Is the Klan Back?

By: Andrew J. Pragacz

The current right-wing’s narrative on Muslim immigration, from policy proposals to talking points, is strikingly similar to how the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s discussed the influx of eastern and southern European Catholics and Jews. During the 1920s the Klan sought to end immigration of what they called “the criminal, unassimilable, feeble minded, religiously intolerant scum of the earth,” They were referring mainly to Italians, Poles, Greeks, Russians, Slavs, Serbs, and other groups who were immigrating to the US at that time. They also had no love for Irish-Catholics. We know their history of hate against black people. Similarly, racist presidential candidate, Donald Trump, has called for “suspending” Muslims immigration to the US. There is no question, just as the Klan was so wrong about Catholics and Jews in the 1920s, they are also so wrong on immigration policy today.

For the past several months I’ve researched the KKK’s resurgence in the 1920s for an exhibit at the Bundy Museum of History & Art on Binghamton’s time as the KKK’s New York State headquarters (see the ad in this newspaper for more details). While parallels between the rise of Trump and racist-fascist movements can be dangerously overdrawn, I was struck by how alike the KKK and the current right wing politicians access the immigrant “threat” almost 100 years apart. Each narrative is a concern with maintaining/reclaiming political and economic white supremacy through selective immigration restrictions based on religion. These policies are animated by a politics of fear relying on conspiracy theories, arguing that religious and ethnic communities are sources of crime and terroristic violence.

Just like the 1920s KKK, the right argues for immigration restrictions of religious adherents based on their presumed inability to assimilate to US culture. They argue that our new immigrants reject “tolerant American society” and that motivates criminal behavior. The Klan charged Catholics with being unassimilable due to their allegiance to the Pope and patronization of parochial schools. The Klan also traded in the belief that the Catholic Church meant to install the Pope as dictator of the US by electing Catholics to public office. They also blamed the deadly bombing of a public school by an elected Catholic board member on his alleged belief that Protestants were heretics .

These days right-wingers claim Muslim immigrants and their descendants are incapable of assimilation and are dangerously un-American. High-profile mass killings in Orlando and San Bernardino carried out by people who are Muslim, fuel the arguments fomenting, for the right, religious intolerance. The right wing continues to perpetuate a moral panic over Sharia Law in the US. Trump recently equated re-settlement of Syrian refugees with military invasion, calling it a “Trojan horse.”

The great irony, of course, is that neither the US right nor the Klan have any real commitment to basic American values such as multiculturalism or the separation of church and state. The Klan proposed compulsory public school Bible study for all children, just as today’s right wing demands public school prayer and imposes “intelligent design” curricula. Only Protestant Christian values, both agree, are acceptable influences on public policy. It’s also unclear how many white US citizens (both Trump and Clinton supporters) would pass Trump’s proposed ideological test designed to “admit into this country only those who share American values and respect our people.”

These policy positions, however, are not and never were about ideological consistency, safety, or protecting “American” values. Rather, they are both part of a larger political strategy on the part of the ruling class to win elections. They work to maintain their power by dividing the working class by making false promises to give more economic, political, and cultural benefits to the white working class. They tried it in the 19th century; they tried it in the 1920s; and they are trying it again today.




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