Belonging in America, educating German and Mexican children, and racism

In an article for the Boston Review, Jonna Perrillo, associate professor at the University of Texas El Paso, writes that for some migrants and refugees, America has been very welcoming. However, for those from nonwhite backgrounds, getting to be accepted as American has been a difficult course filled with obstacles. Her observations have contemporary relevance for the Anglospheric world, as conversations about how we define ourselves have erupted in a series of culture wars.

In 1946, 144 German children were moved from war-torn Germany to El Paso, Texas. They were the children of Nazi scientists, captured in the waning days of World War 2, as part of a secret American government programme called Operation Paperclip. The latter involved taking Nazi scientists, especially those involved in designing the V2 rockets, to the US. These ex-Nazi scientists, including the most famous Wernher von Braun, were instrumental in launching the space missions of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The participation of these Nazi scientists in the German war machine was overlooked or whitewashed, as they and their families settled in the United States. The German children, attending school in El Paso, were welcomed and warmly integrated into the school community. In numerous press articles, the German students were described as smart, sociable and capable. Rewarded for speaking German, as well as learning English, there was never any question that these kids would grow up to be American citizens.

This educationally privileged experience contrasts sharply with that of the Mexican American children, who made up the vast majority of the El Paso student community. Pushed into underfunded and overcrowded public schools, these students were punished for speaking Spanish, the only language they had ever known. Condemned as antisocial, unintelligent and super sensitive, the Mexican children were viewed as the eternal outsiders, incapable of becoming a part of the American landscape, which was exclusively reserved for whiteness.

The Paperclip children, defined as white, held the key to access the best of American society. Never mixing with the Mexican children, the German kids were taught that American values of self-reliance, individual achievement and democratic tolerance were integral in becoming American. Paperclip children were viewed as basically white in the process of becoming American. If the German children could be integrated into US society, then maybe Operation Paperclip could be interpreted as something positive, or at least benevolently motivated.

As Jonna Perrillo notes:

German children were quickly embraced as “American” because they were white, whereas the Mexican American children were consistently treated as foreign despite being U.S. citizens by birth.

Mexican children, stigmatised as lazy and hypersensitive, were at the lower steps of the capitalist and racialised pyramid. It is relevant to observe here that while Paperclip children were warmly welcomed into American society, the US authorities had done everything they could to heavily restrict the numbers of European Jewish refugees attempting to enter the United States. While the most famous European Jewish refugee, Albert Einstein, did gain entry to the US, thousands of his fellow Jews were not so lucky.

It is also relevant to note that African American military veterans – who served their nation in both world wars – were rejected by the country for which they fought. Facing legalised discrimination at home, black American veterans found themselves at odds with a society for which they risked their lives.

The black Olympians who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, found themselves equally ostracised when they returned home. We have all heard of the story, highly exaggerated, that Jesse Owens, gold-medal winning African American athlete, was reputedly snubbed by Hitler. That story is largely a myth; however, what is not in dispute is that successive US administrations ignored the contributions of the 18 black American Olympians.

In an irony not lost in the mists of history, the 18 African American athletes lived in a racially integrated Olympic village while in Berlin – something they could not experience in their own nation. Snubbed by the American authorities, they were eventually thanked for their sacrifices by former President Barack Obama.

We have come a long way since then, with the civil rights movement, and campaigns for racial and economic justice. However, it would be wrong to draw a false finish line underneath the issue of redressing racial inequities. There is no intention, as falsely claimed by conservative commentators, that white children will be saddened or feel guilty if we teach the history of racism and genocidal violence against the indigenous nations in our schools.

The Paperclip children were never taught about the history of systematic violence against the indigenous American nations – nor the conquest of Mexican territory in a series of predatory wars in the southwest. Removing the presence of – and crimes committed against – the indigenous nations, the Paperclip children were included in a narrative of whiteness. We can observe what a nation stands for by what it omits from its curriculum, as much as by what it includes.

This pedagogy of omission, as Perrillo calls it, can be rectified by a pedagogy of inclusion, filling in the gaps so to speak. Only then can we have an honest reckoning about ourselves.

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