The Painful Roots of Trump’s ‘Go Back’ Comment

It was there in 1882, when the Chinese Exclusion Act sought to curb the number of Chinese workers and families entering the United States to find day-labor work, from building railroads to doing laundry. And it was there in the 1840s, when anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States led to the creation of a nativist political party designed to weed out foreign influence.

One of the prime examples of the “go back” sentiment has roots in the American Colonization Society, a white-led organization that sought to send freed slaves back to Africa. Fodei Batty, an assistant professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, wrote in a 2016 Washington Post analysis that some freed slaves went willingly because they were “disillusioned with the prospects of racial equality in America,” while others who wanted to stay argued that the effort to resettle slaves was a thinly veiled way to purge the United States of black people.

Descendants of those who stayed, Mr. Batty said in an interview, are now familiar with the sort of knee-jerk “go back” slur meant to immediately single out someone from a group where one trait — usually whiteness — is the default.

“You’re making this claim only to adopt a sense of place,” Mr. Batty said, “to put someone in a sense of place and give a sense of the other, that someone is different, without even having an understanding of the implications of those words.”

For African-Americans, the idea of returning to Africa, originally advocated by some whites as a better alternative than servitude, now persists as an angry slur. Outside a Trump rally in Cleveland in 2016, a man was filmed shouting “go back to Africa” at a black woman who was there to protest Mr. Trump.

“Y’all brought us here,” the woman retorted.

From the 4,800 responses The Times received, a common theme seemed to be encountering the slur when speaking up in white spaces, with the targets not limited to African-Americans. Samantha Edwards, a 47-year-old administrative assistant who grew up in Las Vegas, also wrote to The Times to share her story.

In the mid-1990s, she said she and her mother were chased out of a restaurant by two white men who screamed at them to “go back to Mexico.” She said she and her mother had been speaking together in English before the men chased them. Ms. Edwards, who was born in the United States but is of Mexican descent, said her parents avoided teaching her Spanish so she could avoid some of the discrimination they felt.


more recommended stories

  • Putting a Positive Spin on Oil Exploration in the Arctic Refuge

    When the Trump administration first pushed.

  • On Politics: Trump Returns to N.R.A.’s Side

    Gun rights advocates have waged an.

  • President Trump Cancels Trip to Denmark After Greenland Spat

    WASHINGTON — President Trump on Tuesday.

  • Why the 2020 Criminal Justice Debate Is Completely Different

    Marijuana would be decriminalized, mass incarceration.

  • As Wildfires Get Worse, Insurers Pull Back From Riskiest Areas

    “It’s not necessarily the property that’s.

  • Julián Castro Qualifies for the Next Democratic Debate

    The former housing secretary Julián Castro.

  • Trump’s Rollback of Auto Pollution Rules Shows Signs of Disarray

    That means the process is now.

  • On Politics: Trump Prepares for Economic Trouble

    • Justice Department lawyers told the.

  • Jill Biden, Stressing Trump Matchup, Makes a Blunt Case for Her Husband

    Jill Biden laid out the political.

  • Apologies and Scorn Greet News of a Book by Mark Halperin

    Reports of a new book deal.

  • ‘I Am Sorry for Harm I Have Caused,’ Warren Tells Native American Forum – Video

    Channels & Shows Home Search U.S..

  • Elizabeth Warren to Appear at Native American Forum

    SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Senator Elizabeth.

  • ‘I Can Still Smell Him’: For 4 Legislators, This Law Is Personal

    Yuh-Line Niou told no one for.

  • On Politics: Trump’s Economic Conspiracy

    As the economy shows ominous signs,.

  • In Economic Warning Signals, Trump Sees Signs of a Conspiracy

    And signs of damage from Mr..

  • Julián Castro’s Obama Moment – The New York Times

    Mr. Castro divided his remarks into.

  • After Trump Body Shames Him, Supporter Says ‘I Love the Guy’

    Sometimes the self-declared greatest counterpuncher in.

  • U.S. Can Block Migrants Seeking Asylum, but Only in Some States, Appeals Court Rules

    A federal appeals court said Friday.

  • House Panel Will End Recess Early for Gun Safety Votes

    WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee,.

  • Lawmakers Accuse State Dept. of Defying Federal Law by Missing Deadlines for Yemen Reports

    WASHINGTON — In defiance of federal.

  • Debate Flares Over Afghanistan as Trump Considers Troop Withdrawal

    Skeptics say it is naïve to.

  • Trump’s Pittsburgh Speech Was a Paying Gig for Audience

    Thousands of union workers at a.

  • How Stephen Miller Rode an Anti-Immigration Wave to the White House

    Once a lonely cause, restrictionism had.

  • Israel’s Alliance With Trump Creates New Tensions Among American Jews

    A rabbi in St. Louis Park,.

  • In D.C., Trading Politics for a Paddle

    We launched into the Potomac River.

  • Joseph Kennedy III Said to Be Eying Edward Markey’s Massachusetts Senate Seat

    Mr. Kennedy delivered the Democratic response.

  • Eyeing Greenland, Trump Again Mixes Real Estate With Diplomacy

    WASHINGTON — Go ahead and file.

  • Peace Road Map for Afghanistan Will Let Taliban Negotiate Women’s Rights

    WASHINGTON — Roya Rahmani is neither.

  • After Trump Body Shames Him, Supporter Says ‘I Love the Guy’

    Sometimes the self-declared greatest counterpuncher in.

  • Fact-Checking Trump’s New Hampshire Rally

    What Trump Said “We have incredible.

  • Israel Says Rashida Tlaib Can Visit to See Her Grandmother

    This is a developing story. Please.

  • On Politics: Israel Denies Entry to Congresswomen

    • Despite ringing declarations of support.