President Trump is facing strong backlash for telling four progressive Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to where they “originally came from.” The presidential tweet sparked a storm of controversy for appearing to question the nationality and patriotism of these nonwhite members of Congress — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.) — three of whom were born in the United States.
Trump’s comments were immediately criticized by Democrats (and some Republicans) for evoking long-standing racist tropes that treat racial and ethnic minorities as less authentically American than whites. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tweeted:
Of course, this isn’t the first time the president has questioned the Americanness of people of color. Trump first became popular among Republicans by publicly questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship. Since then, he has dismissed a federal judge born in Indiana as “a Mexican”; expressed a strong preference for white immigrants from Norway over those from “shithole” African countries; and said to African American athletes protesting racial injustice, “Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”
But Trump isn’t alone in seeing people of color as less American. Indeed, for many whites, being American is often equated with being white.
Race and Americanness
As I noted in an earlier Monkey Cage post, within the social-science literature on intergroup relations, Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto’s theory of social dominance argues that politically dominant groups, such as whites in the United States, effectively claim “ownership of the nation.” According to this influential theory, “Nationality and ethnicity are complementary because their power has enabled whites to successfully define the prototypical American in their own image.”
Consistent with that contention, social-psychology research shows that “to be American is implicitly synonymous with being white.” Those studies show that many whites subconsciously see both African and Asian Americans as less associated with the national category “American” than whites.
Moreover, whites who feel solidarity with other members of their racial group have stronger attachments to America and to such patriotic symbols as the national anthem and the American flag. They’re also more likely to hold views of Americanness that restrict membership, such as believing that being white and Christian are important to being “truly American.”
The figure below shows an even more direct link between whiteness and American patriotism.
The bars on the left show results from a June 1995 NBC Poll that asked respondents, “When you hear about someone being ‘patriotic,’ do you think of a white man, a white woman, a black man or a black woman?” The results again suggest that whites’ image of the prototypical American patriot is far more likely to be white than black.
Similarly, the bars on the right show that few whites thought African Americans were particularly patriotic in a February 2012 American National Election Study Survey. Only 28 percent of white respondents thought that the word “patriotic” described most blacks very or extremely well, compared with 51 percent who thought most whites are patriots.
Patriotism is often closely mixed with racial resentment
This view that African Americans are insufficiently patriotic fits well with classic conceptions of modern prejudice, which argue that contemporary racial resentment is characterized by “moral feelings that blacks violate … traditional American values.” In fact, one of the questions that Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher used to measure racial resentment for the Obama campaign in 2008 was: “I often feel that African Americans aren’t as proud and patriotic about this country as I am.”
The widespread belief that people of color are insufficiently American and patriotic also helps explain why some individuals — and not others — have their nationality and patriotism questioned if they criticize U.S. government policies. Trump said that those four members of Congress “hate our country” and should leave if they’re “not happy” with his administration.