A few years after the Second World War, renowned black theologian and author Howard Thurman wrote:
During times of war hatred becomes quite respectable, even though it has to masquerade often under the guise of patriotism. To even the casual observer during the last war it was obvious that the Pearl Harbor attack by the Japanese gave many persons in our country an apparent justification for indulging all of their anticolored feelings…. During the early days of the war I noticed a definite rise in rudeness and overt expressions of color prejudice, especially in trains and other public conveyances. It was very simple; hatred could be brought out into the open, given a formal dignity and a place of respectability.
Thurman’s words, from his most well-known work, Jesus and the Disinherited, were a critique of early twentieth-century American nativism. Thurman saw in Jim Crow America what he believed was an echo of European fascism. His work and mentorship would later inspire a young Martin Luther King Jr., then a student at Boston University, where Thurman served as the university’s chapel dean. But the moral clarity of Thurman’s critique did not discount the justifications that lay behind many Americans’ fear of outsiders: after all, this was the era of global war, international fascism, and ascendant communism. Surely, if any people, at any time, had reason for fear and anxiety, it was Americans in the early 1940s.
We now reflect upon the nativism of that time with shame and regret. Anxieties around national security led to the imprisonment of American citizens of Japanese descent in internment camps; these same concerns fueled quotas that capped the entry of immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe. The fear of scarcity prompted wealthy Americans to shut out racial minorities and the poor from the security of home ownership.
Today, fear in the United States comes in the form of Islamic terrorists, recalcitrant black bodies, and impoverished migrants from Latin America. These fears emerged in the campaign promises of the American president-elect, and continue to shape European responses to the Syrian refugee crisis. Yet the world is not more frightening than it has ever been—despite recent claims—nor is hatred justified by ongoing crises. Such claims belie a long history, in which immigrants in the United States have been successively targeted as a threat to security or as taxing limited resources. These claims forget a past in which minorities have been seen as illegitimate inheritors of the nation’s wealth. And they ignore a simple truth—that security is not adequate justification for hate speech, walls, and violence.
In our Winter 2017 issue, we present pieces that examine the interconnected histories of nativism and emigration, race and immigration. Migration is more than the movement of individuals and communities. It stands for a process that is fundamental to the creation of difference, the reshaping of societies, and the foundation of new ways of life. It reflects hope—migration promises relief from present sufferings and a better future. But it also holds its own horrors. Today, we witness how those fleeing war and destitution are greeted with derision and violence in Europe and the United States. Migration is about yearning, but also the terror that comes with difference and dislocation.
Science and religion each play a central role in conditioning the origin, unfolding, and reception of migration. Both contribute to our understanding of difference—racial, religious, or otherwise—and of how we should respond to that difference. Both shape the contexts that create and absorb migrations; both color the lives of those in transit and those at home. Our focus, then, is to examine this interaction of science, religion, and migration in order to better understand migration in its tangled, dangerous complexity. Our approach is necessarily transnational, of interest to historians and scholars, as well as those troubled by the realities of the present.
Image from Flickr via European Commission DG ECHO