In her latest book, Not “A Nation of Immigrants”: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion, world-renowned scholar and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes, “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 German. 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 nonetheless.”
The mythology of the United States as “a nation of immigrants” has a complex political history. And studying the history of how and why this mythology emerged can actually tell us a lot more about America than the myth itself. In this extensive and wide-ranging conversation, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez and Dunbar-Ortiz trace the history of this particular national mythology and the political functions it serves in the larger project of US settler colonialism, economic domination, and military imperialism.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma in a tenant farming family. She has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than 4 decades and is known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social justice issues. She is the winner of the 2017 Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize, and she has authored and edited many books, including An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, which won the 2015 American Book Award, and Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post Production: Cameron Granadino
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome everyone to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have y’all with us. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” These, as we all know, are the immortal lines to Emma Lazarus’s famous poem which is enshrined on a bronze plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.
Often seen as a beacon of welcome to people around the world, the poem reaffirms one of the most sacred principles of our national mythology. America, we have been reminded throughout our lives, is a nation of immigrants. A new world where freedom and opportunity seekers from all corners of the globe can come to pursue their potential and live in a nation that is ostensibly defined by its commitment to safeguarding citizens’ right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This is certainly the national mythology that I grew up with, and it is certainly what drew my ancestors to this country from Mexico, Italy, and elsewhere. It should be no surprise, however, that the mythology of America as a nation of immigrants has a very complex political history. And studying the history of how and why this mythology emerged can actually tell us a lot more about America than the myth itself. That is precisely what our guest today, the brilliant Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has done in a masterful new book entitled Not “A Nation of Immigrants”: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion, which is out now from Beacon Press.
And in this book, which is right here and that I would highly recommend that everyone go check out, Roxanne writes, “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 German. The vortex of settler colonialism sucked immigrants through a seasoning process of Americanization, not as rigid and organized as the ‘seasoning of Africans, which rendered them into human commodities but effective nonetheless.'”
And to dig into this book, to unpack as she does so beautifully in the book this national mythology and the political uses that it serves, I’m honored to be joined by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz herself today on The Real News Network. For those who don’t know, Roxanne is someone who needs no introduction, but I will give you a short one right now. Roxanne grew up in rural Oklahoma in a tenant farming family. She has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades and is known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social justice issues.
She is the world renowned historian winner of the 2017 Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize, and she has authored and edited numerous books including An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, which won the 2015 American Book Award, and Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment. Roxanne, thank you so much for joining me today.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Thank you, Maximillian. It’s wonderful to be back on Real Time with you.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, we’re so honored to have you back here. And yeah, my mind is just going in a million different directions after reading your book. And I think the real test will be keeping us focused on the essential points and ultimately encouraging viewers and listeners to go out, read the book, and let us know what y’all think about it. And so I figured maybe by way of entering this important, vast world that you explore in your book, I was wondering if you could walk us through the origins of this nation of immigrants myth.
Because I know that for me growing up it just felt like just such an integral, almost ontological part of what America was. But you detail how it’s actually a relatively new phenomenon and it’s been shaped in very important ways for important reasons. So I guess where did this mythology of America as a nation of immigrants come from and how was it constructed?
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Even when I had railed against this for many years, I wrote what I call a rant – But back at that time in the early 2000s they called it a blog – That Monthly Review published, “Stop Saying this is a Nation of Immigrants.” I, myself, until I took it on as a project a few years ago did not know that it just hadn’t… It was just one of those sayings that you don’t know where it really came from, or some songs, like folk songs, that it’s just always been around. But actually it was in my youth. You’re much younger than me.
So clearly you would think they had been there all your life and even before, but I’m much older. And I was pretty aware in that period of time, or soon after, of it in the ’60s came pretty quickly and I was very involved. I did not know that it was actually dated 1958, that it had an origin date. And that was, it was a book published by John F. Kennedy in 1958 when he was Senator from Massachusetts and preparing to run for president. And his father had always dreamed, I think the older son was supposed to be the one but he was killed in World War II, so John was the second in line to promote to that role.
So it was a really long chance and he barely won because never before had there been a child of immigrants – And certainly not a Catholic – Ever been president. And that was a big hurdle for him to overcome. So I think it was more of a piece of propaganda for building up to, for normalizing immigration. Every other president had been either Anglo or Scots-Irish, Anglo-American or Scots-Irish American. The Scots-Irish were the people who colonized us, did settler colonialism in Ulster. Still today a major issue, the Troubles of Ulster, Northern Ireland breaks out into war now and then, but they only got 50/50 there.
But many of those seasoned settler colonialists were among the early settlers and the 13 colonies and especially populated Appalachia, like 90% of Appalachia today are descendants. So these characteristics, I don’t think that Kennedy, from the book, I don’t get the idea that he understood US history at all. So he just deals mainly with Irish famine refugees and the tragedy and sorrows and how they became great citizens and became police and so forth, upstanding citizens, naming them and building up a case basically for Irish immigration.
So he mentions others but only in a few words about the Chinese of course. The first immigration act of the United States was in 1883 and it was the exclusion of Chinese, this Chinese exclusion act. He apparently didn’t know that, hadn’t bothered to look up any history of immigration to the United States. And he says of the Chinese they came with their gentle dreams, whereas they were treated horribly, they were undocumented. They had no rights whatsoever. They were exploited, they were killed, deported, everything. And until the 1940s when there was some opening and then 1965 opened to more Asian immigration.
So it’s really a propaganda piece, but I was very interested in seeing that not only did he not understand settler colonialism, he made little of Native people. He has a longer passage about Native people than any other people building up to calling them the first immigrants. He actually writes a myth that is a myth in Ireland. There are many myths like this of who discovered America. So this white nationalist myth that comes from Celtic myth that the people who were here when the British settlers came were not the Aborigines, not the original people.
They were violent people who entered and killed off all the original people, who may have come from Ireland. So that’s one issue throughout the book, the self-Indigenizing of people. So he builds on that as credibility that we’re really not immigrants, we’re just returning to our former homeland. So it’s a crazy book. And then he ends up calling Native Americans scattered tribes without governments and that they were immigrants. He calls them the first immigrants. So that was very interesting to me. So reading this book completely changed the trajectory of how I was going to write the book and deal with it.
It gave me so much more to work with and to clarify that this was something… And I know that period of time very well. It’s when I was coming of age, the 1950s, post World War II. And of course, the ’60s, being involved in that. We dealt with racism, we dealt with Native Red Power, the land base, all these things with feminism that had not been dealt with before. But we really weren’t dealing with settler colonialism. And of course I wasn’t, even though my Dunbar in my family, my father’s family, were descendants of these Scots-Irish from Appalachia. They made the trek first out of Kentucky and then to Missouri and then to Oklahoma, and many then scattered to the west with the dust bowl and so forth.
So they’re everywhere. So I knew that history very well but I thought it was normal. There were also immigrants around. Polish, Czech and German immigrants. In Oklahoma there were also Italian and others, but in central Oklahoma where I was, it was German, Czech. And in fact there’s a town that I grew up nine miles from that’s called the Czech capital of the world, Yukon, Oklahoma. It’s predominantly Czech descendants. So I knew I definitely had a concept of immigration. These were immigrants.
Most of them were Catholic and I was a Southern Baptist and Southern Baptists hated Catholics, considered them evil, basically evil. And yet my best friend was a Polish Catholic and of course my family was different. They got along fine with the Catholic people. Of course, we were odd in that my grandfather, my Dunbar grandfather, had been a socialist organizer right there in the county where I grew up. And most of the socialists that started the Socialist Party, not so much the leadership but the actual on-the-ground organizers, were German immigrants and not Anglo or Scots.
So we were a little different than that. And that my father growing up like that just grew up without, well, my grandfather was also an atheist, a non-believer, and my father was too. So I feel privileged in that sense that I didn’t become prejudiced. Anti-Black racism is another thing. But I didn’t think badly of immigrants, but I had no concept of settler colonialism. I just knew there was a difference between us that we were somewhat more authentic. That they were people to be treated with respect, but they weren’t really Americans. That was a mental state.
I’ve reviewed my thinking in my mind when I was younger when I wrote a memoir called Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie trying to really be clear about that. And that came in handy writing this book in terms of being able to read minds a little bit, how settlers look at… White nationalists are mostly descended from these original settlers and do not consider anyone who’s ever come as an immigrant after the 1850s as legitimately, whether they get citizenship or not, they’re not fully Americans in their view.
So that’s the extreme view but a lot of people don’t understand that that’s what these armed white nationalists are about. They claim that white genocide is taking place. And when they say white they mean basically Anglo or Scots or German. They don’t really consider… Some people get through and get honorary status, like the guy who founded the Proud Boys is actually a child of Cuban exiles. And he is very dark. But they pass, but they’re the minority because they have to agree with this assumption of the superiority of the settler.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, that was one of the really deeply existential experiences that I had reading your book. I’ve talked about this a lot on my show, Working People, where I’ve talked a lot about my own family history and my own upbringing. But I, as a first generation Chicano growing up in Southern California, I grew up very conservative, very Catholic. And in Orange County, I had a lot of white friends. There were a lot of weird ways that that conservatism, the want to be accepted, and that first generation aspect of our family, it really created some interesting stuff there where you felt like we were doing it the right way and the immigrants or refugees who were crossing the border were doing it the wrong way.
You mentioned that word, authenticity. I hadn’t put it in those terms but I feel looking back there was this constant identity crisis that was circling the drain of authenticity, a drain that was always empty at the center because I never knew what being an authentic American was. But I knew that whatever it was I didn’t have it within me, I had to perform it somehow.
So there are a lot of revelations that came for me personally reading your book. But not just personally, but really historically, as you just walked us through. I didn’t quite realize that the nation of immigrants mythology that seemed to define so much of my family’s history, so much of what I understood America to be, was such a recent creation in our national discourse. I wanted to follow up on that because I think that by laying out that history, you show to readers like myself that this was something that was created in a certain political context. Obviously for someone like John F. Kennedy as an Irish Catholic aspirant to becoming president there was a very clear political motivation to reshaping that national mythology to open up a path to building a political coalition that could actually vote him into being president.
So I wanted to ask how we got from there to this, like you said, this really targeted, and I guess understandable, propaganda effort for someone like John F. Kennedy to run as president, be taken seriously, and ultimately be voted in, how and why we ended up seizing on that mythology and absorbing it into the larger political schema of the United States, this larger imperialist project. I guess, how did that happen?
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: I really looked at that period a lot. The 1950s, the civil rights – I call it revolution – The Black civil rights revolution that was really born in the South former Confederacy was truly a revolution. And within a year of the founding of the United Nations, and the first act of the United Nations was, it was the prohibition of genocide treaty, the UN treaty. Paul Robson and other outstanding, W. E. B. Du Bois was still alive and was a part of this We Charge Genocide and took a manifesto to the UN.
Native Americans had been expelled as such in 1953 with the elimination, the actual elimination act to lose all their status as Native people and land base. And it took 20 years of Red Power to reverse that. And a great deal was lost in the process. But it could happen again just with the stroke of a pen because they’re under a colonial system of trusteeship. They don’t actually own their communal lands. So colonialism still existed. So here’s the competition that came out of World War II with communism.
China became communist in 1949. And of course the Bolshevik Revolution was already 40 years old and clearly seemed like it was here to stay at the time, but the US did everything it could to destroy it and in fact was successful in doing so. But this presented a huge challenge and especially with TV coming into play, pictures, video, actual film footage of cops bloodying unarmed protesters in the South, like white cops. And these images that were going over, the Soviets were using this as propaganda. It was truth but it really was propaganda used to, as you know, and [in Spanish meant] truth.
But it was shameful and of course they set up Air America to publicize everything they were doing that was so good. And also they were rushing to cover up the history of slavery, the history of genocide, all of these things, which the rest of the world didn’t know about and largely still don’t because US propaganda is everywhere. And the official story is never breached at any governmental level. Well, until Black and Native people and also Chicanos, farm workers, started going to the United Nations in the, Black people actually in the 1950s.
I started working with the International Indian Treaty Council in ’74 and we went to the UN in ’77. So this was really late, but it was such a shock to people from all over the world, including very socialist, still socialist governments, and national liberation movements in the 1970s that they had no idea. They knew there had been Indians, they were all wiped out and there weren’t very many of them, and that the US was a great democracy and that they certainly learned differently quickly with Angola and the counterrevolutions, the counterinsurgencies that the US did in Africa.
Of course, it’s everywhere. The Caribbean, overthrowing coups. So people learned that they were imperialists but they didn’t really know the history of settler colonialism. They still thought it was a democracy that was going off the track. That’s what the US wanted to present is to cover up that history. So I think the Nation of Immigrants, the reason it got picked up, and there’s a reason why John F. Kennedy wrote it, I’m sure he wasn’t thinking all those things because he didn’t know it himself. He was thinking about getting elected. But why was it picked up by US historians who are really people who are US citizens who do US history?
US historians who have US citizenship who do European history or Asian history, they usually do a very good job. They’re pretty good even on Latin American history these days or in the last 30 years or so. But if they do US history to fit into that and to prosper, to get tenure, to get high level jobs, to publish books, they really have to stay within the mythology, the origin of the story. They had to change that origin story when they’re up against an adversary that actually has studied the United States and knows these things. I mean just all they have to do is show the film footage.
When I was in Cuba on the Venceremos brigade in 1970, they showed us some of the Black and white footage that aired in Cuba in the early 1960s. They were awful. I have watched a lot of these horrible things. It really politicized me seeing the treatment of people. That’s really how I got politicized was opposing this violence against Black people that was becoming obvious, and of course the wonderful mass movements. So they were seeing this and they showed it to us. I remembered some of it that I had actually seen myself, but it was very raw.
At that time TV, they didn’t have very much programming. So they were just filming everything and putting it all up. That changed. It became very manicured and programmed and everything, but it’s one way the Vietnam war was exposed was really the press. They were just filming it. Dan Rather watching them with the Zippo lighter setting fire to a hut, a Vietnamese peasant. It was all filmed. So there was that window and controlling that. I think creating multiculturalism in education was the liberal solution because liberals and conservatives had their differences about domestic politics.
But to this day when it comes to war and foreign policy, they have very few differences. You notice with the announcement of Biden that he’s going to go ahead and stay in Mexico, Trump’s policies. He already had several others that he has simply reenacted. But the border’s always the same, Republican or Democrat. Whatever they say, they’re all doing the same thing: exclusion, deportation, detention. So that never changes.
So this was a very bipartisan thing at first, creating this new mythology. One of the things that really spurred me to write the book was this 2015 blockbuster, Hamilton, the musical. Alexander Hamilton, the musical, Lin Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster. It’s six years now and it still sells out every performance. It was made into a major motion picture and it is the reenactment of A Nation of Immigrants. It stunned me. I could tell from just how people were reacting to it. It was like liberals.
Now this is where liberals and conservatives separated on this because they are so verbally anti-immigrant, especially anti the border. So the Nation of Immigrants was really… Liberals carried it through and included multiculturalism, because you probably remember in the ’90s, the textbook wars and keeping multiculturalism out. The textbooks that were coming out had the first chapter, just like Kennedy, of Native Americans as the first immigrants. It was always the first chapter. Of course, they had left out Native Americans completely before that, but they made them the first immigrants. The whole multicultural thing, that’s when white nationalism really became at the top levels of government with Gingrich and those other really strange people in the legislature in the 1990s.
But It really started in the 1950s with the Brown versus Board of Education decision 1953 of school desegregation. Up to that time, everything was white and mostly Anglo. The entire government – Tiny exceptions, one or two state governments, state legislatures, Congress, down to school boards, police forces. Everything was run at the highest levels and even pretty far down by white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants, and is still. Jim Crow was fully intact at the end of World War II. Of course there were people who had been fighting it. W.E.B. Du Bois founded NAACP in 1901. So it was already 50 years old by mid century. It was the work of intellectuals like that and lawyers that they brought that case, that desegregation case, and they won. This was very clearly, the Supreme Court has always been political.
It goes with what the system needs in order to reflect, to keep everything intact, to keep the structures of racial capitalism going and intact while doing whatever has to be done for show, to not be condemned for it. But you had this backlash, not only the violence that we saw on the ground, but the formation of the John Birch Society, a self-identified white nationalist organization. The citizens councils that formed in almost every state. When I first took a stand, I moved to the city my last year of high school and that’s where I saw civil rights demonstrations. Young people doing sit-ins at the big flashy drug store, Katz Drug Store downtown, and Central High, the trade school I went to, was downtown. So I would actually walk by. I didn’t join. I didn’t think I could. I didn’t have any idea, but I really admired them. Of course, they were on the news and everything. So this was like 1955.
I don’t think I even knew until then about the desegregation decision. Growing up in rural Oklahoma, you don’t really get that level of news of something like that, but a lot of censorship of the press and Oklahoma oil and gas. It’s really almost like a Bautista or Somoza regime in Oklahoma. Everything having to do with communists was banned. If Marx’s Kapital is found, even in someone’s home, in their private library, they could be arrested. Those laws were all in place while I was growing up. So after the red success in Oklahoma in the early part of the 20th century they really took over, drove everyone out and clamped down really hard. So it’s pretty much still like that today.
So growing up there it was spotty and I wanted to get out, just get out of there. Which, I got married and we did come to San Francisco to do something without getting hurt or killed or banned or whatever. So that was probably a cowardly thing to do. It was impossible to function in the ’50s there. So that was going on. That white nationalism of the John Birch Society spawned other organizations. Soon, you had the Second Amendment Foundation which was Harlon Carter’s outfit. You probably found this part very interesting. I don’t know if you knew about it, that he had been a border guard.
His father was a border guard and he was the border chief of Operation Wetback in the 1950s, the rounding up and deportation of Mexicans. Some of them, quite a few of them actually, citizens. They just rounded up every Mexican. It was pretty much all for show that they were doing something while the growers all were recruiting undocumented Mexicans to do the agricultural work. So it was a show, but nevertheless he was in charge of it and pretty well known. When he retired from the border as a border chief, he had already been a member of the National Rifle Association, but he started this organization and white nationalist enclave of Eastern Washington State called the Second Amendment Foundation. The Second Amendment was never ever an issue.
They then set out and it took four years. They took over the National Rifle Association. So that’s when the National Rifle Association became a white nationalist organization. So Harlon Carter’s horrible. He was a real monster as a border guard. He also killed a Mexican boy that was actually in El Paso in the same town. When he was 15, he shot and killed this Mexican boy. He was tried and did some prison, but it was overthrown and wiped off his record. So he became a border chief. So that gives you an idea of who works the border.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. I did not know that detail until I read it in your book. I was like, oh, that makes sense. That tracks. So this is what I mean when I said there are just so many rich and important and interesting details in the book that really help me and others as readers, I think, again, see how these sorts of truths that we grew up with about what America is, who it is, and what the goal of the American project is supposed to be. We start to see how artificially constructed those have been, the motivations for pushing this or that type of mythology. I wanted to fold that into a question about how your analysis really does lay bare. It’s like, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.
So that’s what you’re doing with America. You’re like, okay, America says it’s this, but here’s, I’m going to look at the machine and basically tell you what the function is. You really land on this analysis of the United States as a perpetual settle, colonialist project that coheres into what you refer to as the fiscal military state. So not this beacon of democracy, but it’s actually an engine designed to do a very specific thing in its territory here in the United States and then increasingly around the world. So I wanted to ask about that, but I guess one thing I wanted to mention is I think one thing that was really revealing in your book was the existential and cultural function that the nation of immigrants mythology serves. It was even implicit in a lot of what you were saying.
I think about the Americana and all the culture that I grew up with that defined America for me. I think about lines like, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray,” and then it ends with like, “Please don’t take my sunshine away.” There’s almost deep felt fear in the American soul that recognizes somewhere the original crime of like coming to a continent, genociding an entire population, trying as much as possible to erase their very presence, and then trying retroactively to rewrite the history of how they got there and how you got there. There’s almost this perpetual need for absolution that Americans have to forgive themselves for that original sin that will never go away. It feels like the nation of immigrants was the one of the perfect ways that we landed on to do that. Does that make sense?
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Yeah, absolutely. I think it was, at the higher levels, that it was thought out definitely as propaganda in competition with communism which was offering equality and food and housing and public goods, public ownership of things, and things that people really want and long for but you don’t enunciate. The cult of individualism and making it on your own in the United States, it makes it seem actually unpatriotic. I mean, that’s actually how it’s framed, is unpatriotic to want those things. So people have this gnawing hunger, this gnawing guilt. I think it’s a very mentally ill country. I say that, I do psychoanalysis. I mean, I have a psychoanalyst. I don’t do it myself. I receive it.
She actually confirms that, she says I’ve made her see it, that she didn’t really get how deep and why so many people turn up with such problems and fears. I think this of course for immigrants and the children of immigrants is a constant fear of being contingent. I think that word, which I hardly ever saw in literature until I started reading memoirs by more recent immigrants. Mostly from Africa and South Asia and their feelings of contingency that just never goes away even when they’re third or fourth generation. It still hangs on. With multiculturalism, I remember people suddenly, it was very interesting that everyone was working so hard to become white.
Noel Ignatiev’s wonderful book on how the Irish became white. Of course they were already white but they were considered the other and of course Catholic, but they became the police. They became slave work and slave patrols and anti-Black racism is always a tool of proving your affinity with whiteness. So these things get picked up as survival mechanisms by immigrants. I don’t think it’s some evil thing in them. That to survive in the United States, you have to have some level of whiteness culturally. Even if you can’t achieve it physically, that you can become an honorary white person. I think that immigrants are put on that path of aspiring to that. That creates huge problems. Intergenerational, losing the language.
When I moved to San Francisco and very near Chinatown – What we call Chinatown – And mostly had Chinese neighbors, I would hear a lot of generations, elderly people speaking. I really loved the sound of the language I was hearing. It was, I found out, mostly Cantonese. Then at San Francisco State, my fellow, some Chinese students, they didn’t speak the language. I would ask, why? It sounds so beautiful. They said, well, no, it holds us back. And I think I heard that from Chicanos too, that their families who… They were mostly when I was at UCLA, mostly by then first and second generation from Mexico and they too, their families, they spoke this Spanglish, a mixed Chicano language which people started writing poetry. I mean, it’s a dialect in itself.
But that deprivation of a mother tongue, it just seems really cruel. It’s so hard to learn a language, a second language when you’re an adult and to just have it as a gift, because you can speak dozens of languages, that doesn’t take away from any one of them. So that really struck me. I didn’t know that because I hadn’t been around that many people. I knew the Germans, those immigrants. They didn’t speak their languages, the people my age, but I made nothing of it. But seeing people who were so different from the Chinese people. Hearing their language and really liking the feel of their families and their extended families, and of course the food and Chinese New Year and everything, I was just fascinated.
There was this shame, and the people my age. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I think that’s so tragic. It’s generations and generations of people who have suffered trying to become accepted and Americanized. I have to tell them, it’s never going to work. You have to change this country. You can’t do it by numbers. It’s structural. That’s what critical race theory is and why they’re so afraid of it, the right wing, because it says that this is built into every structure that exists in the United States and that it’s not going to go away with training, diversity training.
You can become the nicest person in the world and spew about your anti-racism and read every book and it’s not going to change anything, probably not even you, because so much of it is automatic and not something you really have control over unless you’re reeducated. Ethnic studies has gone a long way. I think that’s one of the things I worked on that we brought out of the ’60s was ethnic studies. I think it has. I noticed, until the pandemic, I was traveling a lot and speaking mostly at universities, undergraduate students. The diversity impressed me so much, but how loving they were with each other. How, that word woke – I like that word myself – How woke they were to everything. They don’t know as much about Native people, but they just immediately grasp it.
There is something else going on. We’ll get to that later, what we can think about for the future. But it’s horrible processing how Columbus was used and is still a problem as a cult figure to Americanize the Italians, of posing him as the first founder. That they’re actually descended from Columbus and he was Italian and Catholic so therefore they are original people. This, they have to find a way to make themselves – And it worked, it pretty much worked. I mean, most Italian people now are third or fourth generation, identify as white, and there’s some real monsters like Papao and Giuliani and all that made it to the top.
And I know Cuomo tried, there was an idea of presidency but that hasn’t done so well. I mean, there’s still a scrutiny that goes on even generations on. Yeah. But I do think the center of it, and of course James Baldwin was very important to my understanding of this at a really deep level. I started reading James Baldwin when I was in high school, his early work and his novels. But I’ve learned much more and even very recently with Raoul Peck’s film on I Am Not Your Negro part unpublished things he wrote. But that this is a structural thing that immigrants, he talked a lot about immigrants. When I was researching I hadn’t really noticed his emphasis on immigrants. He was really trying to talk to immigrants and have them not be complicit in anti-Black racism.
And so it’s really hard. I mean, I think it’s hard for people to, they look, especially it’s not them so much as their children. They want them to be able to adjust and do well in school and go to college and be able to do a good job and not become a radical and get themselves in trouble. And it’s understandable human passions that it’s so cruel in the United States, this [being] fed anti-Black racism and hatred, and hatred for people at the border. Hardly any objection to the treatment of the Haitians, who I just learned are all in a horrible detention camp in the desert in New Mexico and no one even knows they’re there, their families or anyone, they don’t even know why they’re there. So it’s this cruelty that goes on that that we tolerate, is largely tolerated, that they should get in the legal way, you know?
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, right. I mean, like I was saying earlier, I recognize that and identify with that. I can look back at my own history and see a lot of myself in what you were just saying. I know that there were plenty of times where you’re a teenager, you want to be popular. You want to be accepted. You want the cool kids to think that you’re one of them and when those cool kids are white, one of the ways that you can do that as a Brown person is to be self-deprecating. Play into the jokes about Mexicans like I did. But also you’re very much encouraged to participate in that culture of punching sideways and punching downwards.
So you make fun of the Black students, the East Asian students. It’s like we’re all throwing barbs at each other for our white friends’ amusement and you gain a purchase on whiteness through that. You gain that acceptance and even if you don’t realize that that’s what you’re doing. And it took a lot of time, I think, for me to gradually decouple myself from that culture and all that good stuff, but I definitely recognize it and what you’re saying and can think back to how it shaped who I was earlier in my life. But like you were saying from Baldwin to the very beginnings of where we started with this talk, I think that what you do show so beautifully in this book is that understanding that this is baked into the structure of what America is.
And what America, as a government and in the government’s relationship to the land, to its people, to the economy, what it was designed to do. And I could talk to you about this all day, but I don’t want to take liberties with your time, so I was thinking about folding this in. Since right now everyone is still talking about critical race theory and rejecting that structural analysis that sees what you lay out in this book that settler colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, that these are part of how America has grown into what it is. This is part of how the structures that govern our lives were fashioned in the first place and by whom they were fashioned and upon whose graves they were fashioned. So that’s where I found the concept of seeing America as this fiscal military state was really enlightening for me.
It tore away, again, the mythology and helped me see what this machine that we call the United States of America was really built to do and how effectively it does that. I wanted to ask if you could talk a little bit about what that concept does for your book, why it’s so important for understanding the United States? And then we can wrap up and think about what we’ve learned over the past centuries of how to combat that and how we can do that in the 21st century.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Yeah. I was so happy to find that concept. There’s a wonderful law review article, it’s 95 pages long but it’s free on the internet. It’s called “The Savage Constitution” by a now Stanford Law professor, Greg Ablavsky, and he uses that term. He studies the Constitution. It’s interesting. I see in my Indigenous people’s history of the United States and even before that I’ve tried to deal with the cult of the Constitution. I’ve seen it as dating to the Puritans and having to write everything down and the Pilgrims and this Protestant, this Calvinism, because that’s what I was taught or learned from or gleaned from history. But it’s so ephemeral, I am a historical materialist and I want to get something a little bit clearer about this.
And though those roots may be so, it’s in the writing of the Constitution that before they wrote the Constitution, they wrote the Northwest Ordinance and published it. It was the Continental Congress that produced it. The Founding Fathers produced the Northwest Ordinance. And the Northwest Ordinance is the essence of the Constitution. It was folded in when the Constitution was written, it was actually passed by the Congress as the structure. I know US historians avoid it. There’s a wonderful younger – I mean he’s not young-young, he’s younger than me – Historian at University of Oregon, Jeffrey Ostler, who has written a book last year, published a book. He had already published a couple of articles that really are good. The book came up after my book had already gone to production and so I cite it but I wasn’t able to use it, but Ablavsky, I already had this down from this fiscal military state.
It means, it’s a technical term, it was used by British historians to describe the British Empire, its whole mechanism. And it translates into, out of the legalese, it translates into a state made for war. So it’s a, in the case of the United States, it’s a capitalist state made for war. It’s structured as a capitalist state, of course, Alexander Hamilton was the key person in this, the bank, the banking, he was one of the few people who had knowledge of economics because his benefactor in the Caribbean had trained him in accounting. Of course the accounting was accounting the slave trade, accounting the commodities of bodies. But he had it down and he was very key to that, some of the others were more ideal, looking at the Roman Empire and Greeks.
And he had it down to what this should be and it made sense to all of them because what they had in mind is clear in the Northwest Ordinance, with the maps, is the conquest of the continent. They had maps drawing. It was not exactly as accurate as surveying later but the continental outline to get to the Pacific, to get to dominating the trade with China, because China had more commodities to trade than any other country or monarchy in the world. So the China trade that started in the medieval age, Europeans wanted to control China, and so they inherited this.
This is like a part of their DNA as Brits. And so that was their concept of conquering the continent and that was completed, pretty much. I mean, the wars weren’t over, they went on to in the 1890s of the resistance of Native people in all those areas. But with the annexation through a two-year, horrible, violent, deadly counter-insurgent war invasion, occupation of Mexico, they took the northern half of Mexico. So that got them to the Pacific. That was, California was their goal but they of course took the whole thing.
And so that didn’t take very long. After the writing of the Constitution it was very clear. And the Northwest Ordinance had the map so they immediately started surveying in the Ohio territory, which the British had the British Proclamation of 1763 after the French and Indian war, forbade any British settlers to go over the proclamation line. That is into the Appalachians or over it into the Ohio Valley. From the Great Lakes to the Gulf was at that time called the Ohio Valley, the Northwest territory. They weren’t talking about Washington, Oregon. They’re talking about Ohio territory in the Northwest. That was the Northwest at the time. So They started immediately and very scientifically surveying and already George Washington had been taking survey routine teams into that area starting in the 1720s.
That’s how he made his fortune was mapping and then making deeds of sale of which he didn’t own and the British, it was British claimed territory, but there were no British settlers there, there were no British traders. There were still very large numbers of Native villages and there were, of course, farmers, who had corn, beans, and squash and they did get involved in the fur trade with the French. If you look at Native American history it made changes in them but it was not occupied. It was not settler colonialism. And so they couldn’t go in there and those who went in had gone in illegally, like George Washington, buying these, he had sold these deeds. That’s how he became a multimillionaire, was by selling fake deeds to settlers that thought they could go claim that land.
So there was a huge investment by the Founding Fathers. They were all involved in one way or another in land speculation but he was the top one. George Washington was known as a surveyor. I actually, as a child, learning this in third or fourth grade, I found, because then there were pictures of him, all dressed looking like a really rich person with braids and boots and the hair, some kind of hairpiece. And he looked like a Monarch and I had a cousin who’s a surveyor and he was always muddy with boots on and tromping around. It wasn’t exactly a prestigious job and I couldn’t figure that out. George Washington is a surveyor and he dresses like that. How does he keep so clean?
Of course, he was only leading his militia of surveyors. He wasn’t actually doing the work. And it took me a long time to figure that out. But he was known as the surveyor. So they had a vested interest in breaking with Britain because they all had financial interest. Not only that, but of course the continuation of child slavery and the expansion of it because already the Southern Colonies were moving into the large, what became the Cotton Kingdom, one of the richest agricultural areas, one of the seven great agricultural areas of the world that Native Americans created. And they had come from Mesoamerica and done the same thing as had happened in Mesoamerica. And they had their eyes on that for expansion of plantation, cotton as a commodity. So that capitalism was, there are all these books out now making clear that the Cotton Kingdom was the platform for the formation of not pre-capitalism, but capitalism, that it was not a return to a medieval practice like Eugene Genovese tried to make it. It was actually the fount of capitalism.
Just the value of those human bodies, enslaved bodies, were greater than all other assets of the United States put together at that time. So this is the fiscal military state. You have to deal both with slavery and you have to deal with settler colonialism. They had to create settler colonialism to occupy the country because Native people were not just wandering tribes, they had governments, they quickly formed armies. They hadn’t, the farmers anyway, east of the Mississippi, are all farmers. And in the Southwest they didn’t really have to have armies or anything. Farmers don’t like war. But as these adversaries came in and tried to take their land, they began building military confederations like Tecumseh’s and so forth. And so it took them a hundred years, a little more than a hundred years from the Northwest Ordinance and the Constitution to fully control the continent.
It’s a hundred years of war, unending, daily, every minute. I don’t think there’s a minute in US history that anyone can find actually dating back to the first colony and the founding of the US to the present that the United States is not making war somewhere, including at this time, not declared war but wars at this time, they’re still fighting the Moros in the Philippines And all over in Africa involved. They have military, they still have military in Iraq and they have mercenaries and in Afghanistan. So there’s always… They can’t do without war. That is, it’s built in. And it’s the only thing that usually unites. It’s been problematic since the ’60s and the anti-imperialism of the ’60s, the anti-Vietnam war, which didn’t really turn into a true anti-imperialist movement. William McMahon Williams, the great so-called diplomatic historian, but he was the historian of US imperialism.
His wonderful book, Imperialism As A Way of Life. His 1980 book is a must-read. He lists all of the interventions, thousands of them. Actually right after, at the time of independence, the US by 1810 had warships all over the world in every dock, opening so-called free trade. They had two wars against Muslims and Tripoli. This was in 1806 and 1808 under Jefferson, two wars that are never taught about. The so-called Barbary Wars. This is where the Marines get their song from, The Halls of Montezuma. They wrote it after taking Mexico City. They wrote it there and from The Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli. And why there’s no curiosity, what’s Tripoli doing in there? I mean, it’s just, it is this fiscal military state from the very beginning and from the beginning of Mexico’s independence, actually before that, it was very clear. The writing was on the wall because the war went on for 10 years, the war against Spain and Mexico. And it was pretty devastated at the end.
So from 1821 they started moving into Mexico. They call it Texas, but it was Mexico. The slave owners were moving into and then claiming as their own. And most people think that Texas really did become independent in the state of the United States, but that was not in any way “legal” until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Texas was included. And so even that history that should be so clear is muddied with obfuscations of reality.
So I think the fiscal military, a concept and then understanding, you have to take a magnifying glass to the Constitution after you read the Northwest Ordinance and see what they’re writing into it in a legalistic language, and then you break it down and I’m still trying to do that work. “The Savage Constitution” does it and he’s written more, Ablavsky’s written even more articles since then. He also works very closely with the Native land rights, that he is very clear that the taking of the continent meant taking of land and that land was for agribusiness and cash crops, commodities, not yeoman farmers, his idea of the yeoman farmer that Jefferson considered himself with his 300 slaves.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right. Yeah and, I mean, I think that it’s such an important way to look at, again, the American project, the American machine, how it’s been constructed and what it’s been constructed to do. And as you just said, then you start to see how whether we’re talking about the nation of immigrants, whether we’re talking about the constructed fabulous mythology of Christopher Columbus as the first American as a way for Italian Americans to gain a purchase on their right to be American citizens and be accepted into that white dominant culture, yada yada, yada, you start to see how that mythology, as you just said, works to obfuscate the nature of the beast we’re living in. And I think that that is one of the really unsettling but I think generative points that I took away from your book was I started to think is like, wow, even the concept of America as a nation of immigrants. We’ve already seen in my lifetime how the fiscal military state has used that when it is useful to it and discards it when it no longer needs it. So you got Trump as a perfect example.
But then as you mentioned, this is very much bipartisan. Kamala Harris is over there in Central America, telling everyone, don’t come to the United States, the supposed nation of immigrants, is telling people to get the hell out. So it’s like that mythology when it works to, yeah, like counteract the Soviet Union exposing the racial crimes of the United States and if it can be folded into the body of the fiscal military state to serve those ends, it will do so.
But when we enter a 2st century where the needs of that fiscal military state are perhaps different, I almost had whiplash with how quickly we as a culture dropped that mythology and started reverting back to this who gets to be here, who’s the original, who’s the authentic Americans? Who doesn’t appreciate being here enough? And I think that’s where I wanted to end up, because I could genuinely talk to you about this all day, but I don’t want to keep you any longer than I have to. So I think by way of rounding out. I guess… My climate anxiety is through the roof most days.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Me too.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right. I mean, and we’ve already seen, we’re already living in the dystopian hell that we have to look forward to for the rest of the century and we know what’s going to come with it. As the climate crisis gets worse, caused by the machinations of capitalism and its dominant powers like the United States and the industries that it serves, yada yada, yada. As all of that comes to a boiling point, ruins the shared planet that we all live on, creates mass famine, mass weather events that create climate refugees, the harried race for resources becomes ever more intense between national powers and the impulse…
I think with Trump, we basically got a preview of what we have in store for the rest of the century, where the impulse is going to be hoard as many resources as we can in the global North, put the walls up even higher, like this paradigm of gatedness like we are on the gated island, the barbarians are at the gates, we don’t care how they got here, we don’t care if we caused their displacement, we have to hold on to what is ours, please don’t take my sunshine away comes back and haunts the American project. And I guess, I just am very worried. About that political paradigm that easily gives way to eco-fascism, how quick people are to take that up and how quick people are to want to be on that life raft. To want to kick others off so that we can all stay on it.
That is where we are going to be encouraged to go every day for the rest of our lives. And I guess I just wanted to ask, like building on everything that you write in your book, building on all that you yourself have learned through years and decades of research and activism and meeting so many people who are on the ground fighting the good fight even when times seem to be their darkest, how do we forge ahead into this very scary future and fight for a way of being on this planet, being together that doesn’t replay the crimes of the fiscal military state that we’ve been living in? How do we get out of this? How do we fight this? I guess, is my last question to you, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Yeah. It was very discouraging writing this book during… I finally had time, everything was canceled, all travel canceled and all last year. So I could no longer avoid sitting down and actually writing the book. But writing it during that time and witnessing… And I have a very compromised respiratory system, being a lifelong asthmatic. I was born with asthma. And just wishing people just wear your mask. I couldn’t go outside – And this is San Francisco, they weren’t wearing their masks, they weren’t… And then when the vaccines came, nowhere near herd immunity. We have 66% of people fully vaccinated in the country and it needs to be 85 or 90 to really have herd immunity. So the individualism, the hoarding that took place early on, those scenes of people buying toilet paper. We still haven’t figured out the psychology of that, but I found myself thinking, well, maybe I need a lot of toilet paper for some reason.
I mean, it is kind of addictive, it’s like the individualism. You know that unless you’re in a community, which I fortunately am, or close extended family, you really are on your own, and that’s most people in the country. Something like, I live alone, and actually something like 55% of the population live single, as a single person, alone. And there may be children, but not old enough to help out that much. So it was really discouraging and then encouraging seeing the Black Lives Matter protests and people responding, and the way they carried it out, being very careful in terms of the pandemic, were all wearing masks and all distancing, and there was no super spreading in those demonstrations. And I never felt comfortable myself joining in just because of my own health status.
But I did pay attention to that, because I was worried about a lot of the young people I know. But it was discouraging. And then with Glasgow coming up and people preparing for all last year, trying to prepare for some really ramped up policies that could at least try to halt, I mean, we’ve already had so much destruction and some of it’s not reversible and it’s coming much faster than predicted, and to find the United States refusing to sign the zero carbon goal because I guess of Joe Manchin. They changed their mind because Joe Manchin objected, being owner of coal mines. And so capitalism is killing us, I think that’s the message we have to get out. And I also think that for the left, there’s a problem because I’d also experienced and studied the left, including my idealized grandfather and the early socialist movement which I admire so much.
And that’s before I knew that Chinese were excluded and Black people were excluded, it was white. And that the left in the United States has developed really by immigrants and the industrial period of the 1880s and 1890s. These are largely immigrant populations who were working as most of the Anglo, Scots people, with the exception of say the Appalachian coal miners. And there, there were of course a lot of Irish and Italian immigrants as well. So these were… The goal of workers was not to really form a working class revolution, but to be able to buy property and to become middle class. And that’s what they did. By the 1950s the government sponsored the G.I. housing and housing for white people and the suburbs popped up and everything.
So really we’ve never had an authentic working class movement, I think, in the United States because the goal of settlers and then immigrants that have to pick this up is that they will own property or own a small business or, if they could, a large business, a corporation. And this is not the goal of French workers or British workers. I think we don’t understand how settler colonialism kills the possibility of worker solidarity. And then of course how the unions were structured as business unions with their own healthcare plan actually spoiled the possibility of national healthcare. Which, all the European countries and Britain, immediately that was the union’s demand in those places. And here it was business unions. So they have an interest in their health plans and they’re making money, they lobby against Obamacare, the public option, because their unions are actually business unions, they’re corporations.
But we have to have a workers’ movement. There are workers, they’re workers. I mean, but this gets to consciousness. And I think that’s what the left refuses to deal with. The materialism, they also have used the European template for organizing without dealing with settler colonialism. Just simply not knowing the history of the United States. Very brilliant leftists, some with PhDs and law degrees or even workers, highly sophisticated, do not understand that you cannot change a society if you do not know every detail of its structure. And even Marx says this, at certain points in trying to develop any kind of real change towards socialism, that ideology becomes central. And I think that’s where we are and that’s what the left won’t deal with.
They think they have to patronize white workers. In fact workers, the image people see when they say the word workers, is a white man. And that’s based on the fact that the good jobs and factories were all given to white men with unions and not the Mexican migrant worker, not the Filipino migrant worker, not the Amazon warehouse workers. Fortunately, they’re trying to form a union. And only recently have service work. There is organizing there. But it’s still in this template of the business union, there’s no, let’s say IWW concept or syndicate, no syndicalism which most countries have, there’s syndicates.
So I think there’s no way to change a society without the majority of the population. And one thing about Trump is that we could start counting heads, who’s a hardcore that we’re probably not going to be able to change unless we rip them out of their settings before they’re 12 years old, which I think we should try to do, or at least teenagers, organize them out of the situations they’re in instead of letting the evangelicals get them or the white nationalists in these white communities.
But I think the left is very… And it’s even hard to say there’s a unified left, but the many lefts that I know about and I’ve experienced many and been in some. And I mean in some of the organizations, and over time and at the present, and I see what’s lacking is a lot of analysis gets done. I worked with a group in the 1990s, some of whom, out of that is, one, Black Lives Matter really came out of those really intensive meetings, discussions, and presentations. But I was a single person, I wasn’t the only person dwelling on anti-imperialism, most of the Mexican Americans involved were certainly… And Filipinos and others. But talking about settler colonialism is a different thing than anti-imperialism and understanding the history of the country.
And it just didn’t… I haven’t found a way on the left. I can go talk to college students and I think they actually get it. But we need people committed on the left, committed people who really commit our lives to making change. These are the people that need to take it on and really look clearly at US history and not keep substantiating what they already have as a template for how you organize. And I honestly don’t hear many people even talking about revolution anymore, or actually, the United States seems to be falling apart on its own. But we don’t really have a plan other than some people, I think erroneously and stupidly, are buying guns. More guns is not going to be the answer to these structural problems that we have and that we have to dismantle.
It would be nice if it were that simple. But it’s going to take mass movements like we saw last summer. And that was very focused on one thing. And it was important for that, but we can do that with climate change. I think we can build a left that gets educated about the history of the United States and combine that with the catastrophe that’s ahead if we don’t make change. And to name capitalism, and not just name it but break it down, how it works, and not put an adjective in front of it, financial capitalism, disaster capitalism, or this or that capital. It’s just capitalism. Because that implies it can be improved, and it can’t. It wore out any… I never agreed with Marx that it had its role in creating levels of production.
I never agreed with that. I think we would’ve been better off had capitalism never been invented. Or there would’ve been no imperialism if there hadn’t been capitalism, they were tied together. And that was what they call the primitive accumulation of capital was the looting of the Americas. So this is how it was made possible. And I think that there’s just a hopelessness that has to be overcome, not with optimism, but with determination to figure it out. It’s not really that hard to figure out.
Maximillian Alvarez: I think that’s a great note for us to wrap up on. That is world-renowned historian and activist, author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Author of many books, including Not “A Nation of Immigrants”: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, And A History Of Erasure and Exclusion, out now with Beacon Press, which everyone should go check out. Roxanne, thank you so much for taking this time to talk with me and sharing your brilliance so generously. I really, really appreciate it.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Thank you so much, Max. It’s such a pleasure because you have real life experiences that you bring to the questions that made a very rich conversation.
Maximillian Alvarez: Thank you. It was really an honor to have you on. And I hope we can have more conversations in the future –
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Yes.
Maximillian Alvarez: …But I know I’ve taken up more than enough of your time today. So again, thank you so much for joining me. And for everyone watching, this is Maxmillian Alvarez for The Real News Network. Before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/support. Become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. Thank you so much for watching.