Since I last wrote, America’s continuing oscillation between obsessive attention to race and willful ignorance of the ways in which it permeates our daily lives and our legal and political institutions has displayed itself in the most outstanding ways. Most pertinently, Representative Steve King (R-IA) has made a series of increasingly inflammatory comments about the need to protect “our civilization” — by which he meant either or both “Western” or “American” civilization — from the influence of “someone else’s babies,” apparently indicating immigrants, specifically from the Middle East. But then, as CNN reported, King clarified that what he meant was that the cultural contributions of white Americans are under threat. He also stated his prediction that the white population will remain the majority in the United States because “Hispanics and the blacks will be fighting each other.” King defended his view to Chris Cuomo in a CNN interview: “This is an effort on the left, I think, to break down the American civilization and the American culture and turn it into something entirely different. I’m a champion for Western civilization … There are civilizations that produce very little [freedom], if any. This Western civilization is a superior civilization, and we want to share it with everybody.”
I don’t want to spend much time on King’s comments themselves, but let’s note here the way that “American civilization” is equated with “Western civilization”. Let’s also note that other civilizations are inferior to this civilization, precisely because other civilizations “produce very little freedom,” while “our” superior civilization produces more. One thing this elision of any difference between American and Western civilization does is that it carries out exactly the same misrecognition that stands behind the error we find in Obama and Carson. Since, America equals the West and the West equals freedom, King argues American/Western civilization is superior. In the very same way, I would argue, holding onto a narrative not entirely dissociable from this chauvinism, though it is surely much more nuanced, the perspective that slaves were immigrants, of a fashion, attempts to save the exceptionalism of American/Western civilization by misrepresenting the enslaved person of the past in order to eliminate the history of misrecognition that pervades that putatively exceptional America. In so doing, as Alex Wagner describes in a response to King’s comments for the Atlantic, the exceptionalist reading of America (which King sings loudly and proudly, but which Carson and Obama are also offering versions of) casts a person like Wagner – the child of a Midwestern, white, Christian man and “a dark-skinned non-Christian whose first language was not English but something else”– as “a threat to American civilization.”
When I previously argued that these statements are not mere misstatements but rather immoral acts, I had in mind a justification that remained unstated there but which I want to discuss here. Namely, misrepresentation today — even when done in the service of upholding moral principles such as the dignity of the person and the equality of all people before the law — can never correct past misrecognition. More than that, when we attempt to cast back our “correct” recognition of person or persons who were misrecognized in the past, we actually commit a further immoral act by refusing to do justice to the past, as well as to that person or those persons who had injustice done them in the past. Worse yet, we underwrite the assumptions that bring about further misrecognitions today. The misrecognition of enslaved persons during the period of the transatlantic slave trade has a direct link to the misrecognition of minorities today. More starkly, errors of judgment like those from Obama and Carson about the nature of slavery make it possible (though surely not obvious or necessary) for a view like King’s to be articulated as a serious defense of “American culture.” Most members of polite society and many politicians of both parties will decry King’s statements. That is good and right. But are they ready to see the ways in which the discourse about American exceptionalism and our inability to reckon fully with our past make his point of view plausible?
If there’s any merit to this analysis of misrepresentation and misrecognition, then what is to be done so that our history (our “cultural heritage”) cannot be misrepresented by the likes of Rep. King for the sake of further current misrecognitions? First, we must stress that we judge rightly when we recognize today that of course enslaved Africans were persons, and as persons must surely have had hopes and dreams, inspirations and aspirations — that is, that they had dignity. But we must go on to say that this must be so because as persons, those Africans whose personhood was confiscated along with their freedom of movement, were and are equal to each and any of all us as persons. Let us pause here to note that this misrecognition of Africans as non-persons also has a history. Most of us likely don’t know that in the early colonial period, Africans were considered indentured servants just like indentured servants from Europe. They were persons, whose labor was the property of their master for a set period of time, after which they were free to sell their labor as they chose. Africans came to be misrecognized as non-persons, as “slaves”, only after a precedent was set (in 1654 or 1655) through a suit brought by an African who had become a free man, named Anthony Johnson. Johnson successfully claimed that his African servant, John Casor, and not Casor’s labor was his property. As Kat Eschner notes in a recent piece for the Smithsonian blog, this decision became settled law by 1671 in Virginia and spread from there to the colonies at large. As property, enslaved persons were no different from sugar, gold, spice, grain, cotton, or any other inanimate cargo, and thus of course could enter.
Our principle, with this history in mind, also teaches us that while it speaks to something fundamentally right-minded about our outlook that we wish to attribute our judgment and our correct recognition of Africans as full persons back to the time of the transatlantic slave trade, it is fundamentally wrongheaded to state as actual fact, that those enslaved persons had that personhood. And we are doubly wrong when we suggest that in addition to such personhood they also experienced the recognition that makes it possible, first, to do incredibly basic things like move freely, and then to do something like wish, hope or plan for the future. That wrongheadedness, when based on ignorance is an error to be forgiven, or if not forgiven, pitied. But when, as with the statements of President Obama and Secretary Carson, the error is based on a willful distortion of the past, then what is forgivable or pitiable becomes an immoral offense. For such willful distortion is a conscious misrepresentation of the past that cannot and will not correct the misrecognition of Africans as non-persons in the past.
To justify my judgment, I ask you to set aside the slave/immigrant entanglement for a moment and think instead of a different ship that sailed across the Atlantic and was in the news recently. Let’s also recall that this coincided with an ill-fated version of the Executive Order banning entry to holders of documents from seven Muslim-majority countries, and a (temporary) total halt to the refugee resettlement program. I am thinking, of course, of the story of the MS St. Louis, which hoped but failed to carry 937 Jewish emigres from Nazi-controlled Germany to safety in May 1939. The story of the St. Louis merits more attention in its details. This is especially so at a moment when the legal and political context of the ship’s journey, and the failure to grant the refugees on board extraordinary permission to enter the United States is so relevant for current events.
First, of course, because the second attempt at an Executive Order banning entry to document holders from (now six) Muslim-majority countries was just issued, and already challenged in court by the Attorney General of Hawaii. But also because, as has been somewhat less reported, the United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions has given what the Atlantic rightly describes as “unqualified praise” of the 1924 Immigration Act, which was, as all parties acknowledge, an expressly racist law meant to limit the number of non-whites (and “non-whites” included Jews and others from central, southern and eastern Europe, and also the Irish). Both angles on the lesson of the St. Louis for debates today merit more attention, but for now let me return to the consideration of our moral principle concerning misrecognition and misrepresentation and how the consideration of this moment from the spring of 1939 together with the transatlantic slave trade helps us see the error our leaders have made in describing slaves as immigrants.
How is it helpful to think of the plight of these passengers together with the imagined scene on the bottom of the slave ship that Carson called to mind in his inaugural speech to Department of Housing and Urban Development employees? There are a number of ways, but we can focus on two.
First, when we think of the plight of those Jewish refugees sitting in Havana harbor while their fate was determined, we can understand better why Secretary Carson was wrong when we said that “if we look in the dictionary” we will see that the slaves were immigrants. “Involuntary immigrants,” he suggested, but immigrants all the same. The factual wrongness of this claim emerges when we look at how the cases contrast. Enslaved Africans were allowed entry precisely because they never emigrated — because they had already been made the property of their owners. The Jewish refugees were refused entry because they had emigrated and were recognized as persons who (in the case of Cuba) were expected to pay huge bribes to make it worth the locals’ burden to welcome them or (in the case of the United States) were coming from countries whose quotas had already been more than met for the foreseeable future. More starkly, the Jewish refugees were inadmissible immigrants. They were persons on the move who could not migrate into (could “immigrate” to) Cuba, or later the United States. Enslaved Africans, on the contrary, were admissible cargo, welcomed in Cuba and America (and many other places along the western coast of the Atlantic) precisely because their personhood had been stripped before they were placed in a ship.
Second, comparing and contrasting the two groups highlights why it is immoral to speak of enslaved persons as having “dreams of a better life” or being “inspired” by the past. What the Jewish refugees and the enslaved Africans had in common is that political agents deprived both groups of their personhood. In the case of the enslaved Africans, however, this misrecognition occurred already before being brought to the port of departure. Having been successfully dehumanized and made non-persons before they entered the slave ship, it was uncontroversial to ship them and later admit them as trafficked goods at their “ports of entry.” For the Jewish refugees, their misrecognition took place at the would-be “ports of entry”. Having left Europe as persons (albeit in many cases criminalized and/or brutalized persons) they were denied recognition as refugees and returned to meet their fate. In these places, their dehumanization was completed, even if they managed to survive.
Why consider the details of these depravities? One important reason is so that we do not project back onto those who suffered historical injustice our own fantasies of justice and redemption. Chattel slavery in the United States and the Nazi genocide are irredeemable facts of American and European history. We must confront them in their full horror if we are to justice to ourselves as well as to their victims and those who descend from them, and those who “look like” they might have so descended. We must confront the true nature of the legacy of slavery so that we can confront the next Rep. King.