In the last several weeks, our government here in the U.S. has been separating children from parents at the southern border as a political strategy for discouraging migration but mostly for getting funding for a stupid-ass wall. Many, many Americans are outraged but the refrains “this is not America” and “we’re not like this” feel like platitudes to me that grow from insufficient historical knowledge. It’s my argument–one I made at a weeklong workshop at one of our Fanciest Pantsiest Universities recently–that Americans, particularly white Americans, need to own their history and the ways in which they have (or have not) benefited from it. What you’re seeing today is from a very old playbook that has served America’s white supremacist goals for centuries. Today in Tenacious Feminist’s No BS History Corner we’ll talk about the ways family separation has been used for political and capitalist gains: own that history and we can begin to change the present.
Don’t be ashamed if you don’t know this history, or only know bits of it. Our goal, I think, should be to learn as we move forward–to keep learning–and to educate others.
I’ve decided to give you three examples of the U.S. using family separation as a political tool, rather than overwhelm you with its entire history.
The most obvious example–and likely the example you are well aware of–was part of American slavery. Here I’m talking about the chattel system that enslaved Africans and their American descendants. This was a system based on the idea that Africans and African Americans were property–chattel–and could be bought and sold, much as one would other real estate. Over time the defenses for such a system changed from “it’s a necessary evil” to “it’s a positive good, even for the enslaved.” But make no mistake: with all but a few examples, the main purpose of purchasing humans was for labor and thus for money.
Enslaved people wanted and pursued families as best they could under their extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Slaveholders, however, generally disregarded such families and often had no issue separating families by sale, an excruciating loss for all members that reaffirmed the inconsequence of a black family in white America and its white supremacist system. Sale of family members could be for crass financial gain or even as punishment for the person going or left behind. This was routine. It was not illegal. It was encouraged.
After the civil war ended in 1865, families spent decades searching for lost members, using black papers and churches to spread their “lost friends” messages. Most never found their loved ones, since they may have traveled further than they’d even known, or died, in the years since sale. Here’s a database of examples. This book on the topic is amazing (affiliate link). The years people spent wondering after their families and then, postwar, searching for them is a testament to how important our families are to each other, and how callous and horrific breaking them up for political and economic gain is.
Equally horrific, several slaveholders sought to increase their financial worth by breeding humans like livestock: they’d compel enslaved people to have sex and sell any resulting progeny. This was routine. It was not illegal. It was encouraged. While the entire system of slavery was dehumanizing and brutal, the depths of that dehumanization can really be seen in shit like this.
In the later 19th century–after decades of forcing indigenous people nearly entirely from the eastern seaboard and into reservations in the midwest–whites founded what were then called “Indian Schools.” These schools, founders, supporters and the US government claimed, would solve the “Indian Problem” by making them more (sort of) white–they’d be properly educated (industrial trades, of course, and sewing and housekeeping for women, so as to create a useful servant class), and in the process compelled to sacrifice their culture, including religion. The slogan of the original founder of these schools, after all, was “Kill the Indian, save the man.” While kids weren’t usually just snatched from their parents, they were instead subjected to insidious recruiting that targeted the families of indigenous leaders and often forced them to let their children go. Funded by the government, the goal was to destroy Native America from within.
I use records from one of these schools in my class–I set the students up so that they can dissect what the purpose of the schools is, and how they worked to destroy indigenous existence. They react with horror as they pore over a student record: this particular young man became so much a part of this culture (and so distanced from his own) that as an adult he became a field agent, hunting the Apache during the Apache wars. Wrap your head around the divide and conquer–the long game version–there.
Yet again, we see white America separating families of color for political gain. These schools were brutal, abusive, and designed to eradicate native Americans as cultural groups.
But wait, there’s more.
This is a story that’s different from the others. In the early 20th century, nuns brought white children–primarily those of Irish immigrants, placed in orphanages by destitute parents–by train to Arizona. They were going to place the children with Catholic families–Mexican families in mining areas. Initially, children and families alike were happy, but by the evening white families “rescued” all the children with violent break-ins and kidnappings. The tl/dr? Separating families of color? Fine. Good. Encouraged. Separating white families (implicitly–in truth, it’s not placing white kids with white families here) BAD. Wrong. Horror. Again we have white supremacy in action.
Read this book for more (affiliate link).
Why am I telling you this? Well, I think it’s important that we know our history as Americans. We live in a system that wasn’t created in a vacuum–our present is very much a part of our past. And while many of us are angry, upset, and frustrated, it’s not helpful, exactly, to just shout “This isn’t what America is!” In fact, it’s exactly what America is–what is has been. What it isn’t, though, is what America could be. Our nation is based on fantastic ideals we’ve never lived up to. Let’s own our past by becoming those ideals, truly, in the future.
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