The separating of children from their parents and the holding of those children in cage-like pens is widely recognized by child psychologists and other health professionals as not only an intensely terrifying experience, but one that will have long term, emotionally damaging impacts on those children. For many Americans, it constitutes an inexcusable, horrific shift in immigration policy, perhaps politically motivated, which re-casts us in the image of familiar villains around the globe, who have perpetrated unspeakable acts, throughout history.
America has reacted with vehemence and clarity. This cannot stand!
But perhaps we should take a breath and consider the history of child-separation in this country. It is not new, and looking back on its practice, has always been a shameful, abhorrent act, often justified with religiously-edged oratory. I will not attempt to recount the details – there are many books that do a far better job of it than I could. But the institutionalized selling of family members as enslaved people began in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Children were routinely sold off, away from their mothers and fathers, who were themselves sold away from each other. That was good business in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in America. And we believed it was ok.
The removal of Native American children from their parents, villages and nations was also a regular practice right up into the second half of the twentieth century. Designed to “improve” the state of the “poor Indian children,” they were often given American names, forbidden to speak their native languages, stripped of their native clothing and artifacts and given more “appropriate” clothing, toys and culture. This was good social engineering, we believed. Good for everyone, including the children.
I believe all of this reflects our national deep-rooted racist underpinnings, running so deep and for so long, that we have been oblivious to its thoroughly debilitating nature until very recently in our historical timeline. We allowed such obvious injustices to continue for generations because we had a consensus. The societal current ran strong, and had a footing in our widespread, commonly-held convictions regarding biblical passages, construed to elevate one race over another. If we needed convincing, we could be persuaded on a Sunday morning. Everyone was in agreement. It was ok, as long as “we” could see ourselves as distinct from “them.” As long as we could separate our deeper judgment from what was happening to them and close our eyes to the inhumanity of it.
Social injustice has always been the outcome of insular, exclusive thinking, where we lose sight of our bonds with all humanity. Where it seems acceptable to deride children in cages, because we have come to believe that all outsiders are dangerous and will destroy “our” way of life. Where normal human outrage at such a sight can be considered by some of us, as an intentionally fake gesture or a sign of political weakness. Social injustice itself then becomes the right path, if we are to maintain our “national” identity and our strength, if we are to stand against the foreigner at the gate and hold our ground. If we are going to win, they have to lose. As if we have ever been a monolithic people with a single identity. That is a political ploy to manufacture anger at the other. It always has been.
But that is really not America, and I am heartened by the overwhelming outcry and the swell of human empathy expressed over the past week or so, forcing an honest discussion of who we are and who we will not be. As a result, the children will be re-united with their parents and siblings. I believe that was the inevitable outcome. Because, I believe, who we really are, with all of our political perspectives, in spite of the many social divisions, at bottom, in our hearts, we are people first. Able to feel other peoples’ pain. Able to reach across whatever distance separates us, and offer solace. That is our ideal, an American ideal, from the founding and before. Perhaps hidden away for centuries, unacceptable to the crowd. Unable to sway the consensus. But now that we can all make our true feelings known, worldwide, in an instant, the consensus can be moved. All politics aside, that is more like who we are.
Let’s not forget that, again.