By Justin Cohen
When protestors and activists gathered around the country last Thursday, to protest the Trump administration’s depraved policy of separating children from their families, the mood was raw.
At the rally I attended in Brooklyn, the sentiment of the crowd ranged from disbelief to hopelessness to outrage. I have been to more protests than I can remember, including many in the months since the election of 2016. The mood was different last week. The strident calls for concrete political action were replaced by something more like, “Are you kidding me, you fucking maniacs?”
It appears that, for many otherwise ambivalent Americans, the imprisonment of children in cages is the proverbial bridge too far, a sign that a reckless administration had finally crossed the line.
And if the crowd at the Brooklyn event was any indication, a large portion of enraged are white folks, most of whom would self-identify as progressive or liberal. Glancing at the various protest signs, it’s possible to glean some important information about what motivates people to show up in solidarity with people who do not look like them. Amidst a variety of creative forms of resistance, I kept seeing one message, over and over, and it’s a plea that requires interrogation:
“This Is Not Us.”
But what if it is?
For many Americans, particularly those who are neither white nor privileged, last week’s news was just another piece of evidence that the Trump administration is hell bent on imposing its narrow, nationalistic,racist definition of what it means to be an American. All in the process of reminding us that, until further notice:
“This IS, and Has Always Been, Us.”
If I’m the first person to share this information to you, I am sorry to be the bearer of bad, yet old, news. The definition of who get to be a human in America has always expanded and contracted, but that definition has always hinged on both defining whiteness, and manipulating the family structures of non-white people.
Consider the most obvious example, the enslavement of people of African descent. Maintaining chattel slavery as a system of racial and economic oppression depended on breaking up and systematically dismantling Black family structure in America. This tendency did not disappear after abolition, as White America’s commitment to obliterating the Black family seems to have intensified in the subsequent generations. The hyper-incarceration of Black adults, not to mention the under-education of black children, deliberately weakens families. In the meantime, conservative thinkers have erected an entire fantasy world, wherein the “failings” of the Black family structure are attributed to “cultural” phenomena, and not to the enforcement of white supremacy.
Similar family-destroying tactics were used by the United States government in the 19th century to perpetuate the oppression of Native American people. There is a direct lineage from the American Indian boarding schools, where children were kidnapped to separate them from their native cultures, to the contemporary practice of imprisoning migrant children.
And let’s not forget, just two generations ago the American government held more than 100,000 people from Japanese families in internment camps, out of pure racial hostility at a time of global conflict. During the same period, the United States government refused entry to Jewish refugees, who were fleeing imminent death at the hands of the Nazi regime.
In each of these cases, the overt destruction of families was justified on the basis of protecting American identity. The inescapable fact is that this method of defining identity is bound to both the idea of Whiteness, and who counts as “White” at any given time. Given the Trump administration’s public flirtations with white supremacy, it is devastating, but not surprising, to see our contemporary leaders fall into a similar pattern of conflating American identity with white supremacy.
It’s hard to know what to do in the face of state-sponsored family destruction. Protest seems inadequate. Civil disobedience comes in many forms, and the more assertive versions of such seem more enticing than ever. While the Trump administration may not be engaging in overt ethnic cleansing, it’s not hyperbolic to say that their current playbook bears shocking resemblances to those of genocidal regimes. How Americans react – both on the streets and in the polling place – will be critical to preventing the horrors from metastasizing.
Until the next shoe drops, there are many actions that folks can take. Protest, organize, petition, march, and most importantly, vote.
Before we do all of those things though, we should retire the idea that “This is Not Us.”
This IS us.
It has always been us.
And until we stop it, it will always be us.