Many people of color, immigrants, children and grandchildren of immigrants in this country have heard a version of the “go back” to your country phrase—much like the xenophobic tweets made by President Donald Trump against four members of U.S. Congress.
….and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 14, 2019
The first time I heard a version of this comment I was in elementary school on the playground.
I asked my mom about it. I was born in Chicago, so how could I go back when we lived in a suburb of Chicago?
The people who told me to go back didn’t want me to take a train from that suburb back to the city. They wanted me to go back to Mexico, never mind that my great grandfather left there in 1890.
So where would I go back to? Where does Trump think the representatives should go back to?
Three of the four of the U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) were born here, and one is a naturalized citizen. That’s to say they are American. This is their home. No question.
Many people have asked me this “go back” question in a gentler way. “Where are you from?” they say, for example. And some can’t accept that a non-white person is a true American. They feel entitled to question one’s place of origin no matter how many generations back we can trace our arrival to the U.S—and this is what’s at the heart of the president’s comments. It’s an othering of people whose parents or grandparents were not born in the U.S. or of non-white people who do not meet the physical stereotype of what they think an American should look like.
These types of slurs happened before Trump was elected. They were hurled at earlier generations of Irish and Italians. They have been hurled at black people who have been told to go back to Africa. Now they are being hurled at Latinos and other people of color with what appears to be increasing frequency. The president’s racist rhetoric reflects a driving force of hate.
Recently, two people at a Burger King restaurant yelled at a Latino manager because he was speaking Spanish to a co-worker. They told him to “go back to Mexico.” It turns out he is from Puerto Rico and all Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. (By the way, English isn’t even the official language of the U.S. because the Founding Fathers did not make it so).
But whether someone is from Mexico or Somalia, it should not matter. The comments made against restaurant managers or U.S. representatives are hateful and simply un-American. We know the original people of this land we call the U.S. were Native Americans— everybody else’s family immigrated from somewhere else or were brought here in chains to be enslaved.
For Trump to double down and say his comments are not racist is an attempt to spin and divide the country.
Trump and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are now arguing that the four representatives hate the United States, that they hate the military and that they are bad because they are socialists. These arguments, if you can even call them that, are indeed both racist and naive.
But a number of Americans are still supporting Trump in the face of what one would describe as classic racist statements. To them I say, would you be ok with someone telling you to go back to Scotland, Germany, Russia, or wherever, simply because you have opinions and support policies that differ from the president’s?
How many more racist statements do we need to hear from the president before people can openly admit that what he is saying is racist? He promoted the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. He also called Mexicans “rapists and criminals” and said a Latino judge could not be fair because he is a “Mexican” judge (the judge was born here in the U.S.).
In a press conference Monday afternoon, the representatives spoke of how much they loved this country. They rightfully called the president’s tweets and comments a distraction and said they would return to work on the issues that other Americans elected them to work on such as immigration, health care and education.
For Trump to respond, “If you’re not happy, you can leave” is un-American. It’s the duty of each and every one of us to speak out when we see an injustice, such as how the government is traumatizing immigrant children and their families by separating them and detaining them in inhumane conditions at the border. It is our obligation to question our leaders. That is what makes us a democracy.
It’s shocking that so many Republicans would be silent on Trump’s “go back” comment and 187 Republicans in the House of Representatives refused to denounce Trump’s racist tweets in a vote Tuesday.
At the televised press conference Monday, Ocasio-Cortez told a story of when her father took her for her first visit to Washington, D.C. as a child and she looked out at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, the Washington Monument and the Capitol. Her father looked at it all too and told her, “This belongs to all of us.”
“I want to tell children across this country. No matter what the president says, this country belongs to all of you,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Today, that very notion was challenged,” she added.
She was right to remind us that this country belongs to all of us. It belongs to Democrats, and yes Republicans, Independents, the apolitical, voters and non-voters. This constant dividing, othering and attacks on immigrants, people of color, and the marginalized in the U.S. must stop. We can no longer expect better of the president, but we can do better ourselves.
Teresa Puente teaches journalism at Cal State Long Beach and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project.