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Rebuilding Jim Crow Nation

Dred Scott lives!

With the Supreme Court’s declaration that President Trump’s third version of a Muslim travel ban is now enforceable, even as legal challenges against it proceed, the court and the country reopen the racism that permeates American history.

“The question is simply this: Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen?”

Thus begins Chief Justice Roger Taney’s explanation of the Supreme Court’s 1857 ruling against the slave Dred Scott’s lawsuit that he was entitled to freedom when he was taken by his “owner” to a free territory. Taney’s answer, of course, was no. Sorry, you’re not one of us.

Trump, who during his presidential campaign called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” has, in the name of specious national security, managed to close U.S. borders to more than 150 million people, declaring with zero evidence that doing so is necessary to stop terrorism in this country. In version three of Trump’s ban, citizens of six predominantly Muslim nations — Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Chad — as well as citizens of North Korea and certain categories of people from Venezuela, cannot enter the United States. The last two countries were added, according to a Washington Post editorial, as nothing more than “a fig leaf to disguise a would-be ‘Muslim ban.’”

It’s all justified in the name of keeping America safe. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the court ruling was “a substantial victory for the safety and security of the American people,” according to the New York Times, and a spokesman for the White House called the ban “lawful and essential to protecting our homeland.”

“How many terrorist attacks have Chadians committed on US soil? The answer is zero,” Moustafa Bayoumi writes in The Guardian. “Why is a Syrian grandmother a threat to Americans? The entry of any Syrian, regardless of age, is now suspended. Should a Somali wife not be able to reunite with her husband in the United States? Love conquers all but the Muslim ban, it seems.”

Shattering families by bureaucratic edict is, ironically, an action supported primarily by people who otherwise say they hate government and want to drown it in the bathtub. When people are dehumanized, abstractly and en masse, those who do so make themselves immune to the human consequences of their actions. But those consequences are real, and in no way do they contribute to anyone’s “safety.”

“These are people fleeing the worst imaginable conditions and then having the door slammed in their face,” said Jennifer Nimer, executive director of the Columbus, Ohio, chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“There are lots of Somali’s here. They’re all going to have their families barred for the most part. We have clients from Libya who are trying to bring spouses and children, so there’s a lot of people who are going to be affected, no doubt about that.

“A Syrian professor at OSU . . . wants to bring his daughter, no criminal history, nothing like that, but simply because she’s Syrian she cannot come.”

America, America . . .

A year ago, shortly after Trump’s pseudo-election, I wrote: “Trump says build a wall. Even if the wall is mostly a metaphor, the effect of that metaphor is to lock in consciousness, as though ‘America’ is the only truth Americans are capable of understanding: Fifty states and that’s it. We’re exceptional and the rest of you, keep out. Locked-in consciousness never keeps people safe, but it does keep them scared. You might call it patriotic absolutism, which yields fear, violence and war.”

This is the rebuilding of Jim Crow Nation: “We will not allow this to become the new normal,” reads a statement put out by the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Whatever the courts say, the Muslim Ban is inhumane and discriminatory. We must continue to demonstrate that we reject and will resist the politics of fear, anti-Muslim racism, and white supremacy.”

Caged, aggressive nationalism is the life partner of terrorism. But it’s always so easy to invoke fear — I mean “safety” — as a governing principle. I am certain that mass, social safety is more to be found in legal respect for all human beings and protection of families than in mocking, bureaucratic indifference to them.

“President Trump scapegoated Muslims — dehumanizing and casting them as outsiders and others — when he ran for office. Now,” said Katharine Rhodes Henderson, president of Auburn Seminary, “the U.S. Supreme Court is complicit in Trump’s attacks on their rights. In allowing the Muslim ban to be enforced, our country is discriminating against people because of their religious beliefs; that goes against the core American value of religious freedom — a founding ideal of our nation and the bedrock of our democracy.”

I would only add that the values at stake here aren’t simply American, but human. National boundaries are artificial constructions. Someday their aggressive “defense” will be seen to be as obsolete as the Dred Scott decision. A nation that cares only about itself and fails to acknowledge the well-being of the whole planet is waging war on the future.

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Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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