For much of 2019, our political discourse was filled with assertions that America is a racist, white nationalist country with institutions steeped in racism. The left is leading these charges, with the Democratic presidential candidates trying to one-up one another in these assertions.
In the mix is a new kind of immigrant, the kind who sees racism everywhere in America, and doesn’t see any redeeming qualities in its people or institutions, and who wants open borders as restitution for America’s past sins. Representatives of this mentality include Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, and professor and author Suketu Mehta, who wrote a Washington Post op-ed last year arguing that immigration is a form of reparations to the global south for West’s wars and imperial depredations in the past.
As someone who legally emigrated from India and has been here a long time (27 years), I have different views not just toward immigration, but toward America and Americans, and about the way forward to living in relative harmony in today’s greatly divided America.
Two Kinds of Immigrants: Grateful and Resentful
There are probably two kinds of immigrants, broadly speaking. The first, where I place myself, is the kind who is grateful to be in America, has a more balanced view of America, and recognizes its historical and contemporary flaws and sins, but also its extraordinary blessings and opportunities. This kind of immigrant sometimes faces racism, but shrugs it off and works twice as hard, operating from the maxim that “success is often the best revenge.”
Although I’ve sometimes faced racism, and though I know there’s some institutional racism, my overall impression is that most native-born Americans are decent, fair-minded people who understand that this is a country of immigrants, and have no problem with legal immigrants who are grateful to be here and want to contribute to this society.
The current problems in immigration have risen over decades because of rampant abuses by our ruling and corporate class: allowing huge numbers of illegal immigrants in to facilitate cheap, exploitable labor, and abusing the H-1B visa, where lower-paid white-collar workers from abroad are preferentially hired over the native-born.
A little empathy is called for here. If a white software engineer was replaced by and had to train his lower-paid replacement from India (something that’s happened often), wouldn’t it be natural for the American to resent the situation? Is it then fair to call him racist for opposing this kind of legal immigration that puts his livelihood in jeopardy?
The second kind of immigrant is the kind who comes here with or later develops a big chip on his shoulder, and makes blanket assumptions and characterizations about the whole of this complex country, and about millions of its white citizens. He or she also wants, in urgent order, an accounting of history’s abuses, and reparations for it. Broadly, Omar, Tlaib, Mehta, media personality Jorge Ramos, and some others fit into this category.
Some broad points of their and the left’s critiques are understandable: that the West’s past sins have visited economic and environmental devastation on many countries, and therefore migrants need to leave their countries. I have two problems, though, with the left’s America-is racist-and-white-nationalist and America-should-atone-for-past-sins arguments.
Calling 63 Million People Racist Is Also Racist
It paints most of white America, or at least all Trump supporters (63 million voters), as outright racists. Excuse me, but that is racist too. To paint large parts of the population as racist is textbook racism. In reality, voting is a complex calculus and all kinds of voters—Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, educated voters—voted for Donald Trump in 2016 for a complex mix of reasons.
Also, being against uncontrolled mass immigration doesn’t automatically make you racist. There are millions of brown and black Americans, both native-born and legal immigrants, who are against it too.
In addition, asking ordinary Americans to pay for their country’s foreign policy sins is a bit too much. Americans aren’t often aware what their CIA is up to except after the fact, and they weren’t and still aren’t often privy to what their foreign policy establishment is up to. Asking them to be responsible for things they can’t control doesn’t seem fair.
As I see it, the real battle isn’t between ordinary Americans and migrants of the world, and the real villains aren’t ordinary Americans but the ruling and corporate elites of America and the West, who have despoiled much of the world through wars and corporate pillaging. Further, it’s not an easy task to take a clear accounting of history’s sins and flaws, or fair to make present-day multicultural, multiethnic America pay for them. There is no clear line from past sins to present-day reparations. There are too many variables, holes, and inconsistencies in the argument.
Who Does America Belong To?
The immigration-is-a-right-not-a-privilege assertion raises an interesting question: Who does America belong to? One line of thinking, which the left increasingly seems to subscribe to, says that this is a land of immigrants belonging to no one in particular, certainly not to the ones who came before us. The other line of thinking, which conservative Americans believe in, is that the white Christian settlers who established America and their descendants deserve credit for the country’s founding principles and ideals, and can lay claim to it.
In the interest of fairness, I tend to the latter view. I do think America would’ve been a different, and probably lesser country, if someone else had settled it. The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights wouldn’t have just come up on their own. America may be a flawed country, with violence, oppression, and sins present in its founding and its institutions, but it is still admirable in the way it tries to live up to its ideals.
I agree with the Harvard University scholar Samuel Huntington, who said, “Would America be the America it is today if in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it had been settled not by British Protestants but by French, Spanish, or Portuguese Catholics? The answer is no. It would not be America; it would be Quebec, Mexico, or Brazil.”
In our heated identity-politics-driven moment, some immigrants and their advocates display an undeniable whiff of self-righteousness and sanctimoniousness: the presupposition that immigrants are enlightened victims. In reality, immigrants have as many flaws as everyone else. Many can and do game the immigration system any way they can. They can be racist, too. There is brown-on-black and brown-on-white racism too, but in woke philosophy this apparently doesn’t count.
Just like any other person, immigrants can also be notoriously blind to their hypocrisies. For instance, I’ve noticed that many of my Hindu peers love and support the nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi back in India because he protects their Hindu identity, but they hate President Trump for his nationalism here. In other words, nationalism is fine for me, but not for thee.
I hold these views not because I’m a turncoat on my immigrant and Indian American community but because I’m an old-school immigrant, I guess, who believes in decency and fairness. That is why I’m appalled by some of today’s immigrants who come and, in effect, tell those who’ve been here several generations, “I’ve a right to be here, even illegally, and if you object you’re a bigot!”
Money Doesn’t Make You Better than Others
The other issue that comes up in this discussion is the now-fashionable idea of being a “global citizen,” a cosmopolitan who travels often and has footprints in different nations. Probably the top 10 to 20 percent of Americans are the kind who can afford this lifestyle, and one understands the idea that travel can be mind-expanding and can lessen the fear of the “other.”
But there is a flip side to this thinking that I’ve sometimes found broadly, and in a few of my Indian American peers. It also came up in Mehta’s essay: a kind of looking down on those who can’t be jet-setting transnationals. This kind of thinking I especially find offensive in my community. Many of us immigrants grew up in humble, middle-class backgrounds in India, immigrated here, and made use of the United States’s educational and economic opportunities, became wealthy, and then started looking down on lesser-educated, lower-income, less-traveled Americans as hicks. Sorry, but this kind of thinking to me is un-American.
News flash to them: You may be, through hard work and good fortune, wealthy enough to be a jet-setting transnational, and good for you, but a majority of Americans aren’t, and that’s okay. For that matter, a majority of ordinary citizens of the world aren’t transnational and can’t afford to be either.
Many native-born Americans, especially in the heartland, are rooted in their communities, and grounded in their love for and commitment to their extended family, local community, church and civic organizations, and that to me is commendable, not something to look down on. Allowing free migration to the West as a form of reparation will be destabilizing to these countries and to the world as we know it.
Most of all, what I find offensive with the new brand of in-your-face immigrant is this: America allowed you in, and you prospered in this supposedly out-and-out racist country , and then you, with changing demographics, choose to spit in America’s face, calling most of its citizenry and institutions racist. That is graceless and classless.
This article has been edited since publication.