Over the last few weeks of July 2019, US President Donald Trump launched a series of white nationalist diatribes directed against four US Congresswomen of non-white background. Informally known as ‘the Squad’, Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) were told by Trump to ‘go back’ to their countries of origin.
The latest Twitter outbursts, in this post-literate age of the Twitter presidency, are part of a broader attack on migrants and refugees by the Trump administration. Most commentators have pointed out that Trump is factually incorrect – of the four, only Rep. Ilhan Omar was born overseas – she came to the United States at age 10, a Somali refugee.
The ‘Squad’ responded to Trump, and have demonstrated their customary intelligence and self-respect. Trump continued his racist attacks after his Twitter ranting, standing by his supporters in North Carolina who chanted ‘send her back’ – a reference to Representative Ilhan Omar.
Trademark of Australian racism
There are many variations of the ‘go back to where you come from’ sneer. Migrants to Australia – and their children – find this contemptuous insult all too familiar. Antoun Issa, political commentator and journalist for the Guardian, wrote in 2017 that the ‘go back to where you come from’ slur is a trademark characteristic of white racism in Australia.
While racial taunts are nothing new, nor confined to the United States, they do indicate that racism has become normalised, or at least more socially acceptable. As Issa wrote, this vulgar racial rebuke is directed at immigrants, refugees, and people of non-Anglo background who participate actively in Australian political life on an equal footing. Tolerance is all well and good, as long as the immigrant remains in a position of obsequious supplication.
America’s white nationalism
Truthdig columnist Sonali Kolhatkar wrote about the latest upsurge of white nationalism. After relating a racial-taunt incident from her own life, she wrote:
It was certainly not my last time being told to leave the U.S. It is an age-old American insult, a perfect encapsulation of xenophobic ideals about who belongs in this country and who doesn’t. It matters little if the targets of such attacks are natural born citizens, naturalized citizens, legal residents, undocumented immigrants or visitors to the U.S. All that matters is that they represent an “impurity” in the perceived whiteness of America. They need only be nonwhite, have an accent, speak a different language, have a foreign-sounding name or simply issue a criticism about the way things are.
There is no doubt that Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, speak truth to power, and challenge Trump’s racist worldview. The obsessive focus on Omar in particular, speaks volumes about the racial hypocrisy at the heart of the United States. A Somali refugee, she has dedicated her life to exposing the corruption and oppression of the US system.
It is interesting to note the vitriol directed at Omar, considering the fact that another Somali female refugee has found success and acclaim in the United States. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has made a career of denouncing Islamic extremism, and indeed providing rationales for US foreign policies in the Middle East. Her claims of fleeing war and violence in Somalia have been disproved – she actually grew up in Kenya, and received a comfortable education at a UN-funded school.
Hirsi Ali has used her personal story as a representation of a brave, rational-thinking person emerging from the dark, intolerant swamp of Islam. This narrative feeds into the white supremacist complex, and reduces the Arab and Islamic nations into a backward cesspit. The tribalist mentality of the US is reinforced by the books and stories of a favoured and acceptable extremist like Hirsi Ali.
Ilhan Omar is also a rational-thinking and courageous refugee, who is working within the parameters of the US constitution and congress. She is attempting to improve the lives and conditions of all Americans – even the white working class person who attack her. She has continued to fight the good fight in the face of death threats, hatred and racial attacks.
It is the political platform of Omar – and the Squad – against which Trump and his white nationalist supporters are opposed. This is not the first instance of Trump deploying racism to gain political points. However, this is the first time that the president, and his inner circle of fascistic advisers, have portrayed criticism of his administration as disloyalty to the United States and his opponents as ‘socialist provocateurs.’
When Omar denounces the inequalities of the American capitalist system, she is doing more than making an economic critique – important as that is. She is also exposing the racial inequities that maintain a stark divide between white and black America. She is definitely not denying the existence of poverty among white communities to be sure. She is acknowledging that when it comes to neighbourhood and residential patterns of settlement, educational and financial institutions, policing and law enforcement – the United States is still a racially divided society.
The election of Obama, the declaration of MLK Day, the renaming of streets after Dr. King and Malcolm X are all great achievements – but they have served to implement a false finish line under the issue of race and racism. Trump is coarse and bigoted, but he is not an aberration. He stands in a long line of white supremacy. His ideology of white nationalism is more than skin deep.
American racism has always been the product of bipartisan consensus. Elite power in the United States has been built on a racially stratified society. This resurgence of overt racism would not be possible without the decades of quietly xenophobic policies that have been enacted by both the major parties. White racism does not emanate exclusively from the president’s brain, but from the capitalist system that enabled his rise to power.