Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Colonialism and Immigrant Populations in America

I would just like to make a brief return to the Al Arabiya interview because there was one point that I found a bit disingenuous. The interviewer, Hisham Melhem, stated, with respect to Arab- American relations:
"since 9/11 and because of Iraq, that alienation is wider between the Americans and -- and in generations past, the United States was held high. It was the only Western power with no colonial legacy."
To which President Obama responded, "Right."

I certainly agree that, within the context of this interview, his response was suitable. However it does gloss over a couple of highly relevant points -- points I am sure President Obama is aware of but which remain hidden to the broader American public.

When my husband was traveling to Washington, and other major American cities, with some regularity, his cab drivers from the airport were always recent immigrants and often Africans. He reported to me that they would tell him that they did not understand our African American citizens. They thought they were unwilling to work hard enough. When he came home, he would ask me what I thought about these comments. So here are my thoughts, I hope in some kind of order.

There are (at least) 2 major populations in this country who have lagged significantly in achievement relative to the rest of the general population: African Americans and Native Americans. Note: Neither population immigrated to this country of their own free will hoping to better their lives by fleeing their homeland. One was brought here in chains to work as slave labor on American plantations. The other was the indigenous population of this continent, displaced from their land by massacres, disease and deceit. In both cases the family structure was deliberately destroyed by the dominant population. The slave families were deliberately broken up by selling family members "down river." The well documented presence of mixed race slaves testifies to the sexual abuse of the female slaves. The children of Native American families were taken from their homes and sent away to boarding schools, some thousands of miles away to be assimilated, that is to be taught to serve as servants and semi-skilled labor. Sexual abuse of the children was rampant at some of these schools. This has been well documented in Canada and the Canadian government has paid reparations.

It is the usual experience and expectation of immigrants that the first generation must work very hard, usually at multiple jobs, in order to earn their way toward their American Dream. Even the second, and perhaps the third, generations will still be working very hard, though probably less hard than that first generation, and with better living conditions and better education. It seems to me that, if we accept the statement of the African immigrant cab drivers, than we still expect these long term American citizens, most here for many generations longer than our families have been, to still be earning their right to have the American Dream. The cab drivers have no perspective on American history and culture through which to view the citizens they hold in contempt. The first several generations of African slaves brought to these shores certainly worked harder than these cab drivers, many times side by side with Natives who had been enslaved. In fact, in at least one "Indian War" in the south, the Indians encourages slaves to escape and gave them refuge in the swamps in Florida. Since that time, this country has denied both groups equal education and equal opportunity, no matter how hard they worked. And those new African immigrants would not have even wanted to come to this country without the civil rights movement in which many of the African American citizens gave their bodies, their freedom, and even their lives to make a reality.

I grant that acknowledging this history would have been out of place in that interview, but it must be acknowledged. This history leads to the cultural differences that now exist. Other groups that may have had the same long term experience in this country are the Hispanics in the West and Southwest who stayed when that part of the continent was "integrated" in to the US, and the descendants of the Chinese laborers who where imported to construct the railroads.

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