A big part of the reason for the immense backlash to President Trump’s weekend tweets telling four Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to where they came from is that phrase’s well-worn use in racist and xenophobic ways.
Of course, three of those congresswomen, all minorities — Reps. Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) — were born in the United States. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D.-Minn) fled civil war in Somalia and came to the United States as a child refugee, later becoming a naturalized citizen.
The facts didn’t deter Trump, though, just like they haven’t deterred generations of Americans from hurling the “go back” refrain at nonwhite Americans without regard for how far back their lineage goes in this country. Trump’s words have struck a particular chord with African Americans.
The refrain as it has been applied to black Americans throughout history has gone beyond mere words and engendered actual policies that many view as racist.
Fodei Batty, an assistant professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, previously wrote for The Washington Post about a group of white Americans who worked to send black Americans to Africa — something many black Americans protested.
“Beginning in 1822, the white-led American Colonization Society (ACS) resettled thousands of freeborn blacks and freed slaves in a region in West Africa, next to Sierra Leone, that became Liberia,” he wrote. “Scholars heavily debate the ACS’s motives. Some believe many in the group genuinely wished to abolish slavery and resettle blacks for their own welfare; others believe the effort was a politically expedient way to deal with a growing number of freed blacks in the upper South.”
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a civil rights law organization, said on Twitter that the passage of the 14th Amendment and the South’s defeat in the Civil War were meant to buffer racists’ efforts to send black Americans back to Africa.
Even when the question of where newly freed slaves should settle was answered, the sentiment remained and became an ugly refrain directed as an insult at African Americans. The Post’s Cleve Wootson reported in 2016 on one man’s attempt to reclaim the phrase. Wootson explained then:
Whether blacks should “go back” to Africa has been an undercurrent of American racial politics for almost as long as there have been black people in the United States. Supporters of the idea have argued for more than a century that returning to Africa is the best way to escape economic and social oppression. Others question whether blacks in America can “go back” to a continent they have never seen and to which they don’t have a cultural connection.
It’s unclear when the phrase shifted from a cultural what-if to an insult. According to Atlantablackstar.com, a news magazine that focuses on African and African American issues, the insult is steeped in “the assumption among whites … that Black folks should be happy to be in America, which, through its kindness and generosity, has rendered African-Americans the most fortunate Black people around. There is a perverse, outlandish assertion that Black people … should leave if they cannot appreciate all that white people have done for them.”
It’s hardly the first time that Trump has suggested that black people should return to Africa, though. It can be said that his political profile rose after he began promoting the birtherism conspiracy theory that America’s first black president was not born in the United States. The line of thinking that he returned to this weekend helped speed up his journey from celebrity to Fox News frequenter to occupant of the Oval Office.
This is a point that Mia Love, the first black Republican woman elected to Congress, made about Trump’s comments. “It has to stop. I always feel like I’m not part of the ‘America First’ that he goes out and he talks about all the time,” Love said Sunday on CNN. “I’m an American. I’ve always been an American. I’ve been a Republican longer than he has, so, you know, I think that that’s the problem. Most people don’t see, don’t feel like they’re part of this America that he talks about,” she added.
Trump’s desire to see his political opponents removed from the United States despite being born here is the latest example of the president embracing the worldviews and rhetoric of white supremacists. And his doubling down on criticism directed toward him is further evidence that when it comes to embracing ideas that otherize Americans who are not like his base, the president has no plans to pivot.