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The United States has for centuries been a confusing contradiction of freedom and liberty versus race and immigration discrimination. On the one hand, its Declaration of Independence inspired a global anti-colonial and freedom movement by proclaiming that “All men are created equal” and backed it up with a written constitution legally protecting freedom of speech and religion.  In the twentieth century, constitutional rights were extended to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race and gender.

The contradictions first became apparent when the Founding Fathers were faced with how to deal with the South’s African-American slave population when counting heads of population to determine congressional representation. The slaves could not vote, but Southerners argued that they required support and a modicum of representation. Besides leaving them out of the calculation would give the anti-slave northern states a permanent majority in the House of Representatives. The agreed solution was to count each slave was to count each slave as three-fifths of a person when calculating the number of Congressmen each state would send to Washington.

Then only a few years into independence, John Adams, responded to revolutionary turmoil in Europe with the Alien and Seditions Act which limited the rights of foreigners, made it more difficult to become a citizenship and introduced penalties against those who criticised the government. Parts of the act remain in force today and gave rise to restrictions in World War One and Two, against ethnic Japanese, Germans and Italians. 

In the 1840s 1.5 million Irish fled their homeland for America to avoid

starvation brought about by potato blight and a callous British Government. Their arrival in a predominantly Protestant country spawned the first of the nativist movements aimed at limiting immigration. It also spawned anti-Catholic and anti-Irish riots in several cities and a particularly violent Leonardo di Caprio film.

The initial nativists failed to block the Irish, but they had better luck with Chinese workers. The Chinese started arriving with the California Gold rush and went onto become the primary labour pool that built the western end of the transcontinental railway. They were met with even greater hostility than the Irish,  were forced to pay special taxes and live in Chinatowns. But they did, however, provide a useful pool of cheap labour. Unfortunately most of the railway construction was completed by the 1880s and so in 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed which banned Chinese labourers from entering the US. The Act remained in force until  Magnuson Act partially repealed it in  December 1943– 105 Chinese were allowed to enter per year. Full repeal came with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which abolished direct racial barriers and then again with Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the National Origins Formula.

Of course, the immigrants who received the worst deal were the forced slave immigrants from Africa. They first touched down in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Initially they were ignored. Most of the colonies forced labour was being adequately provided by indentured workers from the mother country. Unfortunately, European workers suffered health wise in America’s hot, humid, mosquito-infested climate and for decades more indentured servants died than arrived. By the end of the 17th century, Southern planters had discovered that Africans were made from hardier stock, and besides, Europeans were indentured for only 5 to 20 years before being set free. Africans could be kept for life, you could breed them and then enslave their children. They made economic sense.

African-American slaves soon became the backbone of the Southern economies and the cause of tension between North and South which erupted into Civil War and led to the emancipation of the slaves by Abraham Lincoln. During the 12-year Reconstruction period which followed the civil war the Whites who fought for the confederacy were denied political rights which meant that former slaves filled key positions and acquired land deeds. This did not sit well with the planters who had been raised on a Bible-backed belief in White Supremacy. As soon as the Southern Whites regained their political rights they set about denying the African-Americans their rights in order to restore the pre-civil war relationship between the races. African–Americans were prevented from sitting on juries. They had to pass a literacy test and/or pay a poll tax before they could vote. Restaurants and hotels banned them, and they had to sit at the back of bus and use separate toilets.  African-American children were sent to inferior schools. Those who objected were lynched or endured a Ku Klux Klan cross burning.

The American apartheid was fact of Southern political life to which successive American administrations turned a blind eye until 1957 when President Dwight Eisenhower used federal marshals to break the school segregation of Little Rock, Arkansas. Since then successive administrations have worked to move to introduce constitutional amendments, laws and executive orders to improve race relations and the plight of the African Americans. But the America roots of discrimination and prejudice run centuries deep. The work that has been done since 1957 has only painted a veneer of racial freedom over a deep-seated belief in White supremacy and a fear that that that supremacy is being threatened by successive civil rights legislation. The hope was that the successive layers of veneer would become thicker and thicker and eventually prevent the roots from spreading—until Donald Trump took an axe to it.

Tom Arms is writing a book on Anglo-American relations and is editor of


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