LETTERS / An Open Letter to Rep. Virginia Foxx

Published Wednesday, July 17, 2019 at 2:45 pm

Dear Rep. Foxx,

As one of your constituents and someone whose interests you were elected to serve, I was deeply disappointed to see that you and all but four of your fellow GOP members of the US House voted against House Resolution 489 condemning President Trump’s racist comments directed at Members of Congress.

As a reminder, this resolution (full text here: https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-resolution/489/text) was in response to tweets by President Trump, wherein he said of four House members who are American citizens and women of color,
So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe…now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States…how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came[?] Then come back and show us how it is done.

As another reminder, Rep. Tlaib was born in Detroit. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez was born in New York City. Rep. Pressley was born in Cincinnati. And Rep. Omar came to the US when she was nine years old and became a US citizen nearly 20 years ago, when she was 17. All four are American citizens, no different in the eyes of the law than you or I, with just as much right to be here and speak their minds and criticize our government as anyone else. The First Amendment to our US Constitution ensures as much.

I’ve not seen any commentary from you, but I’m guessing that you share the indifference and historical ignorance that so many of your colleagues have displayed over the past four days regarding this matter. So, this seems like a good time to have a chat about America’s difficult history with slurs like “go back to where you came from”—including how such phrases likely affected your own family.

Dating back to the late eighteenth century, as a very young American nation wrestled with its slavery problem, many people thought the best way to deal with African-American individuals—especially those who had been manumitted or otherwise freed from bondage—was to ship them back to Africa “for their own good.” As one Virginian, Solomon Parker, put it, “[I am] opposed to slavery and also opposed to freeing blacks to stay in our country and do sincerely hope that the time is approaching when our land shall be rid of them.” Anxiety and xenophobia about Chinese immigrants in the 1850s and 1860s led to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the Scott Act in 1888, and the Geary Act in 1902, effectively barring Chinese immigration completely until 1943. The common refrain in defense of anti-Chinese legislation? “They should go back where they came from.”

People of color were not the only targets of this racist, “go back” slur. White immigrants heard the phrase too, but always with an undercurrent of nativism applied to their specific ethnic group or nationality. German immigrants of the mid-nineteenth century were often derided as diseased drunkards by anti-immigrant groups like the Know-Nothing Party. Irish immigrants were often criminalized just for being Irish and frequently told that they “need not apply” for employment. Speaking to the Gaelic League in Oakland in 1901, Father Peter C. Yorke decried the inherent racism of the “go back” trope. “In the early days, when they wanted to say anything against an Irishman, they called him a foreigner, but now the cry is that, unless your ancestors have been here since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, you are only a foreigner and have no right to open your mouth and had best go back where you came from.” Even Swedish immigrants in 1890s Nebraska were told to “go back where you came from if you don’t like this country,” as the Manhattan Republic reported on August 4, 1892, largely because other whites were irrationally insecure about what the presence of hard-working immigrants would mean for their own fortunes and opportunities.

It may surprise many of your constituents, Rep. Foxx, but like Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, you were born in New York City—the Bronx, in particular. Your father was the child of Italian immigrants who arrived in 1904 and 1907. Just a few years later, in 1911, John Parker—who had helped carry out the 1891 public lynching of eleven innocent Italian-Americans and later became the governor of Louisiana—expressed his views on Italian immigrants: “[They are] just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless, and treacherous.” There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that your grandfather and grandmother endured similar racist, nativist taunts about them being anarchists, socialists, brigands, or members of the Mafia. Such bigoted sentiments were common in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century America and made their way into the press, even in America’s greatest melting pot, New York City. And they were often accompanied by the “go back” slur. When immigrant residents of the tenements in lower Manhattan tried to organize for better living conditions in 1907, NYC Police Commissioner Bingham refused them a meeting permit, telling them, “If you don’t like your rents, get out. If you are not satisfied with our system of rents, go back where you came from.” My own father—the son of a German immigrant—grew up in West Harlem and endured similar slurs during the 1930s, frequently (and inexplicably) from other immigrant families of other ethnicities that were themselves the target of such bigoted taunts.

Often, this “go back” trope was applied to American-born citizens who were first-, second-, or even third-generation Americans who happened to look or sound “different.” The absurdity of the “go back” slur was perhaps most evident when it reared its ugly head again during World War II. As the Quad-City Times of Iowa reported on July 28, 1942, one Japanese internment camp victim in Santa Anita, California—an American citizen being held captive by his fellow American citizens—was told by a white delivery truck driver, “Why don’t you go back where you came from?” to which the Japanese-American responded in mock horror, “What! Go back to Iowa? No! No! Anything but that!”

Fortunately, most Americans have come a long way since then, recognizing that unless one is the full-blooded descendant of Native Americans, then one is, by definition, the descendant of immigrants from somewhere else. Indeed, as early as 1950, many in the general, American populace understood that “go back to where you came from” was an inherently racist trope. Writing to the Tampa Tribune on December 29, 1950, local resident Rebecca Stanfield explained,

‘If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back where you came from,’ is the stock retort of the bigot who has no rational argument to another’s opinion…. The people of no single nation, no single creed, no single race hold the distinction of alone creating and building the democracy of the United States. Once we close our ears and eyes to all except dictated dogma, we enslave ourselves.

But just because some of us get it, that doesn’t stop white nationalists from crawling out from under their rocks every few years to target another population with this ridiculous trope. They did it in the 1970s to Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees. I heard it in my high school in the 1980s directed at Iranian and Iraqi refugees. In the 1990s and 2000s, it was Muslims of all nationalities. And today it’s directed at Central and South Americans seeking asylum at our southern border. President Trump is just the latest in a long string of bigots to trot out this tired, racist complaint borne of personal insecurity and irrational hatred. The difference this time is that he’s our president.

In recent decades, we’ve actually made laws that call out this “go back” trope for what it is. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, for example, explicitly defines the kinds of statements contained in President Trump’s tweets as “harassment based on national origin” that violates federal anti-discrimination laws: “Examples of potentially unlawful conduct include insults, taunting, or ethnic epithets, such as making fun of a person’s foreign accent or comments like, ‘Go back to where you came from.’” (https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/immigrants-facts.cfm) In short, if President Trump had said this to someone on his own staff, he’d be guilty of violating federal law.

We are a nation of immigrants founded on immigration to a new world for new opportunities and freedom from tyranny. As Ronald Reagan said in the final public speech of his presidency, “We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people — our strength — from every country and every corner of the world. And by doing so we continuously renew and enrich our nation.”

So, I ask you, Rep. Foxx: As the second-generation descendant of immigrants and someone who has seen firsthand from your childhood how ugly and pernicious this racist, “go back” trope can be, why do you allow it from your party’s leadership? Why do you enable it? Why do you aid and abet sowing division within our local community and our national community as a whole?

Even more instructive for your constituents is a consideration of what it is, exactly, that you voted against. The resolution contained three points:

Resolved, That the House of Representatives–

(1) believes that immigrants and their descendants have made America stronger, and that those who take the oath of citizenship are every bit as American as those whose families have lived in the United States for many generations;

 

(2) is committed to keeping America open to those lawfully seeking refuge and asylum from violence and oppression, and those who are willing to work hard to live the American Dream, no matter their race, ethnicity, faith, or country of origin; and

 

(3) strongly condemns President Donald Trump’s racist comments that have legitimized and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color by saying that our fellow Americans who are immigrants, and those who may look to the President like immigrants, should “go back” to other countries, by referring to immigrants and asylum seekers as “invaders,” and by saying that Members of Congress who are immigrants (or those of our colleagues who are wrongly assumed to be immigrants) do not belong in Congress or in the United States of America.

In short, Rep. Foxx, you literally just voted against equality, fairness, and the American Dream in favor of the president’s xenophobia, nativism, and racism. You can and should do better. You owe your constituents and your fellow Americans something better than that. And it is our patriotic duty to hold you to account politically if you cannot or will not do better on our behalf.

Sincerely,

Eric W. Plaag
Boone, NC

July 17, 2019

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