The long history of black Americans being told to ‘go back’

Trump’s latest quip reflects old white supremacist desire to keep black people in a position of servitude and weakness.

US representatives response to Trump - Reuters
US Reps Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib hold a news conference following President Donald Trump's attacks on them on July 15, 2019 [File: Erin Scott/Reuters]

If the blatant racism on display in the lead-up to the 2020 election is at all surprising, you have not been paying attention. Candidate Donald Trump began his ascent to the US presidency descending down a gilded escalator and spewing racist epithets about Mexican immigrants. The descent has continued and there doesn’t seem to be a bottom.

In his latest round of racist attacks, President Trump has put Congresswoman Ilhan Omar in his crosshairs and signalled the theme for his re-election campaign. This time, he drew upon a classic racist refrain telling Omar, along with House Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib that if they, as he alleges, hate the United States so much “they should go back to the broken and crime-infested places from which they came“.

Later at a campaign rally, he made a series of false claims about Omar as his supporters chanted “send her back“. In response to Trump, after receiving a warm welcome home from her own constituents, Omar defiantly reminded the crowd that she is what “hope in America looks like”, which makes her Trump’s nightmare. To this, Trump retorted: “She’s going to be the president’s nightmare? She’s lucky to be where she is…”

Racism in the US is hardly new. People of African descent were dragged to this land 400 years ago; our pain and struggle are woven into the foundation of this nation, and yet our claim to full citizenry has always been dubious at best and conditional at worst. This very history adds another layer of absurdity to Trump’s targeting of Pressley, who is the descendant of Africans enslaved in the US.

Although Pressley is not the child of immigrants or migrants from a US colony, as a black American, this is not likely the first time she or her family members were also told to “go back”. The very existence of free people of African descent in the US has, as WEB Du Bois famously laid out, made whites view Black people as “a problem“, and imminent danger to white society. White society has responded to this problem of their own design through racist laws, racist violence and efforts to send black people “back” to Africa.

In 1817, the American Colonization Society was established to send free black people to Africa. It was portrayed “as an alternative to emancipation“, highlighting how the effort was ultimately motivated by the idea that black people have no place in US society.

In the 1860s, the “Great Emancipator”, Abraham Lincoln, also supported sending black Americans to Africa as a solution to civil war division because, while he thought slavery was wrong, he didn’t believe whites and blacks were equal and could ultimately live together. 

In the generations since emancipation alongside “go back to Africa”, black people continue to be told they were out of place in openly hostile ways: “We don’t like your kind around here“, and more passive aggressive questioning like, “You must be new here?”, “Do you have a permit?“, “Do you live in this building?” and so on. 

Trump’s attacks and calls to send these women “back” must be placed within this history.

As black women, Pressley and Omar are both a “problem” and a “danger”; and Omar, in particular, with her Muslim, refugee and immigrant identities amplifies the mix of anti-black racism and xenophobia that position her as even more “dangerous”.

These women’s identities, for Trump and others like him, simply underscore all the ways they do not belong and, subsequently, do not have the right to criticise the US. Instead, these black women legislators, and those like them, should just feel “lucky” to be here.

Indeed, part of what is behind Trump’s newest racist quip is the reality that when people yell at someone, “go back where you came from”, they are not necessarily talking about a physical location, but their place in society.

Black people’s place, in the logic of white supremacy, is one of servitude and inferiority – so much so that, even after having a black president, even when black people make it to the proverbial table, they are welcome only if they don’t challenge the status quo and see their seat as a gift which they should be eternally grateful for. And for black people who don’t seem to “know their place”, the consequences have been and continue to be deadly

Trump may be directing his attacks at the four congresswomen, but racism is never individual – what he says directly affects all who share their identities. His political strategy is to reignite a culture war, and whether we want to acknowledge it or not, culture wars win elections.

The timing he has chosen to launch his attacks – during an election season – is far from innovative. Think the “Southern strategy”, the Reagan-era welfare queen and the War on Drugs, the Clinton-era superpredator. The difference? Since Trump is not a predictable politician, he has no qualms about saying the quiet part out loud.

He has forgone dog whistles in favour of foghorns. Trump is exploiting racial fears to gain votes and the deafening silence of the Republican Party and the tepid denunciation from the Democrats seem to indicate the belief that it is likely to work.

Voter suppression, the Muslim ban and raids by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) don’t happen in a vacuum; they exist as reminders to black and brown people that our citizenry is always up for debate; always subject to policy revisions; always amenable to sloganeering during a presidential campaign.

Racism is both pervasive and systemic; we cannot point to a single time in the history of this country when that was not true. Challenging racism requires us to frame targeted individual attacks within a larger historical and systemic context.

These congresswomen are targeted not only by the White House and the racists who gleefully chant “send her back”, but they are also by those who – instead of supporting them – are lamenting, “if only they had or hadn’t done X, Y, or Z” (looking at you, Democrats).

These rhetorical attacks are just the prologue or proxy for tangible attacks on the life and liberties of all those who share the “othered” identities of these four women of colour and insist on agitating for radical change.

Their constituents will decide their futures in Congress – both how long they are able to serve and whether they have best represented their interests. Those who share their identities – black, brown, Muslim, immigrant, and refugee – will continue to do the work necessary to shift the conversation that will decide their place in history. They are one link in a long chain of those who fight for equity. 

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.