Citizenship

naturalizationI wasn’t going to write anything about the impressively racist Trumpeet that grabbed the headlines this week. What is there to say? I don’t have a broad audience – everyone reading this feels more or less the same about it; everyone recognizes the xenophobia & ignorance & historical resonance.

But a months-old note to myself and another exceptional On the Media interview have given me a bit more insight, so I thought I’d share.

My note ultimately led me to a Guardian article (I create scavenger hunts for myself) about the UK Character Test. If you’re a fan of China’s Social Credit system, you’ll love the UK’s Good Character tests. While not as far reaching as China’s policy, the punishment is arguably worse: denial of citizenship. The Guardian does a seemingly excellent analysis of the policy, so I’ll link you to that for details. The basic idea is that if you’ve been in any trouble with the law, you can be denied British citizenship: even if you’ve never lived anywhere else, even if you’ve never been convicted of a crime, even if your barely-an-infraction happened when you were a child (any older than 10 years: 2/5 of the way to a developed brain). As you may have guessed, the UK’s punitive system disproportionately goes after foreigners and POCs, just like the US. The idea is this: if you are a born citizen and make a mistake, you suffer the consequences, whether that is a warning, community service, or jail time; but if you are a candidate for citizenship, the same mistake carries those punishments, plus the potential denial of citizenship. Pre-citizens are held to a higher standard than citizens. Pre-citizens must be practically perfect in order to be granted the same rights as born citizens of questionable moral virtue.

Dr. Ibram Kendi (author of Stamped from the Beginning and the upcoming How to be An Antiracist) used the most compelling metaphor I’ve heard to explain the Trumpeet. If you are invited into someone’s house and you start criticizing it – ripping on the furniture, peeling off the chipping paint – it’s inappropriate. It’s not your place to do that, because it’s not your place. But if you share a home with someone and you point out the dust bunnies and suggest the broken windows get repaired, that’s fine. You share responsibility for it; you are presumed to contribute to the improvements. Anyone who supports that tweet believes, consciously or subconsciously, that Black people and immigrants of color fall into the former category, because they do not see them as full citizens. Ergo, they are coming into our house and insulting us. They are not us; they are endlessly Other, no matter what a constitution or naturalization court says. This is not their house and if they are not perpetually thanking us for our hospitality they need to getthefuckout.

POCs are not fully human, so how can they be full citizens? And if you think that this country, as a whole, does accept that Black people are fully human, you might want to take a closer look at its history. Slavery, at least, confessed to believing Africans were subhuman. It was actually a moral defense. If slavetraders and slaveowners believed that these people were fully human, they’d have to be monsters, animals, to buy and sell and rape and torture them.

Today, we nominally embrace the humanity of POCs. But can we demonstrate it? The UK didn’t institute the Good Character Tests until after the immigrant population skewed significantly darker. Darker people have always had to exceed in order to be perceived as measuring up. Would killing a White man on camera by those called to serve and protect seem humane? What if the killer was never prosecuted? What if it was because we thought the unarmed, White victim was a threat to the life of the killer and his possee of fellow, armed public servants? What kind of human could possibly be responsible for their own death under those circumstances? What if a White French woman crossed into this country because gangs had killed her husband, threatened her life, recruited her brother and attempted to rape the 12 year old daughter she brought with her? Would it be humane to separate her from that daughter and put them both in detention without adequate sanitary or medical care? What if, instead, we told her she had to seek asylum in El Salvador, the first country their plane landed in? Would it be humane to force the daughter to plead her case without a lawyer? What if she was a 3 year old Honduran girl instead – it has been ruled not unreasonable to expect her to represent herself, in a court of law conducted in a foreign language. Would we accept this treatment of White Europeans? And why not?

How can any of this – any of these atrocities we’ve performed as a country – be considered humane? If it is not humane, then either we are monsters or we do not see these people as humans. While a small portion of the offenders fall into the former category, most are in the latter. It’s worse than not seeing POC as citizens; until we believe in their complete and total humanity, citizenship is a secondary issue.

The catch is that the more we treat our fellow citizens and hopefuls as subhuman, the less human they appear to be. This is what structural racism does.

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