I’m really glad we’re having a discussion about what the Statue of Liberty means to America, even if it is precipitated by nefarious thinking. This week, the Trump administration moved forward with a change in legal immigration policy that will limit people allowed to enter the country to those who are well enough off not to need public assistance. It is called the “public charge” rule.
This is yet another way for the administration to restrict people coming from poorer countries, many of them countries with black and brown people. What we are witnessing is an all-out, every-avenue strategy to maintain America as a white majority country — and, by extension, to extend white power and white supremacy — for as long as possible.
This is the game. This has always been the game. This is why President Donald Trump’s base loves him. He is fighting for their primacy, their privileges and their power. But media, politicians and liberals in general make a huge mistake when they respond by invoking the Statue of Liberty and the poem inscribed on it pedestal.
The poem says of the statue:
“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!”
But, the statue was not conceived as a beacon of liberty and immigration. The idea was conceived by French abolitionist Édouard de Laboulaye in 1865, just two months after the Civil War ended, a monument to the emancipation of this country’s slaves.
In an early model of the statue, she holds in her left hand broken shackles, a symbol of the freed slave, but in the final version the left hand holds a tablet inscribed with the Roman numerals for July 4, 1776. The independence of white America had been elevated and the independence of black America had been pushed as low as it could go: It appears by her foot, inching out from under her robe, barely visible, all but erased.
The statue was unveiled in 1886, six years before Ellis Island opened, and the poem wasn’t added to the pedestal until 1903.
Edward Berenson, a history professor at New York University and the author of the book “The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story,” told The Washington Post in May, “One of the first meanings [of the statue] had to do with abolition, but it’s a meaning that didn’t stick.” In fact, by the time of the statue’s unveiling, “the original meaning of the abolition of slavery had pretty much gotten lost” and went unmentioned in newspaper coverage.
He quotes a black newspaper editorial in his book that read:
“Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the ‘liberty’ of this country is such as to make it possible for an industrious and inoffensive colored man in the South to earn a respectable living for himself and family. … The idea of the ‘liberty’ of this country ‘enlightening the world,’ or even Patagonia, is ridiculous in the extreme.”
You see, between the time the statue was conceived and when it was erected, the United States had allowed Reconstruction to fail and allowed Jim Crow to rise.
There were people right here in America, black ones, yearning to be free, and the federal government did very little to help facilitate that freedom.
This week, when talking about the Trump administration’s new rule, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, altered the statue’s poem: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.”
He made the television rounds that night and was repeatedly asked about the poem and his revision. During one appearance he said the poem referred to “people coming from Europe, where they had class-based societies where people were considered wretched if they weren’t in the right class.”
One point he got wrong: Many of the people coming from Europe were indeed peasants. But I believe he is right to say that the spirit of the beaconing is to people from Europe. And I believe that it was racist then, as it is now.
It is poetically telling and meaningful that the statue stands with her back to America and her face toward Europe.
And the federal government has never shied away from giving these white peasants support. It only chafes at giving things to nonwhite people.
This is why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could say in his “The Other America” speech at Stanford University in 1967:
In 1863 the Negro was freed from the bondage of physical slavery. But at the same time, the nation refused to give him land to make that freedom meaningful. And at that same period America was giving millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant that America was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor that would make it possible to grow and develop, and refused to give that economic floor to its black peasants, so to speak.
In response to Cuccinelli’s words, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren tweeted:
“‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ Our values are etched in stone on the Statue of Liberty. They will not be replaced. And I will fight for those values and for our immigrant communities.”
But that is a well-meaning but historically false reading of America’s values. For most of American history, the country has never truly welcomed nonwhite immigrants. And now that more of the people wanting to come through the golden door are nonwhite, many Americans want to slam it shut.
Just four years before the statue was erected President Chester A. Arthur signed into law the Chinese Exclusion Act forbidding the immigration of Chinese laborers. That law wasn’t repealed until 1943.
Trump isn’t giving birth to a racist policy; he’s resurrecting one.
Trying to use the Statue of Liberty as a symbol to fight this racism is to me a misstep because there is too much history that fights against it.
Lady Liberty wasn’t born a hypocrite, but America made her one.