- 11 Aug - 17 Aug, 2018
PLIGHT OF BROWN AMERICANS IN THE AGE OF TRUMP
- 14 Jul - 20 Jul, 2018
- A Letter From America
I’ve praised and quoted the Pakistani-American writer and lawyer Rafia Zakaria before in this column, and I’m going to do so again this week. I’ve met Rafia a few times over the years at Pakistani community gatherings here and there around America, I like her personally, and I’ve always admired her. And, if the circumstances were not so grim, I would feel delighted by the recently heightened prominence of her voice.
Given the subject matter Rafia is compelled to write about, what I do feel is grateful for her courage and moral leadership. Two of her most recent essays in the publication The Baffler say some essential and necessary things that all of us in America – especially the millions of white liberals who despise Trump and his regime, among whom I count myself – need to hear.
For me to rehash all the serial outrages in today’s USA week in and week out would be tiresome and maybe, in a certain sense, irrelevant, especially given the time lag between writing and publication that I’ve noted before. We should all be paying close attention every week, and I need to trust you, my readers, to stay up on events as best as you can, so that I can concentrate here on cutting to the quick of why they matter. And this week, by way of doing that I can do no better than to quote from and recommend Rafia’s Baffler columns.
In one published June 26, titled “Brown Existence Anxiety,” she writes:
“It never leaves me, this paranoia borne of being brown and female, immigrant and Muslim in the age of Trump. It is with me while I am waiting to have my blood drawn at a clinic and the two plump white grandmothers switch from talking about their grandchildren to how they like to post about gun rights. It is with me at the airport, when a ticket agent calls ICE [the appropriately sinister-sounding acronym of the notorious Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency] on me despite the fact that she is holding my American passport. ‘You are born in Karachi, see’ she says insistently and I get it: being a naturalized citizen is being a lesser citizen. It is with me when a scowling, white waitress insists that I sit at the breakfast bar, despite the fact that the restaurant is a sea of empty tables and I have asked to sit at a table. Even as I comply, she ignores me for a long time.”
In the same essay she discusses the previously extremely rare, and now apparently accelerating, phenomenon of “denaturalization” – i.e. the federal government rescinding the citizenship of foreign-born people who allegedly lied in their applications. (Another writer we should all read, Masha Gessen – herself also a naturalized citizen – has written in The New Yorker about the ambiguities inherent in the application process, and the ways the state can manipulate and abuse them.) Rafia Zakaria writes:
“I worry about this and other brown, naturalized citizens do, too. I did not lie on my application, but I am not sure the truth will matter or prevail and even if it eventually does, it will do so only after imposing large costs. As the white and lucky Americans debate civility, mourn the demise of democracy, I turn and twist at the possibility of having to be forced somehow to leave the country. As a lawyer, I know I could fight it; as a lawyer, I know that the legal system is imperfect, that it rewards whiteness. There will be no gut-wrenching tableau at the border when the de-naturalizations begin; there will only be the sterile cruelty of injustice enacted after the pretense of due process. I wonder if white people will debate this over dinner.”
One of my own preoccupations in recent months has been what, if anything, I myself should be writing or doing. I’m native-born and a white man, a citizen by virtue of having been born in this country. I can’t be denaturalized. So I’m not safe from the whims of this rogue regime – I don’t think anyone in America is safe anymore – but I’m almost certainly safer than anyone who isn’t white and native-born. Rafia rightly, and righteously, challenges people like me in another essay, “A March for the Marchers,” about the many marches that took place June 30 against the horrific, cruel practice of separating small children and even infants from their asylum-seeking parents at the Mexican border.
“Citizenship belongs to whiteness; the legalities and the details do not matter,” she asserts. “Even the whites who do not participate in its construction are complicit in its valuation, the silent, secret triumph of being better… A Saturday given up to a march, an exhausting physical act, was quickly packaged up as a glib stand-in for any deeper examination of complicity. A moment of rage became just another opportunity for virtue-signaling, and marching the sum of the ‘doing something’ to be shared with friends and on social media.”
That is a devastating indictment of just how ineffectual – perhaps even willfully so – is the posturing of America’s white liberal faction. I’m a person of conscience, and I don’t want to be either indifferent or ineffectual, so I fret a lot. Fretting is one thing that liberals do. But I think Rafia might point out that what someone as privileged and safe as I am does or doesn’t do, says or doesn’t say, is the least of anyone’s worries right now.
For whatever it’s worth, these days I find myself thinking and reading about what “ordinary” non-Jewish members of mainstream German society did or didn’t do while the Nazi regime was slaughtering Jews around Europe in their name. One model of individual conscience was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor who left a prestigious position in New York to return to Germany to take part in the resistance. The Nazis executed Bonhoeffer in April 1945. Another was Sophie Scholl, a bravely and publicly defiant university student. She was also executed. •
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