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The cultural politics of “othering”

President Trump’s executive order ending immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries has intensified a vituperative debate in American society, which has been ongoing since long before candidate Trump formally remarked on it. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four successful presidential campaigns created a bipartisan consensus that cast the immigrant experience as an extension of a narrative beginning on Plymouth Rock. In the final days of his 1936 campaign, Roosevelt, speaking on Ellis Island and again on New York’s Lower East Side, paid tribute to immigrants as the new quintessential Americans:

They came to us speaking many tongues—but a single language, the universal language of human aspiration.
They were not satisfied merely to find here the realization of the material hopes, which had guided them from their native land.

They were intent also on building a place for themselves in the ideals of America.
They sought an assurance of permanency in the new land for themselves and their children, based upon active participation in its civilization and culture.

In early February 2017, the first Black History Month of the Trump presidency, my students at the University of Oklahoma and I were discussing Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Exposition Address,” in which he pleaded with white Southern leaders to choose the American “Negro” to labor in the nation’s fields and factories—”the most patient, faithful, and law abiding people that the world has ever seen”—over those of “foreign birth and strange tongue and habits.” These words may reflect Washington’s own prejudices (and those of many in his generation), but they also provide a ruthlessly accurate assessment of a minority group’s forced social and political retreat during another time of crisis. In effect, African-Americans and immigrants had been pitted against each other.

Portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois, co-founder of the NAACP, in 1918. Photo by Cornelius Marion Battey, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Today, more Americans than ever before acknowledge the value of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s statements about immigrants from 1936. But we must not forget that Roosevelt never chose to speak quite as directly and explicitly to and about African-Americans as equal members of the American polity. Instead, Roosevelt spoke of African-Americans primarily through a language of symbolic actions—standing beside boxer Joe Lewis, for instance, extolling his quiet strength as an example of what made America strong.

Still, as president in economic depression and then in war, Roosevelt undoubtedly came to understand what W.E.B. Du Bois had first proposed in 1903 (in the “forethought” to his classic book, The Souls of Black Folk): that “the problem of the twentieth-century is the problem of the color line.” It was an issue that had deep implications for the nation that Roosevelt, then only a state senator from New York, would lead to the rank of “super power.” In the post-colonial world order that emerged after World War II, African-Americans fought to make gains in the nation’s political culture. Abroad, the manner in which African-Americans were treated by their fellow citizens and institutions became a litmus test of whether the United States was worthy of being the leader of the “free world.”

African-American intellectuals such as Alain Locke, Zora Neale Hurston, and Rayford Logan had pushed the frontiers of scholarship by their painstaking documentation of and argumentation for the fact that African-Americans had been central actors in the history of the United States—not just in the nation’s physical development, but in its thought and sense of self. Intellectual innovators such as Frederick Douglass, by force of evidence and logic, recast the ideological framework within which one could live and act as an American. For thinkers like Douglass, the idea of citizenship related no more to a “Whites Only” nation than it did to a community in which the native born were entitled to rule over politics and culture.

Studying the “Long Civil Rights Movement” (with W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin among its architects and builders) shows us that the social, political, and geopolitical fate of the United States depends on whether the social and material actualities of citizenship can be extended to those “outsiders” who have followed the trajectory of African-American history. After all, a citizen is more than someone who, at best, receives the nation’s “tolerance,” or is accepted as just another “other” in our midst. James Baldwin offered these words about the American Republic in The Fire Next Time:

If we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves, with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are, we might bring new life to the Western achievements, and transform them. The price of this transformation is the unconditional freedom of the Negro…he who has so long been rejected, must now be embraced, and at no matter what the psychic or social risk (pp. 93–94).

Much has changed in the cultural, political, and demographic constitution of the United States since Baldwin wrote these words, in 1963. If we are to prevail today against terrorism of any kind and from any source, whether foreign or domestic, we must protect the various communities that make up our polity, and acknowledge that we are a far more diverse people than ever before. This is progress, and it’s a reason for national pride.

Featured image credit: Booker T. Washington and President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 at the Tuskegee Institute. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Brian McGinty

    FDR’s comments about immigrants were eloquent, yes. But the professor does not mention his interment of Japanese Americans or his decision not to support the anti-lynching law that Eleanor Roosevelt supported so strongly. Japanese Americans who lived on the West Coast and African Americans who were lynched in the solidly Democratic South were “others” for FDR. Very sadly so.

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