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Two Prongs of a Pitchfork

Such gentle abhorrence! It almost doesn’t seem like racism.

“But they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society. They’re overwhelmingly rural people in the countries they come from — fourth, fifth, sixth grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English, obviously that’s a big thing. They don’t speak English. They don’t integrate well, they don’t have skills.”

Why bother keeping these words of John Kelly alive? There’s so much bigger news out there than the White House chief of staff’s outpouring of ignorance and pseudo-empathy last week, during an interview on NPR.

“They’re not bad people,” he said. “They’re coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws.”

This is so Trump Lite! We’re so sorry, oh uneducated Central Americans, but we have to keep you out of America and we have to, in addition, confiscate any children you bring with you to the border in order to discourage others of your kind from trying to sneak in. The law is the law.

Was Kelly serious in his expression of “concern” or simply cynical? These possibilities feel like two prongs of a pitchfork, the most painful of which is the former. If he seriously believes in the regrettable inadequacy of asylum seekers — as opposed to merely citing it to justify a cruelly racist law — what we have here isn’t simply racism but ignorance, at the highest level of American government, quietly shaping national policy with something like evangelical fervor.

Cynical racism means throwing a bone to the political base, what Matthew Yglesias, writing at Vox, called “the very promise of Trumpism — to narrow the definitions of who belongs, subjecting outsiders to a realm of cruelty and thus bolstering the favored status of the insiders.”

Ignorant racism means believing in it yourself: seeing yourself not as “the boss” but as a moral warrior, truly protecting America from sadly uneducated (uh, non-white) Latin Americans looking for a break and a better deal. Sorry, this country is closed, at least to you.

What I fear is that, while cynicism may have a humane or reasonable limit, ignorance does not. If racist ignorance has survived the civil rights movement — not simply at the level of scattered individuals, but at the level of national decision-making — perhaps it is impenetrable. We will always have enemies to fear and fight not merely because a nice, evil enemy (oh Saddam, where are you now?) makes it easier to rally a country into a sense of unity, but because true believers rule. And true believers are not open to greater awareness.

Thus, as New York Magazine explains: “The Trump administration recently established a policy of separating families who cross the U.S. border illegally, including those who enter our country so as to assert their legal right to seek asylum. Which is to say: If a mother in Honduras gets on the wrong side of local gangs — and flees to the United States with her children to seek asylum from their retribution — U.S. authorities will treat her children as ‘unaccompanied minors’ and detain them in separate facilities while she presses her case.

“Or, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions put it, ‘If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.’”

What I see, both in Sessions’ smug certainty and in Kelly’s regretful shrug, is a belief that some people matter and others don’t. And a country is great because of its sameness.

This is not the country I believe in, but it is the country, I must concede, that was founded on a stolen continent and built by the labor of the enslaved and exploited. Writing about American gun culture, for instance, Christopher Keelty points out that “the racism that informs gun culture is deeply embedded in American history, and in the history of firearms themselves. . . . In the colonies that would become the United States, European settlers were required by law to own firearms for the specific purpose of fighting off the Indians who had been deposed from their land. Samuel Colt invented his revolver, the weapon that ‘won the west,’ specifically to quell slave rebellions.”

And Michael Daly, noting Kelly’s Irish ancestry, recalls the Pemberton Mill disaster, in Lawrence, Mass. where: “In the late afternoon of Jan. 10, 1860, cast-iron columns in the building that were later found to have been defective buckled under the added weight. The structure suddenly collapsed, killing as many as 167 workers.”

Most of the killed and injured were Scottish and Irish immigrants. The owner of the mill, David Nevins, who had crammed additional machinery into the building after he purchased it three years earlier, creating the unsafe working conditions, was notoriously contemptuous of the Irish, Daly pointed out. He wouldn’t let an Irishman into his house to repair a leak in his roof, but he could use — and use up — these uneducated immigrant souls to make money.

This is the history I hear in Kelly’s words: “They don’t speak English. They don’t integrate well, they don’t have skills.”

It doesn’t matter what happens to them. Or to their children.

More articles by:

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

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