When President Trump tweeted his racist remarks Sunday, asking why certain Democratic congresswomen don't just "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came," he did not just take aim at the four women of color — three of whom were born in the U.S.
He did so using a taunt that has long, deeply entrenched roots in American history: Why don't you just go back where you came from?
The question doesn't always appear in those precise words, nor does it always surface in the same situations. And it doesn't always get directed at the same groups of people — far from it, in fact. But more often than not, it conveys the same sentiment: You — and others like you — are not welcome here.
"There have been different phrases that have been used," says Michael Cornfield, a scholar of rhetoric at George Washington University, "but the idea that we don't have any more room for people, or those people don't look like us, this is a long, ugly strain in American history."
Jennifer Wingard, a University of Houston professor who has looked at rhetoric and immigrant communities, traces this sentiment at least to 1798, when the U.S. passed a series of laws — together known as the the Alien and Sedition Acts — that were aimed at making citizenship more difficult for immigrants and deportation easier for U.S. authorities to carry out.
"The legislation is actually constructed for the ability to remove immigrants who are saying things against the U.S. government," she says, explaining that these laws were passed in a tumultuous political climate.
"We were starting to see different political parties and different politicians arguing for different ways that the government should be run. And it just happened that politically, they could try to maintain and try to withhold the status quo by putting it on the backs of immigrants."
Those laws established a pattern, she says, that would resurface with new waves of immigration and new perceived threats — from the Great Famine in Ireland and the Spanish-American War to the Great Depression and the attacks on Sept. 11.
"Every wave of immigration that gets in sees the next wave as the threat. That is the wave that is now going to take the jobs, that is now going to take things away," Wingard says. "The latest flow in is always the one that seems the most threatening."
Alan Kraut, a scholar at American University who is writing a history of anti-immigrant feeling in the U.S., says he saw this kind of thing play out firsthand when he was a child growing up in the Bronx.
"When kids had a fight in the street and the kids were from different ethnic groups, one kid would often say to the other: 'You and your parents go back where you came from,' " Kraut recalls.
"You know, it could mean Brooklyn. But it could also mean go back where you came from — you know, Russian Jews who came to the United States, southern Italians who came to the United States, Puerto Ricans newly arrived," he continues. "So when this came out of the mouth of this president who's from Queens, it sounded almost like a child saying that in my memory on the streets of New York."
The process renews often, Wingard says, and she says the sentiment remains steady even if the names of the targeted groups change.
"There's a fancy theoretical term — it's called a palimpsest," says Jennifer Wingard, a rhetoric scholar at the University of Houston. A palimpsest, she explains, is a text that has been erased and overwritten — but that nevertheless continues to bear many of the markings and meanings largely concealed beneath the new writing.
"They carry these sentiments that we have seen over centuries, but then they get repurposed for the current moment — and a phrase like that [racist taunt] becomes almost like a shorthand for anti-immigrant sentiment," Wingard says. "You know, 'go back where you came from' is the same as 'go back to your own country' is the same as 'you are not allowed here' is the same as 'no immigrants allowed.' Yet it carries all of this historical shorthand with it."
Cornfield says it's partly the statement's variability that makes it so powerful.
"It plays to the fear that somehow America is getting too full or that the mixing of ethnicities and races would somehow aggravate issues," he says. "It's a potent phrase and part of its potency is its ambiguity."
It's simplicity, too.
"When you use a phrase like this, you're just asking people to forget about context and forget about policy choices," he adds, "and just get angry at people who don't look or sound like you do."
NOEL KING, HOST:
Four U.S. Congresswomen, all women of color, held a news conference yesterday. They denounced racist remarks that President Trump made over the weekend. They said he's promoting a white nationalist agenda. But the president doubled down, at one point tweeting in all caps, quote, "if you are not happy here, you can leave," exclamation point. That kind of language has deep roots in this country. Here's NPR's Andrew Limbong.
ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Sometimes it happens in a schoolyard. Sometimes it happens on a bus or in a store. There was that viral video from 2017 of it happening in an Arkansas Walmart - a woman telling another shopper to go back to Mexico.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...Run your mouth. Go back to Mexico.
EVA HICKS: Listen - I said, excuse me.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Go back, wherever you're from.
LIMBONG: For Alan Kraut, it was something he heard growing up in New York City.
ALAN KRAUT: When kids had a fight in the street and the kids were from different ethnic groups, one kid would often say to the other, you and your parents, go back where you came from.
LIMBONG: Kraut's a professor of history at American University, and he's working on a book about nativism in America.
KRAUT: And, you know, it could mean Brooklyn, but it could also mean, go back where you came from - were you, you know, Russian Jews who came to the United States, Southern Italians who came to the United States, Puerto Ricans newly arrived.
LIMBONG: Jennifer Wingard is a professor of rhetoric at the University of Houston. She sees this type of sentiment dating back to 1798 with John Adams and the Alien and Sedition Acts aimed at Western European immigrants.
JENNIFER WINGARD: It actually is constructed for the ability to remove immigrants who are saying things against the U.S. government - should be able to remove these people whether they are here legally or not, to get rid of them and send them home, send them back to their own country.
LIMBONG: The language of American nativism - that you, the immigrant, are beneath me, the quote-unquote "native-born" - can be traced back to the mass migration of the last half of the 1800s, says Kraut, and it's had its American boosters ever since.
KRAUT: Madison Grant, who is a noted early 20th century nativist.
LIMBONG: A eugenicist who believed that non-Nordic European immigrants were ruining the blood pool.
KRAUT: Father Coughlin on the radio in the 1930s.
LIMBONG: That's Father Charles Coughlin, an anti-Semitic radio evangelist. Nina Wallace says newspaper owner V.S. McClatchy used to rail on about how Japanese people could never assimilate into American culture.
NINA WALLACE: They never cease being Japanese, you know. No matter how many years, how many generations they've been in this country, they are always something other than American.
LIMBONG: Wallace works at Densho, a Seattle-based oral storytelling project dedicated to Japanese Americans put into camps during World War II. She says exclusionary rhetoric became law once again with the Renunciation Act of 1944, a law aimed at getting Japanese Americans to renounce their U.S. citizenship.
WALLACE: They'd been, you know, incarcerated for a couple years already - sort of encouraging them to renounce their American citizenship and, you know, in quotes, like, "go back to Japan."
LIMBONG: Now we have the latest example. Rhetoric professor Jennifer Wingard guard says the specific phrasing of, go back home, back to your country, might change depending on the year, but the sentiment behind it remains clear.
WINGARD: Go back to where you came from is the same as go back to your own country, is the same as you are not allowed here, is the same as no immigrants allowed.
LIMBONG: And there is nothing new about that idea.
Andrew Limbong, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF OLDTWIG'S "WILD COAST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.