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Conflicted Nativism and Racial Oppression in America

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Being American and black can be described as the constant struggle to prove your patriotism to a country that systematically works to exclude you. Niambi Michelle Carter tackles this concept in her book, “American While Black,” and outlines the contradictory relationship between black national identity in the American system which hails white supremacy. Carter analyzes this idea through the African American lens on citizenship and immigration. She argues that blacks experience “conflicted nativism” where they have “definite opinions on what it means to be American” but are not necessarily in agreement with anti-immigrant policies. This essay will examine the multiple dimensions and examples that characterize conflicted nativism which include blacks’ ability to empathize with immigrants, their avoidance of anti-immigrant organizing, and the idea that conflicted nativism is more informed by white racism than immigration. After assessing the dimensions of conflicted nativism, it is evident that Carter is not hopeful that blacks will resolve this sentiment because white supremacy is deeply rooted in America and its system demands the persistent exclusion of black people.

Blacks empathize with immigrants because they understand the struggle to overcome structural barriers in search of a better life, which is but one layer to the multifaceted concept of conflicted nativism. Carter draws comparisons between the black and immigrant experience in America, both of which constitute a constant fight for a similar overall purpose. As minoritized groups, they have both been excluded from political, social, and economic opportunities. Black people, in particular, are strong believers of self-determination and therefore are “sympathetic to the plight of immigrants”. This does not necessarily translate to an agreement of pro-immigrant policies, however.

Despite blacks’ empathy toward immigrants, Carter argues that they are “as reluctant to aid immigrants as they are to oppose them”. This introduces the larger concept of the “twoness” of black public opinion on immigration which highlights just how conflicting “conflicted nativism” truly is. On the one hand, black people empathize with immigrants. But on the other hand, they understand they are in competition with them. Blacks, however, are aware that this inter-minority competition stems from white Americans’ successful attempts to remain dominant. White supremacy demands the subversion of black people and views race relations as a zero-sum game where only one group can be victorious. This is evident when white people brought Chinese laborers to the Mississippi Delta region, after Reconstruction, in an attempt to prevent black mobilization for political and economic rights. Another example was when Pullam Corporation used Filipino immigrants to replace black laborers and minimize their demands for better working conditions. Black people are neither anti- nor pro-immigrant necessarily, but they do fear what immigration means for their community because historically, it’s resulted in black people’s subversion.

Black people’s empathy towards immigrants and lack of political power has resulted in an avoidance of anti-immigrant organizing, detailing the second dimension of conflicted nativism. As mentioned previously, black people are neither pro- nor anti-immigrant. This is evident when examining historical black organizations and their respective advocacy items. For example, organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) focused on fighting for African American civil rights and social progress via the dismantling of institutionalized barriers (pg. 61). The NAACP took legal action via court cases in an attempt to alter the American structure that favors white supremacy. SCLC called for non-violent protest and framed the civil rights movement in ethical terms in an effort to gain more support for black civil rights. They did not push for anti-immigrant policies. Carter emphasizes that immigration, in general, has never been a salient issue for blacks because “blacks traditionally have not had enough political clout to cause the government to act either in favor or opposition to immigration”. It’s as if black people’s empathy towards immigrants does not supersede their self-interest, yet blacks do not view their self-interest as the equivalent to the oppression of other minority groups.

Carter strongly believes that conflicted nativism is more informed by whites’ racism than immigration, which leads us to the final layer of blacks’ multifaceted view on immigration and citizenship and what that means for their own national identity. Throughout this essay, we have seen that blacks have been systematically oppressed and pitted against other groups. Blacks’ belief in self-determination, however, has amounted to years of fighting the system to be afforded the same rights a white person is automatically granted. The Naturalization Act of 1790 granted citizenship to all free, white persons residing in the U.S. for at least two years, defining the idea that in order to be fully American, you must be white. Carter argues that this idea is damaging to black American identity because being a true “American” means subscribing to the notion that the exploitation and repression of black people are necessary for maintaining white supremacy. She defines this as the “twoness” of black public opinion on citizenship.

Since the passage of the Naturalization Act of 1790, whites have made continuous efforts to maintain white racial purity through restrictive immigration and citizenship laws, many of which consistently favored immigrants over blacks. Whites’ racism has contributed to blacks’ conflicted nativism. For example, despite the passage of the Reconstruction amendments, blacks continued to experience oppressive and discriminatory attacks under Jim Crow law and were denied equal access to education, housing, and employment. Voter restrictive devices like literacy tests and the grandfather clause demonstrate efforts to prevent black mobilization and political power. This heavily contrasts with white attitudes towards immigrants where they were more easily accepted into their “melting pot” if they were white. European immigrants, such as the Irish, were not only allowed to enter the United States but granted citizenship through naturalization. Carter argues that the collective memory of white supremacy and insecurities about black citizenship shapes the way blacks view immigration issues. And while blacks believe they deserve access over “any and all immigrant groups,” they are still not for aggressive anti-immigrant tactics because they understand that whites’ racism is to blame. Therefore, blacks conflicted nativism is not necessarily a response to immigrants, but rather white hostility.

Considering white supremacy is the underpinnings of blacks’ conflicted nativism and white supremacy is deeply rooted in the American system, Carter is not hopeful that blacks will resolve this internal dilemma. It’s evident that racialized policy is embedded in American structural entities. Historically, affordable housing was reserved for the middle-income and white families and quality education was provided to only majority-white communities. This demonstrates how the American system is designed to favor white people, resulting in black exclusion. While racism and discrimination are not legally allowed, the system still manages to discourage black participation. For example, mass incarceration has served as a modern tool to subvert black people. Law enforcement entities target low-income communities of color as enforced by their pre-existing racial bias. As a result of these racialized policies, black communities are characterized by poverty and crime. Carter argues that the “root cause of these outcomes is white supremacy, which is largely invisible because of the way it has been normalized in society”. This creates a problem because if white supremacy is “normalized,” it becomes harder to break, which by proxy affects blacks’ ability to resolve their conflicted nativism. Blacks’ can’t feel like true Americans if people can’t even accept that the American system discriminates against non-whites; This is a consequence of color blindness.

Blacks’ have consistently been made to feel like strangers in their own land by the American system that hails white supremacy, which in turn affects blacks’ opinions on immigration and citizenship. Carter detailed three dimensions to the multifaceted concept of conflicted nativism where on the one hand, blacks are empathetic to the immigrant cause, but on the other hand, are keenly aware that whites have favored immigrants as a strategy against black social progress. Where Carter fails to provide sufficient evidence, however, is that blacks’ have distinct nativist attitudes towards immigrants. She defines “nativism” as “chauvinistic,” but doesn’t provide sufficient examples for blacks’ aggressive action against immigrants. I do agree that America has a history of xenophobia in relation to the health of the economy. I also agree that blacks’ feelings of exclusion, oppression, and insecurity will likely not be resolved considering Donald Trump’s rhetoric against immigrants and “outsiders” is what won him the presidency in the first place. 

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