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.

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