Fear of the Other: Xenophobic & Racist Reaction to Syrian Immigrants

(Syrian refugees arrive in Greece, image source: Reuters)

At this moment, we as a nation are vehemently forced into the political abyss of media yapping, threats, erroneous talk of revenge, and fear mongering. The rhetoric is not only disguised as being purely rooted in the devout notion of protection, but it also invokes within the credulous hearts and minds among us those age old sentiments that signify love of country. In actuality, the beat to this poorly constructed rap mimic infused dogmatic arguments that are wrapped stringently by phobia and systemic racism.

By removing the white veil of deceit, one comes face to face with a ghastly reality—history repeating and pain afoot. History has a way of creeping back upon us all when lessons forged from times long gone go unheeded. Avoiding the pain and shame that are rooted in these mistakes should be a no brainer. But it seems as a country, we are many times absent of said brain. U.S. reaction to the horrific public executions that were witnessed throughout the globe in Paris and Mali (which has gotten very little attention), effortlessly and opportunely ushered in an unseemly side once thought repudiated by citizens and politicians of the past. Specifically, in regard to the attack in Paris, dissecting the words of presidential hopefuls, such as Ben Carson, one is left with the blood and guts of malignant and dogmatic arguments that strike to propose plans to refuse Syrian refugees access to safety within the borders of “these here United States”. The entire 2016 republican presidential candidates, 289 House of Representative legislators, 31 state governors, and most likely that village idiot you live next to who refuses to remove his McCain and Palin yard sign are all calling upon the President to halt all efforts of the administration to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees. Their stance is usually discussed in a nativist and superior tone. Take for example the current conservative darling, medically brilliant, and foreign policy and social commentator wag, Ben Carson who has recently inserted foot into mouth [] with his unapologetic comparison between rabid dogs and Syrian refugees. In addition, people such as Roanoke Mayor David Bowers calls for the use of actual internment camps for refugees, to Donald Trump’s injudicious idea of registering and requiring Muslims to carry religiously identifiable ID cards. An idea that surely invokes the hatred and racist ideology surrounding the treatment of Jews and U.S Japanese citizens during WWII. These few listed are not alone. FOX news and other conservative media columnists, as well as many citizens with the red, white, and blue coursing through their nationalistic veins warmly and proudly called upon the gods of hate to harness remarkable rhetoric and sentiment filled with classic xenophobia and racism. This stance is not taken on upon a minority as one would initially think. A survey conducted by Zogby Analytics found that 42 percent of U.S. citizens believe it is ok to profile Muslim and Arab Americans. In fact, the attitudes toward these populations have gotten worse since 2010. Controversies swirling around the building of mosques and Islamic centers in U.S. have increased. It would seem that the negative feelings and actions toward Muslims along side people such as Governor Christie who said, he would go as far as not permitting even “‘3-year-old orphan’s’” admission into the country, it is hard to turn away from the premise that race and fear are factor in this debate.

I am sure those who regularly subscribe to Fox news and have Martin Dugardon and Bill O’ Riley’s latest debacle, Killing Reagan: The Violent Assault That Changed a Presidency, patiently waiting by their bedside nightstand would disagree. There are even some minor conservative Jewish advocacy groups that would disagree. But as Noam Chomsky said, “Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune.” Therefore, my argument to the blind would indeed sound “out of this world.” Politicians, Joel B. Pollak, author of, Why Syrian Refugees are not Like Jewish Refugees in WWII, as well as those who cowardly practice the art of commenting to his online commentary have all missed reading a number of pages from the U.S. history book. For example, when openly proposing that the rhetoric and recommended treatment of Muslim refugees is xenophobic or racist, most conservatives media pundits and politicians predicate their argument on the notion that Jews during WWII were not attempting to threaten U.S. lives as violent Muslims fanatics today. In addition, today many would agree that Jews were not seen as threats to the stability of the U.S. Real Talk people—this was not the case. A U.S. poll published in 1938 in Fortune magazine reported that less than 5 percent of surveyed U.S. citizens believed that legislators should raise the immigration quote to protect those fleeing fascism in Europe. Many of those fleeing were in fact Jewish.

 

(Image source)

In fact, two-thirds of those surveyed agreed with the idea of keeping Jews out of the country. These feelings even were noted before the infamous Kristallnacht (Night of Crystal) took place on November 9th and 10th of 1938. Days also referred to as the “Night of Broken Glass” consisted of instigated violence toward Jews on behalf of Nazi Party. Throughout Germany, Sudetenland, and Austria, rioters destroyed 267 synagogues. Violence was also directed toward thousands of Jewish businesses and cemeteries. In addition, 30,000 Jewish males were arrested and transported to local prisons and later concentration camps (Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald). After the hideous event was seen by the world, the feelings toward “political refugees” still did not dwindle in the U.S.. In January 1939, two-thirds of respondents of Gallup’s American Institute of Public opinion poll were opposed to allowing Jews into the country. The act of not only turning away of 937 Jewish passengers of the German transatlantic liner St. Louis, but also the lack of U.S. citizen outcry rationalized these polls.

You may be asking, “But why?” Why would such a country as ours turn away marginalized and racially persecuted people? Especially when they are White. It is important to understand the held feelings U.S. Government officials (FBI, legislators, and etc.), as well as President Franklin Roosevelt publically voiced regarding Jewish refugees. They were in fact seen as a potential threat to national security—spies and saboteurs.

You know, terrorists. Government officials, such as American ambassador to France, William Bullitt blamed the fall of France on Jews:

“More than one-half the spies captured doing actual military spy work against the French Army were refugees from Germany,” he said. “Do you believe there are no Nazi and Communist agents of this sort in America?”

In addition, to the voiced concern for allowing Jews into the country, U.S. government’s use of spy trials fueled American perception that accepting Jewish refugees could be catastrophic. Digging deeper into American history, beyond the polished chapters of American exceptionalism that are brought out like the good silverware when company comes over, we see a racial disregard to Jews that does not simply start with WWII. Anti-Semitism can be seen as far back as during the Civil War when General Grant issued General Order No. 11 that expelled Jews from territory under his control in the south (Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee).

Grant’s rationale was guided by his pattern of associating all Jews with the illicit business pertaining to the cotton trade in the south. President Lincoln agreed with his stance. U.S. Antisemitism continued throughout history. During large waves of immigration, roughly between 1880 and 1924, Eastern and Southern European immigrants were not classified as quite White. They were indeed seen as the racially “other”. During this period, groups such as the Klu Klux Klan (KKK), and powerful individuals like Henry Ford advocated for violence toward Jewish communities. They essentially blamed all social and economic ills on the Jewish community. For his anti-Semitic remarks and work, the Nazi Regime granted the Grand Cross of the German Eagle to Henry Ford in 1938. In addition, many are not familiar with the information that U.S. schools and universities also limited the enrollment of Jews and Catholics until non-Protestants such as Jews and Catholics until the late twentieth century. The Jewish Community was not alone in sharing similarities with Syrian refugees.

(Image source: Wikipedia)

Examples of Japanese American suffering under the tyranny of racism are tied to their treatment during WWII. Even though no evidence ever existed, they were seen a potential spies. Approximately three months after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Executive Order 9066 was signed by President Roosevelt. The U.S. government thusly imprisoned 127,000 Japanese Americans. Even before camp construction was complete, many were housed in racetrack stables like livestock. Thousands were forced to sell business and properties at fractions of their value. Even after the war had ended, anti-Japanese sentiment did not. Many of the imprisoned could not return home due to posted signs within communities that demanded for Japanese Americans to never return. One cannot forget that fear and racist ideologies supported the treatment and public sentiment. It is on display when observing the imaging of Japanese Americans during WWII. The act to dehumanization came by way of drawings, posters, and movies that depicted Japanese people as ruthless, buck-tooth, animalistic, knife carriers, and sneaky. Many characters were seen as menacing and murderous individuals out to destroy the U.S. Everyone was in harm’s way. This included the precious White woman.

Where was the mass outcry? None could be found because the nation in general already perceived the Japanese as the “other.” This can be linked to the treatment of Chinese immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Naturalization Act of 1870, the Chinese massacre of 1871, and the theory of the yellow peril all embody mistreatment built on the White racial frame.
But back to the future we must go. Here we see history actually repeating in terms of the treatment of Jews and Asian American to the current issue regarding Syrian refugees. In 2014, the Pew Research Center asked self identified republicans and those who politically leaned toward the party’s ideology to rate a number of religious groups on a “feeling thermometer (0 cold to 100 warmest),” Republicans subsequently gave Muslims an average of 33  Pew Research Center reported that White evangelical Protestants were the coldest to no other group than Muslims. In mostly republican states, these same people who receive the coldest regard as reported by Pew, are seen by Carnegie Mellon University as less likely to give job interviews to applicants who have public social networking profile that reveal them as Muslim. As discussed earlier, sentiment leads to action. Anti-Muslim hate crimes for example rose dramatically by 50% in 2010 and remained high in 2011. In 2014, hate crimes in general were reported to have dipped with the exception of anti-Muslim crimes.

The symbolism we see today is soaked in fear and hate. It has engulfing our nation once again. The cavalier nature and lack of outrage regarding the current course of ideological and political travels of those who claim to represent our interest, and bear the responsibility of upholding the best of our nation has principally gone unchecked. As a people, our lack of giving voice to the issue is deafening to my ears of social and racial justice. If we not careful, and the nation does not come together to quill the tongues of the Trumps that take up our televisions, and protect the innocent from hate, we will in deed repeat our mistakes. But unlike before, the stakes have worsened.

 

~ Dr. Terence Fitzgerald is Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California.