Settlers are not immigrants, except perhaps in the broadest sense of the word. Instead, they are participants—willing and otherwise—in colonial projects designed to usurp the land of people already living where the settlers plan to settle. History tells us over and over that such projects are bloody and brutal enterprises dependent on lies and deceit. From the shores of New England to the rocky coast of the Pacific Northwest, this truth is the fundament upon which the United States became what it is. It is also a critical argument framing Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’s latest book, Not a Nation of Immigrants: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion.
Dunbar Ortiz, whose classic text An Indigenous People’s History of the United States details the history of that nation via the histories of the nations they encountered in North America and destroyed, begins her new book with a discussion of the Lin Miranda Broadway hit, Hamilton! The musical is based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founders of the United States, a slave trader and a proponent of continued expansion into indigenous lands by the new nation. The drama obfuscates the true nature of the United States by featuring Black and Latino actors playing white men and women and is scored to a hip hop soundtrack. By doing this, Miranda’s casting illustrates a key part of the immigrant myth dismantled in Not a Nation of Immigrants. That is, the US invites people from around the world into its borders, gives them opportunity and hope, and over time they become Americans, just like the English, German and other European settlers did in centuries past.
Of course, this mythology is just that. In truth, there are other requirements to become a real American. Historically, foremost among those requirements was white skin. Despite the efforts of millions of US residents to end this (now) unmentionable requirement, the politics of our time prove almost daily that skin tone matters more than it should. The text describes the arrival of settlers and immigrants from different European nations—the Irish, Italians, Germans, and English—and the trajectory of each ethnicity as it traversed the path from non-white immigrant to white American. In discussing this social mechanism, Dunbar Ortiz describes the imaginary racial hierarchy based on skin tone and its concretization as fact by the most powerful (and in their minds, the whitest) men in the nation. It almost goes without saying that this whitewashing requires these migrants to dismiss the existence of those humans who lived on the continent before the first settler invasion. Likewise, each “new American” is also expected to forget the slave bodies that made up the wealth of so many of the families whose names are synonymous with their new country.
The genocide that describes the colonization of the North American continent is fundamental to its economic and social reality. The colonies broke away from Great Britain for a number of reasons. Principle among them was the freedom to own slaves. Another was the desire to take more land from indigenous peoples to the west. Yet another was to form an army to wrest those lands from their inhabitants and defend the settlers who moved there from the native peoples (whose lands they were). Dunbar Ortiz describes the developing nation of the US as a fiscal military state. She further describes it as a phenomenon that became fully developed by the 1840s, a “time of violent ethnic cleansing of the Southeast indigenous communities and appropriation of Land and human property by slavers.”(129) It was this period that saw what the text describes as “fully developed racial capitalism.” (129) It is this construct which is the basis for the modern United States and the empire it is constantly fighting wars to maintain and expand. Wars, which ultimately bring more immigrants that have become war refugees into the land.
In Not a Nation of Immigrants, Dunbar Ortiz deconstructs the mythological “nation of immigrants.” The United States is a settler colonialist nation, with each successive wave of immigrants ultimately perpetuating that national myth. The path was first cleared by the Scots-Irish settlers and the British, to be followed by Irish Catholics and German speakers. Each of these ethnic groups became settler-colonialists in their turn, no matter what their family origins were in their country of origin. A different trajectory existed and exists for darker-skinned immigrants; like those descended from slaves, many will never be considered truly “American.” How many times have we heard certain sectors of the polity ask why Black residents can’t just adapt like all other immigrants and become “American.”