hers to imagine a different architecture for the nation. The current architecture of the liberal model is based on the power of citizenship, the agora, and the walled city in peace and abundant times. Yet under siege, liberal hope ends, as the citizenry retreat to the citadel, to the protection of walls within walls.

A sanctuary is different. Instead of walls, the defining architectural feature of a sanctuary is the narthex, the vestibule, the synagogue, the mosque, the church, a space of safety on which the sacredness of human life is the core principle, where hope lies not on restricting the benefits of citizenship, but on the fundamental equality of all human beings. Although sanctuaries have architectural features meant to act as borders, these borders serve more as markers intended to convey a threshold for ethical behavior. One crosses the border of a sanctuary to be safe, to be protected, to be recognized as the precious bearer of life. One exists in a sanctuary covered by a promise of equality that it is not rooted in sameness. In a sanctuary, one is equal to others because as an individual one adds to the richness and diversity of life.

I don’t imagine the era of Trump will be followed by better times for us non-whites. The crisis of liberalism, the erosion of hope, and the radicalization of whiteness will bring more misery to most. But I do believe that because of Trump, a growing number of us will be invested in figuring out what kind of nation and what kind of world we want for future generations. My work and my personal sense of despair move me towards the utopian. I trust others will join me in this search for a new hope, a new way of imagining community, and a new willingness to extend the umbrella of rights and of legal protections over not just a limited group of fellow-tribesmen, but over the broad swathe of humanity that calls US America “home.” icon

Featured image: Children at the border between Mexico and the United States, Playa de Tijuana, 2001. Photograph by Quim Gil / Flickr

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