Is It McCarthyism Yet?

This week in North Philly Notes, Rachel Ida Buff, author of Against the Deportation Terrorwrites about immigrant rights in this xenophobic era.

Travel bans based on nations of origin; local law enforcement officials compelled to perform federal surveillance work; lists of suspected subversives; prohibition of solidarity or sanctuary work; massive deportation; and the disappearance of the names of the deported from mass media. These recent trends are part of a renewed xenophobic turn in U.S. politics. They also have historical precedent in the infamous era of McCarthyism.

Often filtered through middle school readings of The Crucible, memories of McCarthyism tend to feature an honest person confronting the inquisitorial voices of Joe McCarthy and his notorious House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC). But the McCarthyist Red Scare featured assaults against foreign-born activists as well as a massive and well-publicized roundup of Mexican Americans in the Southwest and California: Operation Wetback.

Buff approved 032017.inddWell before the heyday of HUAC, anti-communist legislators succeeded in passing laws aimed at curtailing the allegedly subversive activities of “foreign-born radicals.” The 1940 Smith, or Alien Registration, Act made advocating governmental overthrow, or belonging to any group believed to advance such an agenda, deportable offenses. Subsequent laws extended deportability to include guilt by association, as well as targeting particular areas of the globe as undesirable nations of origin for immigrants attempting to enter the United States.

These anti-subversive laws were frequently used against immigrant labor and community leaders accused of “UnAmerican activities,” like organizing for wages and rights.  These foreign-born Americans were vulnerable to McCarthyism, much as contemporary Muslim and Arab American leaders are subject to enhanced scrutiny and the possibility of detention and deportation.

Under the Smith Act and subsequent McCarthy era laws, local law enforcement agents often provided evidence in the trials of immigrants accused of subversive activities.  The push for 287(g) and “secure communities” policies today has clear antecedent in this use of municipal forces. As many police unions point out, however, this use of local policing for surveillance and repression alienates immigrants, making all communities more dangerous.

Billed as “cleaning up the border” of “illegal aliens” suspected of political subversion, Operation Wetback commenced in 1954. This Immigration and Naturalization Service campaign eventually resulted in the deportation of a quarter million Mexican Americans, some of them legal residents and American citizens. (Estimates vary; in 2015 then-candidate Donald Trump claimed that this program resulted in 1.5 million deportations.)

While unsuccessful in stopping the flow of migration across the U.S.-Mexico border, Operation Wetback institutionalized the kind of deportation sweeps of immigrant communities currently taking place. And it was during this campaign that the names of those in deportation proceedings vanished from popular media accounts, being replaced by the ominous science fiction of the “illegal alien.” How many people who do not interact regularly with immigrant communities can name just one of the over two hundred thousand deported in 2017?

Campaigns of repression, like McCarthyism or the wave of xenophobia prevalent today, portray foreign-born people as dangerous, subversive, and UnAmerican. Their power is to rob vulnerable non-citizens of their power and livelihoods. For example, the announcement of the cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was timed to coincide with the first day of school, forcing thousands of young DACA recipients to experience this traditional time of excitement with dread.

Brave individuals stood before HUAC and refused to name names, eventually exposing the grim machinations of repression as the real UnAmerican activities. Similarly, immigrant rights advocates labor to defend the rights of those targeted by the forces of xenophobia and hate. Their efforts are part of the struggle to defeat McCarthyism, then and now.

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A Blueprint for the Possible

This week in North Philly Notes, Bill V. Mullen, author of Un-Americanwrites about the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois. 

Un-American was inspired by calls for social justice. In 2012, after the shooting death of Travyon Martin by George Zimmerman, a group of Chicago youth created the group “We Charge Genocide” to document police shootings of African-Americans in the city: http://wechargegenocide.org/about/. The group took its name from the 1951 petition to the United Nations, “We Charge Genocide,” co-signed by W.E.B. Du Bois. In it, Du Bois, William Patterson, Claudia Jones, Charlotta Bass, Paul Robeson, and a host of Black radicals accused the United States of state-sanctioned mass killings of African Americans. The petition was the first ever presented to an international body linking judicial killings in the U.S. to American imperialism abroad. It sutured American state violence at home to the dropping of atomic bombs overseas and the U.S. occupation of foreign lands. It called for a stop to both, and demanded that the United Nations recognize the historical grievances of African Americans as a problem demanding a global response.  Its subtitle might have been, “No Justice, No Peace.”
SoulsBlackFolksThe historical memory of Dr. Du Bois as an instigator and agitator of world-historical change is one Un-American seeks to resurrect and reconstruct. Too often, the W.E.B. presented in high school and University classrooms and in public commemoration is a genteel Dean of African American letters, an avuncular “race man” whose career is often reduced to sound bite-size passages from The Souls of Black Folk on “double consciousness,” his political thought caricatured as the frowning narrative of a village elder who drifted from civil rights dedication to blind advocate for socialism.

American exceptionalism, anti-Communism, and the Cold War have much to do with this misremembering and misrepresentation. Du Bois’s books were removed from shelves during the 1950s and 1960s owing to his statements of support for revolutions in China and the Soviet Union. Close friends, Black and White, abandon Du Bois late in life when he refused to denounce Stalin’s crimes, and continued to criticize the U.S. government as what Martin Luther King, Jr. would later call the “greatest purveyor of violence” in the modern world.

Un-American argues that remembering Dr. Du Bois accurately, and fully, requires remembering him as the rest of the world saw him and knew him. Because of his radical political commitments, Du Bois’s stature as a public intellectual and global figure rose outside the United States in inverse proportion to his shaming and blacklisting at home. Not just in the Communist world he himself embraced, but across Africa, Asia, and Europe, Du Bois by the end of his life was something like the Muhammad Ali of African American intellectuals of his time. His global reputation for international support for anti-colonial struggles, for the struggles of working-class people, for his criticism of imperialisms in all forms, also paved the way for world-wide recognition of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers who were themselves inspired by Du Bois’s global political and intellectual reach. Indeed, Du Bois was a transnational globe-trotting voice for change throughout his life, from his first, trip to Berlin as a student in 1892, to his death in Ghana in 1963.

Un-American_smUn-American then seeks to remember the “worldly” Du Bois whose embrace of and support for what the Communist International called “world revolution” is the most important vector of his political life and legacy. Recognizing this Du Bois means leaving behind not just provincial, nationalist frameworks for analysis, but appreciating the “scholar-activism” Du Bois himself set for himself as the highest bar of achievement. Put another way, writing a book about Du Bois in 2015 demands thinking through the warp and woof of theory and practice as it relates to building social movements, constructing international solidarity, conjuring transnational affiliation. It means engaging honestly and critically with the best and worst of revolutions made in the name of justice across the world in the last century, mindful of Walter Benjamin’s caution that “progress” can be both an excuse and a euphemism for brutality.

At the end of his life it was Du Bois the advocate for peace, for economic equality, for popular sovereignty, for universal health care, for women’s emancipation, for decolonization, for workers’ rights, for a nuclear-free world, that the planet grieved for in his passing. Un-American seeks to recreate a memory of that Du Bois as a way of mobilizing it and him for our own present and future.  As a current generation struggles against the same forces of police violence and racism the impelled Du Bois forward more than 70 years ago, we do well to remember that the long arc of his life and career bent not just toward justice but to political and social revolution. His life remains a blueprint for the possible.

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