When President Trump tweeted on Sunday that four congresswomen should “go back” to the countries they came from, he was writing the latest entry in a centuries-old story equating whiteness with American citizenship.
His attacks on the women, three of whom were born in the United States and one of whom is a naturalized citizen, echoed an idea that cropped up in the early days of the republic, informed the abolition movement and the Civil War, justified strict immigration quotas in the early 20th century, and forced Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, to produce his birth certificate for public inspection.
“This vision that people should return to the place from which they once came, or perhaps their forebearers came, is an old one,” said Martha S. Jones, the author of “Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America.” “Historically, the interpretation of who is a birthright citizen has been inflected by racism.”
On Monday, Trump doubled down on his initial comments, saying the four progressive congresswomen known as “the Squad” — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — “hate our country” and are “free to leave.”
Although his comments may be some of the most hurtful and inflammatory ones made by an American president in recent memory, historians and scholars point out that they are also part of a long history of actions by Americans and their government to draw the boundaries of citizenship so that they exclude people of color.
And many people of color still hear the insult hurled frequently. “To be told to go back to your country, it’s unoriginal, it’s lazy, it’s the most basic way to be racist,” said state cannabis regulator Shaleen Title, 36, an Indian-American who lives in Malden. Title said that two weeks ago a man in a coffeeshop in her neighborhood muttered that she should “go back” to her country. People who say it, she said, are trying to communicate “you need to stay in your place.”
Dr. Terrance Lee, an emergency room physician who lives in Allston, said he still remembered hearing someone tell his family to “go back” to their country when he was around 11, waiting in line at Disney World. Lee moved to the United States from Hong Kong when he was 9 months old.
“It hits you with this gut punch,” he said. “You’re still viewed as an outsider, even though you might have been in the country almost your entire life.”
In predominantly white parts of Boston, Decorsie James, who is 26 and black, said sometimes people will drive by and shout out the window: “Get out of here,” or “Go back to where you’re from.” His friend, Chuck Taylor, 22, said white parents at his middle school would say things like, “Go back to Africa with your ancestors. You don’t deserve to be here.”
These comments are part of a much bigger picture. The first naturalization law of the republic in 1790 defined the privilege of citizenship as the provenance of “free white” people.
In the decades that followed, much of the debate over slavery and its abolition centered on the question of what to do if the millions of black people who were born in the United States as slaves were granted freedom, according to Jones. They were born in the United States, so would they be made citizens? Instead of granting citizenship, many white leaders came up with another solution: a “return” to Africa, an idea popularized by the American Colonization Society.
Abraham Lincoln even espoused the idea, saying in a speech in 1854, “My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, — to their own native land.” (Liberia was, of course, not their “native” land, as many black families had been in the United States for generations by 1854, and certainly not all of their ancestors came from that part of Africa.) But, Lincoln added, “whatever of high hope, (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible.”
The 14th Amendment solved the issue of freed slaves, enacting a kind of retroactive acknowledgment that anyone born in the United States was a citizen, according to Jones. But even that did not settle the question of whether all nonwhite people could become citizens. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, for example, prevented Chinese people from becoming American citizens or immigrating here.
The rallying cry against the Chinese and against Mexicans in the late 1800s was a blunt one: “This is a white man’s country.” It was that phrase that rattled in the mind of Nell Irvin Painter, the author of “Standing at Armageddon: A Grassroots History of the Progressive Era,” when she read about Trump’s comments over the weekend.
“This is the 19th century,” she thought to herself.
But even after the 19th century, the idea that American citizenship is or should be fundamentally a white privilege has stubbornly held.
The 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, for example, formally made Native Americans citizens, though they had lived on US land much longer than its original citizens.
“Whiteness is much more associated with citizenship than birth,” said Nathan Connolly, the director of the Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship at Johns Hopkins University. He added that immigrant groups often worked to separate themselves from, and place themselves above, other immigrant groups, as a way of securing their own place in the country.
“The American-ness is always coming at somebody’s expense,” Connolly said. “That’s how you define the boundaries of your citizenship — by who’s outside those boundaries.”
In his tweet, the president said “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how . . . it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough.’’
The congresswomen responded by calling his comments racist and accusing the president of stoking white nationalism.
“WE are what democracy looks like. And we’re not going anywhere,” Pressley tweeted. Her remark echoes an essay written by Frederick Douglass 170 years earlier, in response to the colonization movement to send formerly enslaved people to Africa: “We live here — have lived here — have a right to live here, and mean to live here.”