Our Xenophobic Past

Our Xenophobic Past

I was born in the city—The City—New York. I could roll out of bed, step down into the cavernous subways, ride to the tip of Manhattan to see the same welcoming statue my ancestors saw, eat corned beef, a cannoli or a knish while listening to a concert of the world’s languages in Battery Park. If any place is multicultural, it is New York City, where a fourth generation Italian-American kid could play stickball with Irish kids and go to a public school with Jewish kids, kids whose names began with ”Fitz” or ended with “witz.” Meeting people who come from pasts and lands and traditions different from your own, who accept you, enhances your acceptance of others. Growing up in polyglot, multi-ethnic New York, what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called the “Melting Pot” and we now call the Rainbow or Salad Bowl is at the core of my being.

Yet, New York and the rest of the United States weren’t always that accepting. Even New York’s revered Founding Father, John Jay, first Chief Justice of the United States, co-author of the Federalist Papers with another New Yorker, Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the West Indies, said, “We should build a wall of brass around the country,” referring to “Catholic alien invaders.” Twenty-first century metallurgy has improved on Jay’s “brass” for Trump’s “big, beautiful wall” and the latter’s sentiments might be even more extreme. After all, Jay only wanted to keep Catholics out, while Trump’s got a much broader list of unwanted peoples.

But let’s not just pick on New York. “Few of their children learn English…The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages…Unless the stream of their importation could be turned, they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious,” said Benjamin Franklin about German immigration to Pennsylvania.

The Founding Fathers don’t have a monopoly on xenophobia. Famous early twentieth century novelist, playwright and poet John Dos Passos railed against U.S. immigration policy saying “The people of this country are too tolerant. There’s no other country in the world where they’d allow it…After all, we built up this country and then we allow a lot of foreigners, the scum of Europe, the offscourings of Polish ghettos to come and run it for us.”

As the “Red Scare” after World War I took hold in America, Congress agreed with Dos Passos during a 1920 hearing: “They are coming in such numbers…it simply amounts to unrestricted and indiscriminate dumping into this country of people of every character and description. If there were in existence a ship that could hold three million human beings, then three million Jews of Poland would board to escape to America.”

Southern Europeans didn’t fare much better. Representative Grant Hudson in 1924 said of them, “Now what do we find in all our large cities? Entire sections containing a population incapable of understanding our institutions, with no comprehension of our national ideals, and for the most part incapable of speaking English…America’s first duty is to those already within her own shores.” Sound familiar?

In December, the Maryland Legislative Latino Caucus of our state legislature will meet to determine which bills it will present in the upcoming General Assembly session. Stay tuned and we will have an opportunity through the UU Legislative Ministry of Maryland to support bills that will protect our immigrant neighbors from a xenophobic present.

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