Is the U.S “a nation of immigrants”?


Whether in political debates or discussions about immigration around the kitchen table, many Americans, regardless of party affiliation, will say proudly that we are a nation of immigrants. In this bold new book, historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz asserts this ideology is harmful and dishonest because it serves to mask and diminish the US’s history of settler colonialism, genocide, white supremacy, slavery, and structural inequality, all of which we still grapple with today.

In “Not a Nation of Immigrants’, the author  explains that the idea that we are living in a land of opportunity—founded and built by immigrants—was a convenient response by the ruling class and its brain trust to the 1960s demands for decolonialization, justice, reparations, and social equality. Moreover, Dunbar-Ortiz charges that this feel good—but inaccurate—story promotes a benign narrative of progress, obscuring that the country was founded in violence as a settler state, and imperialist since its inception.

While some of us are immigrants or descendants of immigrants, others are descendants of white settlers who arrived as colonizers to displace those who were here since time immemorial, and still others are descendants of those who were kidnapped and forced here against their will. This paradigm shifting new book from the highly acclaimed author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States charges that we need to stop believing and perpetuating this simplistic and a historical idea and embrace the real (and often horrific) history of the United States.

“The United States has never been “a nation of immigrants.” It has always been a settler state with a core of descendants from the original colonial settlers, that is, primarily Anglo-Saxons, Scots, Irish, and Germans,”, Dunbar-ortiz wrote last summer at The Boston Review, right after publishing her book. “The vortex of settler colonialism sucked immigrants through a kind of seasoning process of Americanization—not as rigid and organized as the “seasoning” of Africans, which rendered them into human commodities, but effective nevertheless.”

Last year President Biden formally recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a federal holiday, following a growing movement to debunk the myth of Christopher Columbus as a beneficent discoverer and replace it with recognition that the arrival of Columbus in the Bahamas unleashed a brutal genocide that massacred tens of millions of Native people across the hemisphere. But the holiday will continue to be shared with Columbus Day, which many, including Dunbar-ortiz, argue glorifies the nation’s dark history of colonial genocide that killed millions of Native people. “It’s just not appropriate to celebrate Columbus and Indigenous peoples on the same day. It’s a contradiction,” said the author in Democracy Now. “Genocidal enslavement is what Columbus represents.”

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a historian, writer, and professor emeritus in Ethic Studies at California State University. She is author or editor of fifteen books, including Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico; An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States; and Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment.

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