EVANSTON, Ill. Jan. 16, 2018 – Alvin B. Tillery Jr. is an associate professor of political science and director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University. His research and teaching interests are in the fields of American politics and political theory. His research in American politics focuses on American political development, racial and ethnic politics and media and politics.
The reports that President Trump referred to immigrants from Haiti and African nations, as well as their home countries using disparaging epithets and racist language while simultaneously suggesting that America needs more immigrants from northern Europe, provides us with some context for understanding his immigration policies.
In short, President Trump’s immigration policy revolves around the golden-age myth that America’s greatness as a nation is inextricably linked to its status as a majority-white nation. His desire to build a wall on the Mexican border and his various attempts to ban Muslim immigrants are about nothing more than fulfilling this vision and appealing to the large segments of his aging, mostly white voter base who share it.
We know from survey data that Trump’s base voters have high levels of racial resentment and are deeply hostile to the demographic changes that will make the United States a majority-minority nation by 2050. While Mr. Trump is on the hot seat because he was the one who used the epithets, the view that America would be better off if the immigration stream were whiter is widely shared in mainstream Republican circles. This is precisely the logic undergirding recent calls by Republican senators to abolish the diversity visa and family reunification programs.
It is also important to note that the response to President Trump’s racist language by other members of Congress is a marker of how far we have come in race relations in this country. For most of the history of the republic, the presidency has been occupied by men committed to white supremacy who frequently used racist language in public to valorize whites and denigrate people of color.
“When we entered the Civil Rights era, there was a sea change in our expectations about how our presidents should talk about race. Despite this fact, the historical record shows that presidents sometimes used racist language when discussing policy issues with partisans and in policy negotiations with the other party. The fact that so many of the people in the room with President Trump yesterday were uncomfortable with his language shows how far the bar has moved in terms of our expectations and norms related to racial discourse.”