Trump’s Racist Tweets, and the Question of Who Belongs in America
On Sunday night I texted my twin brother, Chris, who lives in San Francisco, and asked him to excavate his memory about the bullying we’d experienced for being Asian while growing up. Our family moved around several times during our childhood: we spent elementary school in a Pittsburgh suburb; middle school was in upstate New York; high school was in Michigan. The schools we attended were almost exclusively white, and being Asian-American inevitably shaped our ability to navigate the social hierarchies that circumscribe the lives of all children. Some of the epithets we dredged up, in our texts: La Choy. Me Chinese, me play joke, me go pee-pee in your Coke. Ching chong. I remembered middle school as being the worst, but Chris thought that the teasing in elementary school was more pervasive. “We were more established in middle school,” he said. He pointed out that we’d managed to attach ourselves to a group of popular kids, and that had insulated us to some degree. But I still recalled ugly moments, including one when a friend—indisputably one of the cool kids—had to put a stop to the harassment. What Chris remembered—and it was what I remembered, as well—was the feeling of perennially being “on the outside looking in.” It’s a sense that persists for both of us today, at a constant low thrum.
On Sunday morning, President Trump suggested on Twitter that four congresswomen of color, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna S. Pressley, should “go back” to the countries “from which they came.” The racist diatribe came in a string of tweets, separated by ellipses.
So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who
originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and
total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt, and inept anywhere in the
world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now
….and viciously telling people of the United States, the greatest and
most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. 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. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work
out free travel arrangements!
Many have already pointed out the fallacies in Trump’s tweets. Three of the women were born in this country; only Omar, who emigrated from Somalia, was not. Tlaib’s parents are Palestinian immigrants; Ocasio-Cortez’s parents are of Puerto-Rican descent. Pressley is black. They are all, of course, Americans. But it is worth pausing to recognize the racist shibboleths in Trump’s tweets, ones that have been used to justify other shameful moments in our history, from the Japanese internment, during the Second World War, to the Trump Administration’s Muslim ban.
As an editor, my normal instinct regarding Trump’s tweets has been not to engage, to avoid becoming an unwitting abettor of his attention economy. But Sunday’s tweets felt different to me. They were too dangerous to go unchallenged, the path from words to action too well trodden. There’s the assumed association with the countries of the congresswomen’s ancestry, a trope that has been used to question the loyalties of immigrants throughout American history. There’s the us-versus-them delineation in the language around “our government.” There’s the reproach to get out. On Sunday, I searched Nexis, a newspaper database, for variants of “go back to your country” and “murder” or “attack.” Some of what I found:
On February 22, 2017, Srinivas Kuchibhotla was having drinks after work with his best friend, Alok Madasani, at Austin Bar & Grill, in Olathe, Kansas. Kuchibhotla and Madasani both worked as engineers at Garmin, the G.P.S.-technology firm. Austin was a regular spot for them after work. A white man approached and demanded to know their immigration status. His name was Adam W. Purinton. He was fifty-one, a Navy veteran, and a regular at Austin. He continued to heckle the two friends and hurl ethnic slurs before other patrons intervened and escorted him from the premises. A short while later, he returned with a gun and opened fire, killing Kuchibhotla and wounding Madasani, as well as a bystander who chased after Purinton. Witnesses said that before Purinton started shooting, he yelled, at the men, “Get out of my country.”
In July, 2018, Rodolfo Rodriguez, a ninety-one-year-old resident of Willowbrook, a neighborhood south of downtown Los Angeles, was going for a walk when he passed a woman and a child on the sidewalk and suddenly found himself being beaten with a concrete brick. A witness said that she heard the woman, who was later identified as Laquisha Jones, shout, at Rodriguez, “Go back to your country. Go back to Mexico.”
In February, in Indianapolis, Mustafa Ayoubi, a thirty-three-year-old immigrant from Afghanistan, was shot to death by a man named Dustin Passarelli. Witnesses alleged that Passarelli yelled slurs about Islam and told Ayoubi, “Go back to your . . . country.” (Passarelli disputed the account.)
It was on the eve of Trump’s election, in October, 2016, when I experienced my own “go back to your country” moment. (I wrote about the incident in a column for the Times.) My family and I had just got out of church, and we were looking for a place to go to lunch. We were with some friends—all of us Asian-Americans—when a well-dressed white woman grew agitated at our group, because we were partially blocking the sidewalk. After she sidled past, she turned to yell at us, “Go back to China!” I was momentarily shocked, but then I abandoned my toddler in her stroller to confront the woman. As I was walking away, she screamed, “Go back to your fucking country.” To this day, I still think about what I hollered back: “I was born in this country!” As if that’s all I needed to prove.
The weariness that rose up inside me in the aftermath was, in large measure, for my two children. Even three generations removed from the immigrant experience, I wondered whether they’d ever feel a sense of belonging in this country. I happen to be currently reading Ocean Vuong’s extraordinary semi-autobiographical new novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.” The story of the book’s narrator, Little Dog, closely aligns with that of Vuong, who was born in Vietnam, came to this country as an adolescent, and couldn’t speak English when he started school in Hartford. In Vuong’s novel, Little Dog experiences a harrowing incident on the school bus, when he finds his face suddenly shoved against the window by a jowly boy, who admonishes him to “speak English.” Slaps from the boy and others rain down on him before they get distracted and lose interest. “He was only nine but had mastered the dialect of damaged American fathers,” Vuong writes, of the aggressor. As Trump stokes the racial fears of the millions of white Americans who are uneasy about the demographic changes unfolding in this country, it is that dialect he is championing. And it is the lot of so many immigrants, children of immigrants, and people of color in this country to wonder whether we can ever truly belong here, and who gets to decide.