Under AttackVarious ethnic groups in America and their status as threats to society
In the United States we commonly think of ourselves as a melting pot of cultures and races. A country consisting of immigrants and natives living together where all of us are trying to achieve the American dream. This rosy picture however, is not the realty of the situation. Over the course of our two hundred and fifty some odd years of being a nation, we have always found a group to single out as a threat. Whether it was Native Americans during the birth of the nation and beyond, African Americans after the civil war, Japanese Americans during World War II, Irish Americans during the 1800’s, or Arab Americans after 9-11, we have always viewed one group in this country as clear and present danger.
Initially Native Americans were viewed as an outright threat to the safety of Colonial Americans. Not all tribes were aggressive but all would defend themselves against the expansion of the white man. The Natives were portrayed as brutal savages who would rather kill you then look at you. They were viewed as culturally and physically inferior. After the birth of the nation the thirst for new land pushed pioneering settlers further into Indian Territory west of the Appalachians. The early policy was to simple wipe them out. Hundreds of treaties were made with various tribes. But time after time those treaties were broken because either pioneers just didn’t listen to the land stipulations or because the federal government changed its mind about what was “best” for the “Indians”. After the civil war, the United States started a policy of assimilation in an attempt to no longer destroy the lives of natives but to destroy their culture. Schools were created and filled with children plucked from their tribes in attempt to wipe the slate clean. The children were forced to learn in English, which most did not speak. Policies like the Dawes Act forced tribes to break up and to form more western style groups or nations. These plans were brutal and oppressive and were done out of fear. Fear of an independent and alien culture with the United States led to policies of destruction and assimilation. All of which proved to be ineffective and catastrophic for Native Americans.
The Japanese in America were viewed as a threat to national security after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941. Those living on the west coast, which was most of the Japanese American population, were forcibly relocated to internment camps for the duration of the war. The government, with the power of Executive Order 9066 on February 19th 1942 removed all Japanese from “sensitive” areas. They were forced to pack only a bag or two and put all other belongings in storage or with a trusted non-Japanese friend. Many lost their businesses and homes. The internment camps were overcrowded and offered little in the means of creature comforts. They were relocated to the middle of the country and were forced to wait out the war. The Japanese population in the United States was not a homogeneous group. They could be divided into three groups. There was the Issei who were recent immigrants and made up 1/3rd of the population. There was the Nisei who were second generation and made up 2/3rds of the population. And finally there was the Kibei who were third generation Nisei who were sent to Japan to study and came back ultra-patriotic on behalf of Japan. Little distinction was made for these groups and over 110,000 were interned. It took until the 1980’s for the United States government to admit its mistake and apologize for the destruction that the internment caused on the Japanese American population.
African Americans in the United States have been treated with racism and oppression since their arrival in the country in chains. Since the end of the civil war and the end of intuitional and state sponsored slavery African Americans have remained in a system that continues to hold them down. In the 1950’s and 1960’s great strides were made in black rights and civil equality. However, the mentality of the average American changed very little. Bigotry towards African Americans is still a major problem. Racist views of blacks as violent and mentally inferior still persist. For example with the case of the “MOVE” group. In the city of Philadelphia a man by the name of John Africa founded what he called a Christian black liberation group. He believed that they should live in a more primitive way. No bathing, no power, no cloths for the young, no medical care, and even he believed that you should not throw away your trash as you then deny other life (rats and maggots) the right to live. These were most definitely radical ideas. However, so was the way the Philadelphia police decided to handle the group. Quickly the group began affecting others and the complaints started coming in. The police tried to deal with it an officer ended up dead. The MOVE group hunkered down and barricaded themselves in a new place on Osage Ave. The same problems occurred and the police failed to get the group out. In 1985 they instead decided to drop a 4 lbs. bomb on top of the house. The bomb ended up causing the majority of the street to be destroyed. The brute forced used against an almost entirely African American group consisting of mostly children is reminiscent of the brutality used against civil rights protestors in the south in the 1950’s. The issues of racism and prejudice towards blacks are still a problem and persist today.
Arab Americans in the United States currently face similar issues. These are illustrated in the book How Does It Feel To Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America by Moustafa Bayoumi. The Book starts out with a boy by the name of Sade. Sade just found out that his close friend for almost four years was an undercover police officer sent to spy on him (Bayoumi p1) Stories like his persist in this post 9-11 world. Distrust and fear of Arab and Muslim Americans run rampant. Age old policy’s that in modern times are loathed like racial profiling gained new life in the war on terror when President Bush ordered the a ban on the practice with the exception if it’s used to combat potential terrorist attacks. (Bayoumi p4) We are then introduced to a young girl by the name of Rasha. Rasha is a normal American girl who just happens to be Syrian. She was attending university and lived with her parents in New York City till one day when a swarm of agents descend on her family. The entire family minus here youngest brothers are arrested without a charge and thrown into a detention facility. (Bayoumip21) They told them that they should have expected to get arrested in times like these. (Bayoumip24) They also told her that they would be deported within three days and would have a better life over there. She was forced to strip naked for routine searches during her incarceration. She lived in a cell and was treated like a criminal. (Bayoumi p25) She would end up spending three months in prison before her eventual release. After 9-11 hundreds were arbitrarily arrested in the first months after the attacks. (Bayoumip37) Many of them were denied counsel, secretly shuffled between facilities, and deported in midnight planes back to their home countries sometimes without having their families notified. (Bayoumi p37)
Another story comes from a girl named Yasmin. As she is riding a bus a Muslim women wearing a Hijab boards with a baby under a cloth. She sits down when an older couple start inquiring what’s under other woman’s cloth. Yasmin turns and says “it’s a baby” and they say “but did you see it”. The older couple goes up to the bus driver and demand that he stop and search her as it his job they demand. Eventually after some resistance he defers to them and asks the Muslim lady to see what’s under the cloth. She shows him, utterly embarrassed. (Bayoumi p84) Yasmin leaves the bus in complete rage. She can’t believe it, and neither can I the reader. This type of blatant prejudice is everywhere and now because of our fear of terrorists it’s ok to be openly suspicious of anyone who looks Arab or Muslim. This is not the world I want to live in.
Another story comes from a woman named Lina. Lina is an Iraqi American and spent some time in Iraq but was raised mainly in the United States. One day Lina is approached by two men who flash their FBI badges at her. They inquire about a friend of hers and her brothers by the name of Wisam and Ra’ed. (Bayoumip 175) They are accused of working as operatives for Saddam. Lina is outraged. She is told that they brought a known assassin into their home in hopes of finding an Iraqi dissident her family knew. She ultimately believed they were guilty and was incredibly angry with them for endangering her and her family. (Bayoumi p177) Stories like this are prevalent as well. Not all Arabs are terrorists and most don’t even support those who are. Her sympathies lay with her family not with Saddam’s oppressive Iraq. In her words “Iraq? What Iraqi? There is no Iraq anymore” (Bayoumip p185)
Although there are many stories in this book the one I find that stands out the most to me is that of Omar. Omar is a young man who wants to be journalist. He ends up working for Al Jazeera. (Bayoumi p193) Omar was so proud of his work at Al Jazeera. When he tried applying for jobs he was getting no responses. He eventually got a friend of the family to look at his resume and she said to him “I’d like to warn you. This, pointing to the line with his work at Al Jazeera, this could hurt you in the future. Especially if you want to get work with people who feel threatened by the whole Arab thing” (Bayoumi p208) Omar payed little attention to the comment till one day he was sitting with some staff members and someone brought up Al Jazeera in conversation about politics. “That’s a terrorist channel” someone said. Omar tried to explain to him that was not the case and he just said “How can you support something that promotes beheadings? That promotes terrorism? (Bayoumi p209) Omar went on to defend his old job and said “how do you know what they are saying if you don’t speak Arabic?” (Bayoumip 209) The other man said “because Fox tells me”. (Bayoumi p209) This just sums up the attitudes of some Americans towards Arabs. They hear the stories of atrocities and a one-sided view of them and make assumptions based off of them. Arabs and Muslims are not the enemy and are not to be feared. Terrorists and extremists come in all shapes, sizes, colors, creeds and ethnicities.
The story of the Irish in America is a long one. A story of the underdog on the bottom rung of the ladder who ends up climbing to the top and eventually holds the most powerful office in the land, the presidency. During the great famine (1845-1850) hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrated to the United States to avoid the climate of destitution and pestilence. (Gibben p ix) The famine occurred because of a fungus known as phytophthora infestans and quickly destroyed much of the potato crops in Ireland (Gibben p2) Potatoes were the staple of the diet for 66% of the population and the sole source of food for 1/3rd of the population. (Gibben p4) Emigration offered a safety valve for those starving. (Gibben p20) The situation in Ireland became untenable and Irish came by the masses to the new world. By the 1840’s Irish made up 45.6% of all immigrants to the United States. (Kenny p14)
When the Irish arrived they were received with bigotry and resentment. The Irish were exploited on their arrival. They were obliged to take menial jobs, physically demanding jobs, and dangerous jobs. (Duff p15) They were referred to as paddies and other derogatory terms. (Duff p13) When they got off the boat, con-men immediately tried to run scams on them, thinking they just ignorant paddies. (Duff p14) The Irish that came to the new world initially stayed with the cities they landed at. Bigoted statements like “Paddy would never leave the city… They would lose the glory of having Paddy O’Buster in one office, Rory McWhacken in another, a Tammany Butterscull in a third” (Duff p16) Initially the Irish faced simple resentment from taking jobs but as their numbers grew so did their political power. This is what most people feared and created what they saw as a threat. The Irish were being taught by society to take menial jobs and that they could only be laborers and servants. Irish women were taught with the book Advice to Irish Girls in America that even saints were servants and that domestics performed tasks not unlike those of guardian angels. (Duff 18) The common view at the time was that like the Native Americans and African Americans they were mentally inferior and were thus meant for the lower rungs of society. (Duff p31)
The Irish faced discrimination at an institutional level with signs posted on store fronts like “Irish need not apply” (Kenny112) Irish either faced discrimination and refusal for jobs or were hired because of being Irish. Irish lives were also considered less worthy then that of others. A Virginia planter was asked why he hired Irishmen to work on a drainage project rather than his own hands. He replied “It’s dangerous work, and a Negro’s life is too valuable to be risked at it. If a Negro dies it is a considerable loss, you know. If the paddies are knocked over and break their backs, nobody loses anything”. (Duff p32) This type of “job placement” is based on bigoted ideas of a peoples worth. In the 1800’s Irish were the bottom of the barrel. After the civil war the plight of the Irish began to improve. Stories of Irish bravery on the battlefield began to spread and diminish fears of them, socially, politically, and economically. (Duff p13) However, this process would take another hundred years to allow for acceptance and appreciation of the Irish people.
The Irish were seen as controlling city politics. (Kenny p208) They unionized and controlled many local offices. Many feared that with the power the Irish were gaining that they would use it to further the Catholic churches role in the country. The Irish did demand more public funds for Catholic schools and this caused explosive resentment among non-Catholics. (Duff p36) These types of events typified the Irish Catholic experience and fostered resentment and fear that they Irish were dominated by the pope. The Irish unlike other catholic immigrants brought there clergy with them. They controlled the church with their sheer numbers. Of the 69 bishops in America 35 were Irish in 1886. (Duff p74) These fears were increased by the fact that no other immigrant group has been as consistent with its attachment to the “old country” (Duff p65) People felt that the Irish were still rooted in their homeland.
The Irish started to break out of these prejudices after the boom of the railroad industries and the resulting dispersal of the Irish people around the country. (Kenny p184) The Irish were feared for their political power but were looked down on and considered second class citizens. Not until the election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on January 20th 1961 did acceptance of the Irish start to become solidified. William V. Shannon once said that “to a people as committed to politics as the American Irish, Kennedy’s victory was a deeply satisfying accomplishment in which every Irishmen could take vicarious pleasure”. (Duff p85) People were worried that he may have been under the sway of the pope and fear a president with an Irish-Catholic background. It is true however, that Kennedy was not representative of the normal American Irish he still symbolized the rise of the American Irish and there removal from second class status.
In my own personal experience I have been fortunate to never have faced direct bigotry or racism. However, as a student of history and the part of a mix race marriage, I understand and see these attitudes all around me. I see the belittlement and resentment of the Latino people. My wife is Latino and when I hear comments on the news about people talking about shipping all the “illegals” out of the country it scares me. I see presidential candidates talking about electrifying a fence that would kill people just trying to get a better life also scares me. What’s next, those who are second generation? Will our children face racism for the color of their skin? Will they live in a world that resents them and despises them for simply for their background? I cannot help but see that the faults of our past will most likely arise again. In a country that has such a distinct track record of bigotry and racism toward specific groups at any one time it makes me question which group will be next.
All of these groups have been seen as a threat. They have been feared and loathed both openly and quietly. I can’t help but think after doing this paper that we have a long and disturbing record of subjugating people when we feel our lives, culture, and power are threatened. Over the course of the last 600 years western societies have brutalized the Native American. Over the last 400 years Americans have enslaved and oppressed African Americans. Over the last 150 years Americans have belittled and feared the Irish. Seventy years ago we imprisoned and detained Japanese Americans out of fear. In the last 10 years Americans have brutalized, detained, deported, and promoted bigoted ideas about Arab and Muslim Americans. My question is whose next?
Bayoumi, Moustafa. How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.
Duff, John B. The Irish in the United States. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub., 1971. Print.
Gribben, Arthur. The Great Famine and the Irish Diaspora in America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1999. Print.
Kenny, Kevin. The American Irish. Harlow, Essex, U.K.: New York, 2000. Print.