Editor’s Note: Karthick Ramakrishnan is a professor at the University of California, Riverside, and founding director of its Center for Social Innovation. The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion at CNN.
“Go back to your country” and “love it or leave it” – those were taunts thrown at me 28 years ago in high school. When the President of the United States tweeted something similar about members of Congress on Sunday, it brought back some painful memories but also some hopeful ones, that our communities can resist the forces of racial exclusion and demagoguery.
Racial tensions and disputes over American foreign policy were commonly discussed in the early 1990s, with news of the Persian Gulf War and the Rodney King beating. I was the editor of our school newspaper, and had written some critical opinion pieces about our domestic and foreign policies, as many editorial writers do. However, some students at the school were not happy with my outspokenness. They tried to shut me down through intimidation, putting up “wanted posters” across the school saying that if I didn’t like how things were going in America, I should just leave the country and go back to India.
I had certainly felt my minority status before that incident. This was conservative, small-town central Massachusetts, a region at political odds with a state that has sent liberal stalwarts like Ted Kennedy and Elizabeth Warren to the US Senate. And I was one of about 10 nonwhites in a high school of 1,600 students (one of the others was my younger brother). Whatever racial exclusion our family had felt was of the subtler New England variety – not much in the way of racial slurs or threats of violence, but plenty of jokes and innuendo.
The school leadership’s initial reaction to the incident was not encouraging; the principal thought that the “wanted posters” were uncalled for, but he didn’t think they were racist. We got to know each other better, however, and over time he came to understand how minority students experienced life in our school. He must have spoken to his friends and colleagues, too, because when I gave my valedictory graduation speech a few months later, pointing out the danger of false patriotism implied in “love it or leave it,” I got a standing ovation from most in the room – students, teachers, and parents alike.
What I said during my graduation speech was that critics like myself did not love America any less than those with opposing points of view. Indeed, criticism had a long and storied history in the United States to make the country better and stronger. I also noted that those seeking to shut down opposing points of view by wrapping themselves in the flag were actually peddling in a false kind of patriotism. True patriotism entailed listening intently to everyone, cheerleaders and critics alike, and figuring out ways to collectively improve America.
Those guiding principles are still applicable today, nearly three decades later. Of course, it is far more concerning when it’s not simply high school students using intimidating and racist expressions like “go back to your country” when they’re unhappy with someone’s point of view. When it’s the President of the United States doing it – with the full power of the bully pulpit, command of the executive branch, and support from conservative news and talk radio – the damage to American norms can be far greater. But only if these actions go unchallenged.
How can we repair the damage that has already been done? First, we need to make it abundantly clear, as I tried to do nearly 30 years ago, that rhetoric like “go back to your country” is not only anti-immigrant, but is also anti-American. Immigrants have been critical to America’s advancement throughout its history. We also need to make it clear that “love it or leave it” is not a patriotic move that makes America great, but rather one that weakens our country by silencing those who wish to make it better.
We also need to make sure that this pushback does not fall into our conventional pattern of Democrat versus Republican, liberal versus conservative. Independents, moderate Republicans, and even principled conservative Republicans need to see this as an important and defining moment, to affirm the value of immigrants as well as non-immigrants, and the importance of listening not only to those who share our points of view but also those who don’t. So far, too many principled conservatives and moderate Republicans have been silent.
Finally, we need to make sure that our conversations on immigration and race get grounded in the day-to-day realities of local communities, rather than through the outrage machines of national politics, social media, and talk radio. In places across the country, like in my small hometown in central Massachusetts, we need to make sure that elected officials, employers, faith leaders, and other civic leaders are all engaged, and can affirm the fundamental value and dignity of their employees, their parishioners, their students, and their neighbors. These conversations also need to happen in places with longstanding immigration like Southern California where I currently live. I hope that my elementary school children never have to experience what I had to endure.
This moment is not simply a political food fight between the President and his critics. The claims being made go to the core of what it means to be American. And it is up to us, individually as well as collectively, to steer our country away from the sirens of false patriotism and to uphold the principles of inclusion that have consistently made our country great.