Andrea Pitzer | Longreads | February 2017 | 8 minutes (1,600 words)
The history of atrocity is littered with the corpses of scapegoats. When it comes to convincing people that their problems have a simple answer, few narratives have been as effective as assigning responsibility for society’s ills to a vulnerable minority group. Yet to succeed, vilification requires effort.
A year and a half ago, Donald Trump declared his candidacy in a speech accusing Mexicans crossing the border of “bringing drugs … bringing crime” and being “rapists.” During his first week in office, President Trump took additional steps to make the image of dangerous aliens stick, signing an executive order on public safety on January 25. Receiving less attention than the order barring immigrants and nonimmigrants from seven countries that arrived two days later, the earlier decree called on the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to publish a weekly crime report detailing “a comprehensive list of criminal actions committed by aliens.”
Trump’s crime report is only the latest in a long history of a particular kind of institutionalized minority-bashing that goes back more than five hundred years. This history of scapegoating sheds light on how we got where we are today and gives some indication of what might happen next.
Two years after receiving authorization from the pope, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I launched the Spanish Inquisition in 1480 with an order establishing tribunals for “heretical depravity,” specifically listing unfaithful Jewish converts as targets. Authorities tracked suspects, drummed up witnesses, and tried more than a hundred thousand people, leading to the torture and execution of thousands.
Yet widespread criminalization and punishment of Jews under Spanish rule had begun nearly a century before the Inquisition and expanded over time. In 1465, the Arbitration Committee on the state of the nation provided a report to King Enrique IV claiming that Jews and “bad Christians” were regularly desecrating the sacramental Host. By the time the Inquisition began, Jews were tried in tribunals across Spain and its possessions, with as many as ninety witnesses gathered to testify against a given defendant. In 1490, Jews and converts were charged together with conjuring evil via a desecrated host and “the heart of a Christian child crucified on a Good Friday.”
Such pre-Enlightenment tactics transitioned cleanly into the modern era. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle focused on the supposed criminality of Asians, publishing stories about the menace that depraved Japanese immigrants posed to white culture (“sell[ing] their daughters for shameful purposes”). Earlier exclusionary legislation against Chinese immigrants as dangerous to America provoked discrimination and riots, with a mob burning down the Chinese quarter in Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1885, killing at least twenty-eight people and wounding several more. Across the ocean in England, anti-alien organizations formed, deliberately associating foreigners with filth and criminality in order to promote legal barriers to their entry.
Decades later in Germany, the Third Reich collected records of Jewish “crimes” through its Institute for Research of the Jewish Question. The newspaper Der Stürmer also had a department called “Letter Box” where citizens could mail Jewish offenses to be printed in the paper, illustrated with lurid drawings depicting crimes such as ritual child murder, echoing the slander of the Inquisition. Another publication, Neues Volk, was less rabid, contrasting ideal Aryan family life with features like “The Criminal Jew,” which offered ostensibly representative images of the Jewish criminal types portrayed as likely con men, drug dealers, or pickpockets.
Nazi Germany was not the only place in the twentieth century where targeted efforts to criminalize minority groups fostered mass murder. In Rwanda, broadcasts by Radio-Télévision Libre des Milles Collines orchestrated lethal violence and helped dehumanize Tutsis as “cockroaches” ahead of the 1994 genocide. In the Balkans during the same decade, radio broadcasts threatened that Muslim men were plotting to capture and enslave Serb women. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, this programming evolved into a signal for Serb militias to commit the very kinds of crimes that they accused the Bosnian Muslims of plotting.
Tarring racial, ethnic, or religious groups as dangerous criminals or obstacles to a purer bygone state has been used for centuries to splinter populations and turn communities against each other, inciting everything from riots and mass detention to pogroms and genocide. But it’s not even necessary to look as far back as Rwanda and the Balkan conflict to see the role institutions and propaganda can play in stigmatizing a group.
In Myanmar, more than 140,000 Muslim Rohingya were detained in refugee camps starting in 2012, victims of racist policies enforced in Rakhine state. Reports of a gang rape that year triggered community violence and riots that ended in the physical segregation of the group from the main population.
In their majority-Buddhist nation, Rohingya are often characterized as illegal immigrants as well, though many have lived in Myanmar for generations. Extremists have described them as animals and broadly depicted them as dangerous for decades, leading to a poisoned public discourse incapable for now of addressing the challenges brought on by shifting demographics.
From the Inquisition to Nazi Germany to Myanmar, these kinds of characterizations do not exist in isolation. They are carried over for further use and cross-pollinate. The day after Donald Trump was elected, a banner appeared in the capital city of Rakhine state in Myanmar, honoring his victory.
The current White House policy of showcasing the crimes of those termed “illegals” by Trump has an even more direct precursor in the form of the “black crime” tag on Breitbart.com. The tag has been used to promote allegations of gang rape by black men, as well as crime stories with white victims, nursing a siege mentality. Former executive chairman of Breitbart News Steve Bannon, now in the White House, appears to have brought the same methodology to Pennsylvania Avenue, switching pariah groups from African Americans to the millions of undocumented people among us.
Anxiety over fifth-column degeneracy is powerful, but reality is less dramatic and less terrifying. Reports up to the present day have consistently shown that immigrants have lower crime rates than native-born populations in the United States, with the most recent arrivals having the lowest crime rates of all. These kinds of facts have been measured and reported again and again, though those in leadership positions have frequently ignored or misrepresented evidence for at least a century.
In 1916, when Chicago Legal News summarized results of the annual report of the Commissioner General of Immigration for the United States, the authors noted that “no satisfactory evidence has yet been produced to show that immigration has resulted in an increase of crime disproportionate to the increase in the adult population.” Sweeping immigration restrictions directly and indirectly targeting Asians and Jews were nonetheless enforced in subsequent decades, helping to set the stage for Japanese American internment and exacerbating the plight of Jewish refugees during World War II.
Assigning a special status to real or imaginary crimes by a particular race or ethnicity allows a leader to isolate and vilify members of the group, generating support for vigilante action or official measures against them. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has for some time compiled a weekly “Top 5” report heralding news stories about its accomplishments. There appears to be no benefit to adding a weekly Department of Homeland Security report focused on undocumented residents’ offenses, beyond providing stories for outlets willing to carry cherry-picked true crime cases.
Historical context is everything. The United States is not the fledgling democracy in Myanmar, or the crippled republic of Weimar Germany. American courts quickly issued restraining orders halting Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees (though the Department of Justice has protested, claiming such action “second-guesses the President’s national security judgment”). Those who wish to stand against the possibility of mass arrests and deportation without due process have many ways to make themselves heard. There is no obligation for news organizations to carry stories compiled by government decree. Yet several outlets likely will.
Though the danger of these tactics is lessened by democratic institutions in the United States, it may be heightened here for other reasons. With control of a massive state surveillance apparatus and a population of more than 10 million in the targeted group of undocumented immigrants, the Trump administration will be working with a large enough pool that no one will have to invent Christian children’s hearts being ripped out. No one will have to gin up slander about Japanese men on the West Coast.
Comprising a population larger than that of New York City scattered across the nation, the undocumented are just like the rest of us. Some actual crimes will surely be committed. The government will no doubt find real offenses to record, sometimes graphic ones. Outlets willing to play ball will share powerful narratives that will be difficult for the public to parse and responsible journalists to frame from a broader perspective.
While we may not sit on the brink of repeating history’s worst crimes, this kind of attempt to single out a particular group as criminal only sows fear and hate. Historian Benzion Netanyahu once asked how in 1491, in a region of Spain not known for paranoid foolishness, could normal human beings carry out the work of madmen, trying and executing eight Jews for stealing the heart of a Christian child? It could happen, he noted, because of how the ground had been seeded, because of everything that had come before. “It could happen because the social atmosphere of the country had been prepared for it.”
Fact-checker: Matthew Giles