Discourses of Movement: How We Got Here and What It Means

America is commonly described as a “melting pot,” a country filled with people claiming a vast array of nationalities, ethnicities, and cultures. However, as Nell Irvin Painter explains in her book The History of White People, the treatment of peoples in America was highly contingent on race.

During what Nell Painter calls the “first enlargement of whiteness,” the definition of the “American” expanded to include previously ostracized Germans and Irish. During the second and third enlargements of whiteness, the definition of the “American” expanded to essentially include all white people. While racial boundaries were drawn and redrawn within the realm of the ideal white “American,” blacks were almost always historically excluded from this category.

As we discussed yesterday in class, this racism in essence created race: the oppression and denial of benefits to certain groups created structural inequalities that remain today. The historical formation of America — the social and political context in which people both moved to America as well as their treatment and integration after arrival — is thus incredibly important. However, “melting pot” discourse, the idea that all cultures came together to form one big new culture, obscures the important fact that historically the “one big new culture” that American thinkers exalted was white culture, reserved exclusively for the white “American.”

I read an interesting example of this in the New York Times. A textbook, produced by McGraw Hill, published a graph within their Geography section called “Patterns of Immigration” that described America as a nation of immigrants and documented the various groups from which current Americans descended. (One of the interesting notes is that there is a large portion of people in the South who claim “American” as their heritage). However, a student named Coby Burren found one text bubble in particular very concerning: describing the South’s demographics, the bubble reads: “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.”

Additionally:


“The authors, on the page next to the map, wrote of “an influx of English and other European peoples, many of whom came as indentured servants to work for little or no pay,” but made no mention of how Africans came to the country.”

From the outset, this map misses the historical context of the movement of new peoples to America. The map represents America’s demographics within one specific moment–the present. Apart from their sentence-long text bubbles, there is no explanation of how the historical experiences of these groups differed. The visual of these various cultural and racial groups as co-inhabiting the physical space of America creates an image of an America in which all groups were able to assimilate simultaneously and equally. However, peoples came to this country within different systems of power, were valued and treated differently upon arrival, integrated into American society at different times, and certain groups, like blacks, continued to be denigrated even as other groups won eventual acceptance and were labeled as “Americans.” There was no simultaneous assimilation, no one great movement that created “America”; rather, America as it exists today formed within specific histories of slavery and denial of personhood.

While America must become the country for all people that it purports to be, to do that we need to understand the hisotrical treatment of different racial groups and how that history formed current political and economic inequalities.

Additionally, the alarming aspect of the graph that the New York Times article focuses on is the fact that it refers to the Africans brought to American plantations between the 1500s and 1800s as “workers” rather than slaves. This erasure and the discussion of slavery within the context of “migrations” obscures the history of black enslavement and oppression, thus erasing the problem of racism from our present consciousness. Mrs. Dean-Burren, the mother of the student who initially raised alarm over this map, said:

“It talked about the U.S.A. being a country of immigration, but mentioning the slave trade in terms of immigration was just off,” said Ms. Dean-Burren, who is black. “It’s that nuance of language. This is what erasure looks like.”

McGraw Hill promised that it would change the textbook to describe slavery as a “forced migration,” defined by Columbia as:   

“a general term that refers to the movements of refugees and internally displaced people (those displaced by conflicts within their country of origin) as well as people displaced by natural or environmental disasters, chemical or nuclear disasters, famine, or development projects.”

But it seems wrong to describe slavery even as a type of forced migration. This rhetoric of “displacement” does not describe the violent reality of enslavement, in which it was not internal forces but very intentional systems of capture and transportation that brought Africans to America. The Atlantic Slave Trade was not an immigration like the movements of from Europe to America. However, the textbook’s explanation of Africans as “working” in America obscures that they were in fact slaves, making invisible not only the history of slavery but also how that history affects the present. 

The quality of high school history education is often dismal. History teachers are often under-qualified (only 23% of history students found themselves in classes led by a teacher with both a college major and certification in the subject, according to this study), and thus rely on textbooks that are created by the Texas State Board of Education to guide their instruction. These textbooks often ignore America’s history of slavery while exalting white historical figures, as Lola wrote about last week. 

If the current and future generation are to address problems of racism and inequality and create an America that indeed provides equal opportunities for all, it is necessary to teach America’s history of racial exclusion and the way that lingers today. 

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