Get important education news and analysis delivered straight to your inbox
President Trump’s racist attack on four congresswomen of color, his insistence on Twitter that they “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” showed that racism is a blunt object that hits many of us with equal force. Trump made little distinction between U.S. Reps. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who is Latina, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, both Muslim; and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, a black woman.
Since Trump won in 2016, there’s been a debate about whether it is useful for different ethnic groups, religions, genders and economic classes to form their own political alliances instead of forming a more collective association. Without question, different groups experience white supremacy and racism in the U.S. differently. But what has become clear is that Trump’s “go back” language is a patently racist attempt to rally white people under the umbrella of the Republican Party.
And so, whatever the different histories of people of color and non-Christians, and whatever the nuances between the various laws enacted against us, our struggles and fates are so intertwined that the pathways toward justice, equity and democracy must be shared.
As a young researcher who examined the question of whether undocumented immigrants should receive financial aid, I was often asked, “How does a black guy get involved in immigration (read Latino) issues? What they were saying is that because I’m not Latino, or connected by ethnicity to the immigrant community, I shouldn’t care. I typically responded by reminding them that there have been many populations in the U.S. that have done everything required for membership in the country but who still did not receive full rights and privileges associated with citizenship. Most notably, black people and women were treated as second-class citizens for much of the country’s history. Black Americans weren’t even considered fully human under the Constitution.
The divides are not easy to overcome. “[M]ore blacks than whites say they or a family member have lost a job, or not gotten a job, because an employer hired an immigrant worker (by 22 percent vs. 14 percent),” according to a 2006 Pew Research Center study. “Blacks are also more likely than whites to feel that immigrants take jobs away from American citizens (by 34 percent-25 percent), rather than take jobs that Americans don’t want.”
Racist rhetoric is the aural facet of a policy that purposely drives a wedge between black and brown people, exacerbating the rifts. At a 2015 campaign event, then-candidate Trump shared his thoughts on how Mexican immigrants affect the U.S. economy. “They’re taking our jobs. They’re taking our manufacturing jobs,” he said. “They’re taking our money. They’re killing us.” One may argue that black citizens are included in Trump’s use of the pronouns “our” and “us.” But Trump’s comments on race and immigration throughout his life and his presidency strongly suggest that attacking Mexican immigrant labor was merely a political device to pit African Americans against Latinos while simultaneously rallying his mostly white, xenophobic base.
Politicians have been telling black Americans to “go back” for generations. The calls for Muslims to leave get louder every day. In 2012, before Baptist pastor Dennis Terry introduced former U.S. Rep. Rick Santorum in a church service in Baton Rouge, he told congregants that those who don’t believe that America “was founded as a Christian nation” ought to “get out!”
Not seeing the interrelatedness of our struggles precludes us from finding solutions that combat this narrow definition of America and raise everyone up. Gaps in tests scores in reading and math between whites and blacks and whites and Latinos are still sizable. More black and brown students are going to college, but more are ending up in for-profit schools and two-year programs. These institutions burden students with high levels of student debt for a lower return on investment. And even though black and Hispanic families spend less on college per year, education costs make up 63 percent and 53 percent of family income respectively, compared to 44 percent for white families.
We must recognize that creating a more equitable and inclusive nation is essential to living up to our democratic ideals. Locking up people considered others in cages is an old strategy. From the mass incarceration of Native Americans to plantations to prisons, generations of indigenous people and African Americans have found themselves in shackles. Our progress as a country is aligned to the progress of those not deemed real Americans.
The counterpoint to the strategies of Trump and his followers is clear.
We must embrace our diverse experiences as part of a shared struggle for justice. We must argue that shackling groups of people because of what they look like, what they believe, and where they come from undermines America’s greatness and hamstrings our future. This is not just philosophical or moral argument; research shows that diversity works. In schools, exposing young people to a variety of experiences and outlooks improves critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Companies that prioritize diverse leadership experience stronger financial performance than those that do not.
Our differences are what makes America strong and our differences will strengthen us if we join together.
Black Americans understand that Trump is trying to create a wedge between us and Latino people. Most black people realize we have to get beyond division to recognize our collective need for equal access to justice, jobs and education. A majority of African Americans — 79 percent, believe the children of illegal immigrants should be permitted to attend public schools, but only two-thirds of white Americans believe this, according to the Pew study cited above. Twice as many blacks as whites believe that undocumented immigrants should be eligible for social services.
When the racist bell of “go back” tolls, it’s directed at all of us. We’re in the struggle together. And our politics should reflect that.
This story about racist language was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Ally Hardebeck contributed research. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.