People of color in the U.S. have experienced many variations of the “go back to where you came from” sentiment. In the wake of President Donald Trump’s racist Twitter tirade aimed at “the Squad” of four recently elected women of color in Congress, the Los Angeles Times asked its readers to share their own stories. The anecdotes were painful to read and yet all too familiar to me. Social media threads are filled with similar stories, and, like the outpouring of shocking personal stories that marked the #MeToo movement, white Americans are hearing for perhaps the first time how widespread and deeply ingrained racism is in American culture and how much people of color have endured.
I remember my first experience on the receiving end of this type of hate. It was just a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks. While I was driving on the streets of Los Angeles, a man with a large American flag flying from his car screamed out of his window at me to “go back to my country.” I was shaken, but I was not surprised.
It was certainly not my last time being told to leave the U.S. It is an age-old American insult, a perfect encapsulation of xenophobic ideals about who belongs in this country and who doesn’t. It matters little if the targets of such attacks are natural born citizens, naturalized citizens, legal residents, undocumented immigrants or visitors to the U.S. All that matters is that they represent an “impurity” in the perceived whiteness of America. They need only be nonwhite, have an accent, speak a different language, have a foreign-sounding name or simply issue a criticism about the way things are.
On the one hand, Trump’s latest example of racism has done deep damage and likely traumatized his direct victims, Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib. On the other hand, it has created an opportunity to do away with any lingering doubts about where he stands. Media outlets like The Associated Press have called out his racism using plain language and without resorting to euphemisms. “Trump digs in on racist tweets: ‘Many people agree with me,’” reads one headline, a refreshingly direct statement that did not use quotation marks around the word “racist,” or rely on phrases like “racially charged.”
In fact, the AP Stylebook announced a critical change earlier this year, advising journalists to call something racist if it appears so. Although some media outlets are chiding Democrats for falling for the president’s distraction, Trump’s words are actually a misstep on his part, as they have helped clarify claims of his racism in no uncertain terms. It is not a distraction—it is a direct symptom of his presidency. One can argue that it is better for a racist to show his or her true colors than to strongly hint at bigotry and thus preserve plausible deniability.
Trump’s words have also had the effect of uniting a Democratic Party that just last week appeared fractured along racial and political lines. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had openly criticized the Squad in a New York Times interview and was met with swift pushback from Ocasio-Cortez, who accused her of being “outright disrespectful” to the women of color.
When Trump sided with Pelosi against the Squad, hoping to exploit the division to his advantage, the House speaker may have realized she needed to get on the right side of this battle and moved swiftly to condemn Trump. She rightly sided with her party members in a strongly worded message on Twitter saying Trump’s “plan to ‘Make America Great Again’ has always been about making America white again.”
Trump literally proved the Squad’s point and made clear that outspoken women of color in Congress were problematic to the white wealthy establishment, forcing Pelosi to adjust her liberal views to step in line and back her colleagues. The liberal leader who earlier this year condemned Representative Omar’s remarks in a resolution about anti-Semitism, was given the chance to prove to the Squad that she is on the side of congress members of color.
Even better, the president is now in the official record as being condemned as a racist by a leading lawmaker. In speaking to her resolution aimed at the president, Pelosi said on the floor of the House: “Every member of this institution, Democratic and Republican, should join us to condemn the president’s racist tweets.” Her use of the word “racist” to describe the president triggered a debate about long-standing rules based on colonial traditions to not insult the head of state—as if Trump has adhered to any reasonable standards of decorum in his relentless insults aimed at the country and its people. In the end, Pelosi’s words prevailed and went on record with the passage of the resolution.
What we can count on from a president like Trump is that when he makes an outrageous statement, he rarely, if ever, backtracks. His go-to tactic has been to double down on his extremism, because in Trump’s world, apologizing is a sign of weakness. And so he stepped even deeper into the morass of his own making by reiterating the sentiments of his offensive tweets in public a day after firing them off, saying, “If you are not happy here, then you can leave.” He said it not once or twice, but five times in the span of a few sentences.
He then proceeded to go even further in justifying his language, saying, “A lot of people love it by the way. A lot of people love it,” prompting responses from white supremacists who chorused that they did indeed love it. One person posted to the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, “This is the kind of WHITE NATIONALISM we elected him for.” Trump waded so deeply into the rhetoric and imagery of white supremacist ideology that he has left no doubt in anyone’s mind.
Trump’s words have also helped draw attention to the culpability of the entire Republican Party. A very small handful of Republicans have mildly chastised him. Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska issued criticisms that stopped short of calling Trump a racist, and four House Republicans voted alongside Democrats on Pelosi’s resolution condemning Trump’s racism. But the overwhelming majority of Republicans have not only stood by the president silently but have openly defended him.
House Minority Speaker Kevin McCarthy shamelessly turned the tables on the victims of Trump’s hate and claimed, “Let’s not be false about what is happening here today. This is all about politics and beliefs of ideologies.” He laughably added, “This is about socialism versus freedom,” as if a label of socialism—if that even applied in the cases of the four congresswomen—was a reason to deserve racist targeting. So Trump’s words have clarified not only his own racism but that of his party.
Hours after the House resolution passed, Democratic Congressman Al Green introduced articles of impeachment against Trump in the face of opposition from his party’s leadership. Coming so soon after Democrats passed the resolution sent a strong message that lawmakers’ patience is wearing thin. Even though the measure failed, the fact that 95 Democrats did vote to support it is a good sign.
Just as Pelosi had to make her choice, the Democratic Party as a whole has to decide which side it is on. Pursuing impeachment offers Democrats a clear path to prove their anti-racist credentials. Trump deserves impeachment on a list of issues so long that several books have been written describing his crimes and offenses. But if this incident is what it takes to push Democrats to act, so be it.
Trump’s defenders have got to know and understand that history will not judge this president kindly. He has drawn a very clear line in the sand that invites every American to choose a side. The clarity of his racism is a useful tool to measure where America stands. The closet racists who voted for him in droves in 2016 are more exposed than ever as the villains in this epic fight of good versus evil. While millions of Americans tacitly echo the “go back to where you came from” sentiment toward people of color, millions more boldly respond, saying, “We are here to stay and we will prevail.”
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV,…