After the terrorist shooting in June at an Orlando LGBTQ club that killed 49 people, Donald Trump said that for even second and third-generation Muslim immigrants, “there’s no real assimilation.” It’s hard to quantify such a thing, but Pew and Gallup (as well as experts on Muslim culture in America) have shown that Trump’s claim was rubbish. In this post–fact check election cycle, though, I’d wager that the Republican nominee barely shrugged. Hours after his August 31 trip to meet with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Trump kept right on promoting ideas with a dangerous insinuation: that one’s ability to assimilate directly coincides with their love for the United States of America.
In his latest radical remarks on immigration, Trump told a Phoenix, Arizona, rally crowd that not every immigrant can “successfully assimilate” (as if doing so is always a laudable outcome), and that “it’s our right, as a sovereign nation, to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish and love us.” He added a chilling, ill-conceived policy recommendation: “Another reform involves new screening tests for all applicants that include — and this is so important, especially if you get the right people, and we will get the right people — an ideological certification to make sure that those we are admitting to our country share our values and love our people.”
On the surface, this sounds much like the proposed religion tests Trump said he plans to administer to every immigrant in order to screen out Muslims. Republicans in the last several election cycles have proposed similarly cruel and unworkable solutions for illegal immigration, despite our current Democratic president’s already harsh record of nearly 3 million deportations and counting.
There’s something more nefarious in Trump’s recent remarks, however, that was quickly lost in the maelstrom of Trump stories that sweeps up political coverage each week: His “ideological certification” idea is steeped in a centuries-old American tradition of steering immigrants (as well as Native Americans and kidnapped Africans) toward Eurocentric norms.
Slavers tried their best to beat African traditions out of their captive laborers, and the nature of the slave economy destroyed nearly all knowledge of slaves’ native lands. (As the descendant of slaves, I have no idea which African nation or nations I originate from.) Even abolitionist efforts emphasized assimilation. For Native Americans, so-called “Americanization” policies were key in eradicating their cultures; boarding schools were established where students could only speak English, for example. And, of course, there was little effort from white immigrants to assimilate with Native populations who were already here. Considering the broad history of genocide of Native peoples in this country by white Europeans, Trump has a hell of a nerve making immigrants out to be invaders.
Jewish immigrants have also faced pressure to conceal their heritage in favor of presenting a more “American” ideal. Even Irish and Italian immigrants initially were not fully included in the American concept of whiteness around the turn of the century — sometimes to the point of being the targets of racial violence themselves. This discrimination didn’t foster empathy toward other groups; on the contrary, as Toni Morrison would later write, “buying into the notion of American blacks as the real aliens” was key to one’s entrance into mainstream life in the United States. The “most enduring and efficient rite of passage into American culture” was “negative appraisals of the native-born black population,” Morrison said.
Assimilation may be a peaceful, welcome process for some, but it’s often either physically or emotionally violent — less a welcome than a demand. It’s also not just about race; there are so many “aliens,” to use Morrison’s word, to this Western standard today, such as Latinos, Muslims, and trans people. Women have been forced to adapt to a man’s idea of America since before this country was founded. So rather than get into an argument with Trump about whether it’s possible or even likely that immigrants will assimilate, we should take a fresh look at what he is demanding these “aliens” be absorbed into, and what that process is.
What Trump and many of his fellow Republicans are demanding isn’t unity — it’s submission. Rather than seeking ways to celebrate difference and preserve ethnic traditions, Trump’s brand of assimilation seeks to replace them with his idea of what’s “American.” Erasure of cultural identities only serves to bolster a white idea of America that wasn’t designed to include the rest of us. This isn’t just about tailoring cultural customs to fit a Eurocentric ideal — it’s about attuning one’s behavior to a political idea with white nationalism at its center. This is more Borg than melting pot.