by Clif Stratton
This guest post is part of a series published in conjunction with the meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta. UC Press authors share insight into their research and stories that reflect this year’s conference theme, “Global Migrations: Empires, Nations, and Neighbors.” We hope these personal glimpses into their scholarship will inspire a broad community of readers. Come back for new posts every day between now and January 10th.
In the wake of the November attacks in Paris, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal issued an executive order prohibiting state agencies from resettling Syrian refugees in the state. In a letter to President Obama, Deal cited “intelligence gaps” in the federal resettlement program that threatened “the security of Georgians” and “the state’s valuable limited resources.”
Deal was not alone in his defiance of federal authority. Twenty-six other governors penned similar refusals.
Prominent Georgia clergy denounced Deal’s politicization of the Syrian civil war and the Paris attacks as an attempt to define the state’s borders and populace by national origin. In an act of defiant neighborliness, Bryan Wright, pastor at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, GA—along with World Relief Atlanta—helped organize the December resettlement of one Sunni Syrian family: Mohammad, Ebtesam, and their four-year-old son Hasan. The family arrived in Georgia after two and a half years of US and UN screening.
Wright argued that despite the governor’s efforts to freeze the application process for refugees seeking much needed public benefits, “the Church’s role and the calling of the Christian is to reach out with love for our neighbor, and our neighbor includes everyone, and especially those in need.”
Ebtesam told Atlanta’s WABE that “[we] want to live a full life. I want my son to have a good education and health.”
One cannot help but wonder whether education and health—the two basic human rights Ebtesam hopes to secure for her son—are two of the “valuable limited resources” Governor Deal argues he was elected to protect from outsiders.
Deal’s rejection of Syrians fleeing US-backed war and Wright’s defiance of the governor’s order recall earlier battles in Georgia over publicly funded resources—limited or otherwise—including education.
At the turn of the twentieth century, school officials and their allies brought to bear the politics of immigration, race, and colonialism on the schools they argued were vital to social harmony, state security, and economic development. Speaking before the legislature in 1889, University of Georgia Chancellor William Boggs made clear his anxiety over continued public support for black education. After falsely claiming that the state divided its school appropriation equally among whites and blacks, Boggs charged the legislature with upholding white nationalism: “We mean to hold this country. We, the white people.” He continued: “What shall we do with this alien [black] race? Nothing unkind or unchristian, but something to teach them and the nations of the world that we shall live in this country and rule it.” In its coverage of the speech, the Atlanta Journal noted “continued applause” from the legislators.
Writing in the Atlanta Constitution in 1906, chief editor Clark Howell warned against the surge in black school attendance despite underfunding, overcrowding, and double sessions. Howell saw black empowerment as a foreign intervention fomented from within the nation and as a threat to white supremacy: “While the Negro becomes a full-fledged CITIZEN, the white man, native to the soil and intelligent though unlettered, remains to all intents and purposes an ALIEN.”
Is Hasan’s eventual attendance at a Georgia public school a threat to the political power and sense of national identity of Deal and his supporters in the way that African American uplift threatened Bogg’s and Howell’s cherished notions of white supremacy after the end of Reconstruction? While Deal’s recent rhetoric about Syrian refugees is certainly not as overtly racist as that of Boggs or Howell (or current GOP frontrunner Donald Trump), it nevertheless carries with it the historical legacies of racial inequality and outward projections of US imperial power that continue to shape debates about who can and cannot become part of the social and political life of communities, states, and the nation.
Deal might tout the security of Georgians as paramount, but the question of who has access to resources (limited or otherwise) and therefore to political power is really what is at the center of these debates about Syrian refugees.
Along with half of his fellow governors, Deal has raised the specter of terrorism and brandished his national security credentials in order to guard the economic and political clout that he certainly enjoys and that many of his supporters believe themselves to possess as well. They argue that closed borders and awesome American military power is the only choice if we are to live in prosperity and security.
The choice is a false one. Expanded access to quality education and good health, along with a recognition of the dignity of marginalized people fleeing conflicts not of their own making is absolutely essential to achieve the kind of security Deal claims to hold dear.
Clif Stratton is Clinical Assistant Professor of History and Assistant Director of the Roots of Contemporary Issues program at Washington State University. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgia State University in Atlanta. Education for Empire: American Schools, Race, and the Paths of Good Citizenship is available for pre-order now.
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