March 8, 2019

ON MY MIND | What Immigrants Can Learn About Anti-Communism From the Civil Rights Movement

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“The American dream has become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels.” — James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time


On page 12 of the standard N-400 Application for Naturalization, all foreign-born persons seeking U.S. citizenship are asked, “Have you EVER been a member of, or in any way associated (either directly or indirectly) with the Communist Party?” It is a yes or no question.

Why is it there to begin with?

Under Chapter 7 of its General Naturalization Requirements, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website explains that “current and previous membership” in organizations like the Communist Party “may indicate a lack of attachment to the Constitution and an indication that the applicant is not well disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States.” Consequently, an applicant “cannot naturalize” if they have been “affiliated with the Communist Party” or “advocated communism” within ten years preceding their filing for naturalization.

Possible exemptions from this rule include applicants who establish that their prior membership or affiliation with the Communist Party was “involuntary”; “without awareness of the nature or aims of the organization”; or “necessary for purposes of obtaining employment, food rations, or other essentials of living.” Applicants who terminated their membership at the age of sixteen years-old or younger, or whose membership ended over ten years before filing for naturalization are likewise exempt.

These clarifications, though helpful, leave the original question of why unanswered.

According to The Guardian’s Nicole Puglise, the restriction on communism in the United States’ naturalization process can be traced back to the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act (also known as the Immigration and Nationality Act, or INA), which “collected and reorganized immigration law” in the United States. The INA we have today has passed through multiple revisions, additions, and iterations since 1952, but its stipulation on communism has survived untouched.

A legislative child of the anti-communist hysteria that swept through America during the McCarthy era of the 1940s and 50s, the McCarran-Walter Act officially inscribed the terms of public policy and discourse on immigration within the ideological paradigms of the Cold War for decades to come. On the ground, the fundamentally anti-communist orientation of this country’s path to citizenship continues to exclude, vet, or indoctrinate would-be citizens based on their proximity to communism — or any other belief or organization deemed “totalitarian” or “terrorist” by the American federal government.

The terms are crystal clear: If you want to become an American, you must denounce communism. If you want to advocate for immigrant rights, you must denounce communism.

Faced with these basic premises, the average American citizen might respond, So what? This is a capitalist country. People who come to live here should agree to respect the system we have. Hasn’t communism killed and suppressed lots of people? At least our government doesn’t try to brainwash us or throw us in jail for saying something offensive. You can say a lot of things about America, but you can’t say it’s not a free country. And isn’t that why people come here in the first place?

What becomes clear upon a close examination of this kind of generic response is how neatly the American idea of freedom gets posited purely as the antithesis of something else — and how in many, if not most cases, that something is communism. What does it mean that our concept of freedom is so routinely defined by whatever we think freedom is not?

Ask the average American to play a quick round of free association with the word communism and you might get answers along the lines of: communism is dictators, communism is censorship, communism is surveillance, communism is propaganda, communism is brainwashing, communism is reigns of terror, communism is mass executions, communism is genocides, communism is labor camps and gulags, communism is slavery.

Communism is slavery. The irony of such a statement coming from an American should be readily apparent. But, if I must state the obvious, here it is: America, as a capitalist society, was built on slavery. Over the course of its 200-year existence, slavery propagated itself through the genocide of the transatlantic slave trade; through mass executions of runaways and insurrectionists; through the attempted brainwashing of enslaved Africans and their descendants; through white supremacist propaganda aimed at white workers and slaveowners; through surveillance on the plantations and in the towns; and finally, through the terrorizing dictatorship of the Southern planter aristocracy and their Northern industrial allies.

Was slavery produced by communism? No. It was a product of capitalism.

The average American (of whom I am asking quite a lot) might protest, But that was in the past! You can’t say it’s the same now. America paid for its crimes against black people — and now they’re free just like everybody else. Plus, anything America did doesn’t erase what Communists have done in other countries.

While it is true that the history of one country does not absolve the history of another, I believe it is also true that no other country has gone to such lengths to avoid its own history. No other country has pretended so forcefully to be something it has never been. No other government has claimed to be free and peace-loving while maintaining the largest imprisoned population and the most ubiquitous, expensive military-police force in the world. No other people, if we are to assume Americans are one, have expended so much energy in accusing others of crimes of which they themselves are the chief culprit.

Such being the case, a real understanding of black history helps us to grasp the fundamental contradictions in American society — and to see how these contradictions bear upon the intended function of a uniformly anti-communist immigrant population in this society. For it is black Americans who have not only suffered the most under the auspices of the prevailing American idea of freedom, but also struggled with the highest degree of moral clarity to make a truer idea of freedom real in America. In the process of this struggle, it is black Americans who have caught some of the heaviest fire from this country’s vicious allergy to communism on the domestic front. And finally, it is black Americans whose struggle many immigrants have ignored or betrayed by exploiting black communities as a stepping stone towards middle-class status.

For if taking a pro-immigrant stance in American politics means accepting the dogma of anti-communism by default, then it also means denying the most salient lessons of black history and siding with the forces of white supremacy at home and abroad by concession. This denial leads only to violence and unequal indignation, as enterprising immigrants feel victimized for incurring the resentment of black communities that are continually sucked dry by capitalism and stalked night and day by the vultures of the state.

Even a cursory survey of major figures in black history yields clear cut examples of the close relationship between white supremacy and postwar anti-communism in America. We need not look further than W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr — two towering, internationally respected leaders of the black freedom struggle — to prove this point.

W.E.B. Du Bois, perhaps the preeminent scholar of American society in the twentieth century, was all but crucified by the federal government and its pro-establishment allies in the burgeoning civil rights movement during the height of McCarthyism. These attacks came because Du Bois took a principled, historically-informed stance as a black American for the cause of world peace and the unity of colored peoples in their respective struggles for self-determination and freedom from colonial, imperial rule — and this at a time when the United States was rapidly expanding its global military presence and overseas investments to fill the vacuum created by the mutual devastation of all the other major powers in Europe and Asia during World War II.

Photo courtesy of AP

W.E.B. Du Bois addresses the World Congress of Partisans of Peace in Paris, 1949

Du Bois’s trials began in earnest in 1948, when he was summarily dismissed from the board of the NAACP — an organization he co-founded in 1910 — for criticizing the current leadership’s capitulation to the Truman administration’s postwar doctrine of “reactionary, war-mongering colonial imperialism”. In 1951, the Justice Department indicted, arrested, and arraigned Du Bois for circulating the Stockholm Peace Appeal, an international petition to ban all nuclear weapons, on the charge that he was acting as an agent of the Soviet Union. Brought to trial before McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, Du Bois was acquitted by a federal judge after the prosecutors failed to produce any evidence of their accusations. In 1952 the State Department illegally stripped Du Bois of his passport in order to prevent him from traveling to a peace conference in Canada. After having his passport reinstated in 1958, Du Bois traveled to newly independent Ghana with his wife and political collaborator Shirley Graham Du Bois; while the couple were in Ghana, the State Department refused to renew Du Bois’s passport. Unable to return to their own country, the Du Boises remained in Ghana, where Du Bois died in 1963.

With Du Bois as an early victim, “red-baiting” became one of the favorite tactics used by white supremacists against the broader civil rights movement to smear grassroots activists as “communist stooges” and to destabilize major national organizations like the NAACP by creating intense discord and fractures over supposed communist involvement in the movement.

For his part, Martin Luther King Jr. was frequently reviled by the American public on the suspicion of secretly harboring sympathies or affiliations with the Communist Party, despite the fact that King consistently stated his disagreement with communism as an ideology in both public speeches and private conversations. The FBI covertly hounded King for years, wiretapping his phone calls, producing spurious reports of his “whole-hearted” adoration of communism, and sending him anonymous blackmail urging him to commit suicide.

Baseless accusations and genuine threats notwithstanding, King grew into an outspoken opponent of capitalism and imperialism in the final years leading up to his assassination. In 1967, he gave a watershed speech at Riverside Church in Harlem in which he declared his opposition to the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. This position was informed by what King saw as the “three evils” of human society: racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.

According to King, the war in Vietnam was a “symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit” propagated by “comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice.” Unless the United States underwent “a radical revolution of values,” King warned, the American people would never “get on the right side of the world revolution.” His diagnosis of American society was grim but honest: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Martin Luther King Jr delivering "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" at Riverside Church, 1967

Martin Luther King Jr delivering “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” at Riverside Church, 1967

In terms of ideology, Du Bois differed from King in the fact that the former actually did join the Communist Party USA in 1961, two years before the end of his life, whereas the latter remained a socialist for much of his life. Du Bois’s embracement of communism has been used to tarnish his legacy and deny the clarity of his ideas; and yet, as King himself noted in a 1968 speech celebrating the centennial of Du Bois’s birth, “It is time to cease muting the fact that Dr. Du Bois was a genius and chose to be a Communist. Our irrational, obsessive anti-communism has led us into too many quagmires to be retained as if it were a mode of scientific thinking.”

Later that year King was assassinated. Like Du Bois, he was silenced at the exact moment when his voice began to seriously challenge the American power structure from a position of clear, undeniable moral authority. In its attempts to ruin the lives of these men and undermine the civil rights movement, America’s anti-communist bloc all but proved Du Bois’s striking assessment from 1920 that “Most men today cannot conceive of a freedom that does not involve somebody’s slavery.”

But what does this have to do with immigrants?

It is no secret that the United States is undergoing a political and moral crisis with regards to immigration policy today. With its ludicrous fixation on building a border wall, the Trump administration has received an overwhelming response of public outrage for cracking down without impunity on undocumented immigrants and migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. According to prevailing liberal politics, immigrants — documented or not — are seen as positively contributing members of society who come to this country so they can gain access to a better life and achieve, just like everyone else, the American dream. Many conservatives obversely believe that open borders threaten national security and/or that undocumented immigrants unfairly steal jobs and resources from native-born citizens and legal immigrants.

That one side in this debate appears to hold the moral high ground is quite apparent. I say appears because the moral reality of mainstream liberal appeals to pro-immigration policy is not so cut-and-dried. The immigrant cause, which has so winsomely been championed by the Democratic Party, generously dips into the big pot of anti-communism and American supremacy with just as much vigor as the opposition. And perhaps more importantly: among immigrants themselves, there is little to no discussion of what it might mean to take responsibility for American society beyond the individual, family unit, or ethnic group — a discussion that would invariably lead to a confrontation with the historical and ongoing contradictions of this country, and the role immigrants occupy in relation to those contradictions.

By their uncritical capitulation to the anti-communist clause of U.S. citizenship, pro-immigrant advocates implicitly exclude the Du Boises and Kings of American history and thereby drastically narrow the scope of their political imagination.

As the N-400 application form indicates, immigrants are expected not only to denounce communism, but to accept the directive of promoting “the good order and happiness of the United States.” At the level of public opinion, select groups of immigrants who have “fled communism” are given ample air time to dominate the discourse on immigration and corroborate our perception that communism is an unparalleled evil in human history, and that the American system, despite its flaws, is much preferable to this evil.

Transfixed as we are by the spectacle of anti-communism, it doesn’t occur to us to ask if these victims of communism are merely being propped up by the American state to advance its own cynical agenda of economic supremacy and regime change under cover of “democracy” and “human rights.” We make no real attempt to examine the United States’ own nightmare of racial apartheid, nor do we recognize the fact that the U.S. government, to quote Dr. King, is unquestionably “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

On a more immediate level, what marginal or exorbitant success immigrants are able to achieve is predicated by the existing racist-class system in America and the free reign of imperialism. Although most immigrants are themselves exploited by capitalism and touched by war or conflict, a great deal of them nonetheless make their money by extracting wealth from black communities and a small few of them make their careers by making war. In this sense, immigrants serve as middlemen in a white supremacist system that thrives by keeping black Americans at the bottom of society and the darker nations at the dead-end of underdevelopment.

The fact that our naturalization process categorically favors anti-communist, or at least de-politicized, new citizens correlates with the fact that many immigrants’ measure of success is usually determined by the distance they can establish between themselves and the black people they sell to, harass, or avoid in the street. In doing so, they betray the vision of  W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr, and countless others who have given their lives to the struggle for a better society and a more peaceful world.

Immigrants leave their home countries and come to the United States primarily seeking two things: better opportunities and safety from harm. These are not unreasonable or immoral desires — but their causes are deeply rooted in the three evils of human society as outlined by King. A stance on immigration guided by love for greater humanity must necessarily deal with these three evils at their source, rather than their surface.

If war causes people to flee their homelands, then America’s wars must end. If certain nations are poor and others rich because of a world system of exploitation designed by American interests, then these interests must be challenged. If the American idea of freedom merely serves to justify the continued domination and division of darker peoples at home and abroad, then this idea must be transformed at all costs.

Immigrants share a mutual responsibility with all people living in this society to choose which side of America’s future they would like to be on — for the difference is not so much between black and white, but between right and wrong.