Stealing Children from Their Parents Is Actually Very American - But We Can Change This
Late Wednesday afternoon, Donald Trump signed an executive order to end the separation of immigrant families at the border—a practice that has received widespread condemnation and outrage across the country. Trump’s actions were met with praise by many who claimed that forcibly removing children from their asylum seeking parents or guardians and locking them in detention camps is fundamentally un-American. On social media and television, in conversations among friends, colleagues and family members and across media platforms, Americans proclaimed in horror that this behavior is simply “not who we are.” Moreover, a number of them concluded that our political climate has gotten so toxic that the country has become unrecognizable under Trump’s leadership.
It is true that our political climate is toxic and divided. It has been slowly becoming that way for years and the 2016 presidential election, in particular, was a turning point that demonstrated this is no longer politics as usual. Many of us experienced first-hand how the election changed our relationships with people who we have known for years—people who suddenly seemed to hold, not just differing political views, but different core values altogether.
But let’s be clear—this didn’t happen in a vacuum. Whether he lost the popular vote or not, America elected a president who campaigned on and supports white supremacist ideology. He began testing the political waters by questioning the birthplace and legitimacy of our first black president. His first words to announce his campaign for the highest office of this country were calling Mexicans rapists and criminals. He spoke of building walls to keep people out and of locking up his female political opponent. This behavior not only went unchecked—it was cheered on by millions and lauded as good, old-fashioned truth telling.
One of the very first things he did upon being sworn into office was enact a ban to prevent Muslims from abroad from entering the United States. He proceeded to end immigration relief for undocumented youth—young people who had been in the country for a minimum of 10 years. He called Haiti, African and Latin American countries “shitholes” and wondered why we couldn’t have more immigrants from Norway. He then proceeded to put forth an unnecessary, incredibly cruel policy to orphan immigrant youth only to punish their asylum seeking parents. At every step of the way, he’s been supported by the Republicans in Congress and the majority of the members of his party. So Americans need to take a good, hard look at ourselves when we say these acts are un-American. They are being perpetrated by an American president and his administration. They are being done in the name of perpetuating the American empire. Millions of Americans voted for this behavior and support it outright. Millions more remain complicit in silence about them. So for all our handwringing and virtue signaling, the truth is that, sadly, this is exactly who we are. This may be an inconvenient truth. But it is the truth nonetheless.
And we can’t fix it unless we are willing to tell the truth.
Many black people in America know this all too well. We are the descendants of stolen children. This is why, for so many of us, watching what’s happening at the border recalls a deeply buried trauma that rests in our DNA. Stealing black bodies from West Africa, selling them into bondage, forcing them to work the land was how this country became wealthy. We are often at odds about how to discuss the full extent of the cruelty of slavery. Yes, this is the result of our desire to whitewash history. But in a way, it also makes sense. It is beyond comprehension to imagine the depths of the suffering that enslaved Africans must have felt—not only being kidnapped from their homes, shoved into cargo ships where many died and were subsequently tossed overboard like dead fish and forced into servitude into a new land.
But we so rarely remember that enslaved peoples were resilient enough to make families. They loved, got married, built communities and had children, in spite of the grotesque treatment they were made to endure. Sometimes those children were born of love. Sometimes those children were the product of rape, yet another reminder that black women’s bodies were never fully their own. But black people loved their children. They also saw their children ripped away, when slave owners decided it was profitable to sell them. It was also the ultimate way to punish their parents and exert control. The Washington Post details the story of a mother whose baby was stolen from her during a slave auction. Even as this mother was being beaten and pleading for God’s mercy, she refused to let go of her child. A former slave, Henry Bibb, told of this story in 1849.
“But the child was torn from the arms of its mother amid the most heart-rending shrieks from the mother and child on the one hand, and the bitter oaths and cruel lashes from the tyrants on the other.”
This is why so many enslaved people lived in terror. Of course, they were frightened about what could happen to them at any moment per the whims of a cruel master. But they were also living with constant fear that they would lose their children.
“Night and day, you could hear men and women screaming … ma, pa, sister or brother … taken without any warning,” Susan Hamilton, another witness to a slave auction, recalled in a 1938 interview. “People was always dying from a broken heart.”
So this is not new. And this emotional trauma and fear can be felt in many black families today and is only exacerbated by the centuries of systemic racism experienced by black people in America. This still happens today when thousands of black children are needlessly funneled into child services and criminal justice systems. You cannot actively work to separate and tear families apart for generations and not expect that they will have different forms of intergenerational trauma. Memories are shared and passed down between people. One need not experience an event directly to have it become part of who they are—especially as a member of a culture where the past experiences of its people inform who they are in the present. In the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, “Memories, many of them not my own, are passing shyly and vividly through my chamber.”
Native Americans also know this experience. For almost a century, it was United States policy to forcibly take Native American children away from their families and send them to “Indian schools.” School is not an appropriate word to describe these facilities. Native children were held hostage in an attempt to re-educate them in the ways of white men, because it was apparently offensive for them to actually have their own language, culture and history. As Daily Kos’s Meteor Blades writes, this is a painful past in American Indian history that is absolutely still felt today. Hundreds of children died in these brutal institutions which were the result of partnerships between the government and religious organizations. It was state sanctioned violence against Native bodies and culture which lasted for at least 100 years.
In the words of the founder of the most famous such schools, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, these institutions had as their primary purpose to “kill the Indian, and save the man.” In other words, to engage in a form of ethnic cleansing, a forced acculturation that left behind the wholesale slaughter of the previous era, but was as lethal at destroying culture, religion, and language as any massacre or scalp bounty. They dared call it civilizing.
It’s easy for those who have been unaffected to claim this as ancient history. But like many black Americans, Native Americans living in the U.S. today are also the descendants of stolen children. The pain, horror, sense of displacement, anxiety and also the incredible resilience, among those children and their descendants is powerfully felt among Native communities. Again, this is who we are. This is part of our history. It cannot be erased or swept under the rug, especially because so many millions of us today bear the scars, and also the burden, of what this country has done and continues to do in the name of white supremacy.
Americans pride ourselves on being exceptional. We are taught to believe that we live in the greatest nation in the history of the world—a nation which commands respect, inspires hope and awe and is the envy of everyone around the world. And indeed it is true that the idea of the American project is exceptional. A land of many cultures, diversity, differences in ideas and thoughts where anyone can become anything if they work hard, is the ultimate human utopia. And there are examples that can be pointed to in our history where this has been the case. But we have to live in the reality of who we are and not a bedtime story or fairy tale. We are a nation that strives for judging people by who they are and not what they are. It is essentially enshrined in our founding documents. But it is not the totality of who we are.
We are also a nation that has a history of separating brown and black children from their families. It has been done in order to preserve whiteness and keep white people in control. That history is almost as old as our country itself. It is a history that cannot be erased. It cannot be undone. It lives in the DNA of many Americans living today. The evil and, more importantly, the complacency of people who did nothing while those atrocities occurred, also lives in the DNA of some Americans. What is currently happening at the border is actually history repeating itself. And in order to change history, we have to be willing to admit that we aren’t who we think we are. But we should want and strive to become better. It begins with refusing to accept another generation of black and brown children being stolen from their parents in our name. America is this—like it or not. It has always been this. It has also been that aspirational place we’d like it to be. Let’s choose to be the latter rather than the former.