Content Warning: discussion of violence and racism (including photos) in embedded links.
In light of the horrific news that the current administration has been keeping children in cages (or “detention centers,” when the cognitive dissonance gets too strong), I’ve seen a lot of people argue, “This is not America, we’re better than this.” I understand the impulse to want to believe that your government, and your home, are better than what you’re witnessing. That the current nightmare is just a brief lapse into cruel insanity, but that we, as a people, as a citizenry, are not defined by this moment. I take no pleasure in saying this, but this in fact is America. It always has been, since our very first moments.
We built our very foundations through the labor of enslaved persons. Men, women, and children were stolen from their homes, ferried across an ocean, then sold off as property. Families were split apart, parents and children sold to different buyers. Enslaved persons endured no shortage of horrors, ranging from physical abuse to sexual assault to murder. All of this occurred as our founding fathers drafted a document declaring all men created equal. We’ve been pushing aside our cognitive dissonance since our creation.
In 1830, President Jackson authorized the Indian Removal Act, which served as the justification for forcibly removing more that 15,000 Cherokee from their homes. Over the course of what became known as the “Trail of Tears” some 4,000 indigenous people died. When removal proved insufficient, the federal government forced children to attend special “boarding schools,” to help the children better assimilate into American society. Children were pulled from their homes, forced to abandon their language, traditions, and customs.
Following the end of the Civil War and legal slavery, white supremacists felt their power was being threatened. They turned to their local governments and mob violence to assert their authority over people of color. Jim Crow laws codified a hierarchy in which black Americans were seen as inferior, and this hierarchy was enforced through terror and violence. The Equal Justice Initiative recently calculated that almost 4,000 individuals were lynched between 1877 and 1950.
In June 1939, the government denied entry to a vessel carrying almost one thousand Jewish refugees. The FBI suspected one — just one — of the passengers was a Nazi spy. The ship was forced to return to Europe, and more than a quarter of those passengers died in the Holocaust. In February of 1942, FDR authorized the imprisoning of Japanese-Americans to internment camps.
We dropped napalm bombs on civilians during the Vietnam War. A Harvard scientist invented the chemical weapon. You’ve probably seen the image of the little girl, screaming in pain. She’s nude because she tore off her burning clothes.
Even now, we’re no stranger to turning a blind eye as children suffer and die. As a country, we’d rather let almost two dozen young children die in a single school shooting than address our cultural fetish with firearms. We have no qualms with letting children die of treatable illnesses because their parents may not have adequate health insurance.
The news that we’ve taken immigrant children from their parents and put them in cages, the news we may yet detain entire families in inadequate facilities, because of some racist nonsense really doesn’t surprise me. We aren’t better than this. In fact, I suspect a lot of our crimes have been committed under the banner of “better.” That we, as Americans, are somehow betters, more noble, more intelligent, more just, and more right than the other. This is us; this is our history.
It doesn’t have to be our future. Instead of clutching our collective pearls, let’s look at ourselves with honesty and humility. We can acknowledge and own that much of our history is violent, dark, and shameful. We can, in fact, accept that we are not somehow, magically better; but then resolve to do better. Then, the hard part: we must take the action to actually do better, to put into practice the values of equality and freedom that we desperately want to believe define our nation. That part isn’t easy, the sadness and cruelty that are in front of us, and lie behind us, can feel unbearably heavy and overwhelming. We have to start somewhere, why not now?
If you’d like to donate time your money to helping the families currently impacted by this administration’s border policies, please consider some of the below:
Regionally, Lutheran Services Carolinas is collecting goods and donations toward helping refugee families.
RAICES has established a family reunification and bond fund.
The Texas Civil Rights Project is a group of Texas-based lawyers working to aid with border-related cases, as well as address ongoing issues like criminal justice reform.
The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights does exactly what the name suggests — advocating for unaccompanied immigrant children.
As always, don’t forget to contact your local representatives. This site is one of many that puts all the needed information right in front of you.