A burning cross on the southern border

On Feb. 24, 1956, following the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, Virginia Democratic Senator Harry Byrd declared his intention to spearhead a political strategy of “Massive Resistance.” A scheme designed to stop school integration in his home state, Byrd’s resistance to desegregation was not a unique position for White lawmakers throughout the United States. But the success of his particular program has affirmed his notoriety in the annals of civil rights history.

Through a coordinated effort of political obstruction in the Virginia Statehouse, Byrd and his compatriots succeeded in starving integrating school districts of state funds and bringing about outright closings for integrated schools while publicly exhorting White Virginians to join him.

Their efforts, and the ensuing lawsuits, yielded a de facto shutdown of regular public schooling in Virginia for a period of nearly five years — not to mention a swell of activity by the Ku Klux Klan meant to terrorize the courageous Black Virginians who dared to demand the education that was their right.

Mobilizing an imagined ideal of American society founded on Whiteness, Byrd, his allies in the Virginia statehouse and his ardent White supporters declared war on an expansive vision of American life that dared to look beyond narrow categories of belonging. Not simply a cynical political ploy confined to budget battles in the statehouse, Byrd’s approach tapped into the political imagination of integration opponents through a resounding war cry. 

Which brings us to the present day. Our latest government shutdown, the third of 2018, began on Dec. 22 and is now the longest in United States history. This most recent budget battle fundamentally breaks down along the lines of funding for a wall on the United States’ southern border with  Mexico — a marquee part of President Trump’s 2016 election messaging and, in the intervening years, his most enduring policy agenda item.

Throughout the holidays, I heard many of my liberal-leaning family members snidely remark that building a 10-foot wall would simply result in a spike of 11-foot ladder sales or furthermore that those wishing to enter the United States could simply tunnel under a constructed barrier. Such a line of argument dangerously oversimplifies the underpinnings of a proposed wall — and not just because data from the Office of Immigration Statistics indicates that illegal border crossings into the U.S. are down by 90 percent since 2000. Meanwhile, the vast majority of those living without documentation in the United States initially entered the country with a legal visa. 

President Trump and those most fervently in support of a border wall aren’t stupid. They understand the physical limitations of a wall or barrier or fence — humans have been finding ways around fortifications since they first emerged 6,500 years ago.

“Build the wall” is not about data-driven policies, immigration reform or an actual solution to the physics of undocumented migration. In our hearts and our minds the wall is a symbol, a compelling image which conveys a simple message: If you are not White, you are not welcome here. And not only are you unwelcome, but you are an enemy, the expanse of your foreign territory crudely demarcated by a barricade — an implement of war.

Our national discourse about immigration skewed along such lines cannot be about ladders or tunnels, the reality-ladden trappings of policy implementation. Like the burning crosses that scarred the front lawns and churches of Virginia during Massive Resistance, and continue to this day, a southern border wall is about a declaration of war upon those who do not fit an imagined narrative of “American-ness,” Whiteness.

To ground an understanding of the wall (or fence or any other form it might take) in the the world of reality sells short its true metaphysical significance, not of disputes surrounding border security or questions of human rights to migration, but as today’s Massive Resistance — a political manifestation of an imagined America.

Ryan Kambich is a first-year Private Interest and the Public Good masters student. He is the Opinions & Editorials Editor for the Newswire from Deerfield, Ill.