Historian: Ending DACA isn’t about the rule of law. It’s about race.

Historians in the News
tags: Trump, DACA



Christopher Petrella is a lecturer in American cultural studies at Bates College. He is completing his first book on the history of white supremacy in 20th-century New England.

... According to the liberal Center for American Progress, roughly 84 percent of DACA recipients identify as Latino, 9 percent as Asian, 2 percent black and 2 percent white. 

This racial configuration matters, because race often serves as the ground upon which questions of belonging and claims to citizenship are decided in this country. Eliminating a program whose beneficiaries are overwhelmingly people of color demonstrates the continued potency of political appeals to white racial resentment. But it also illuminates the politics of forgiveness, setting the vulnerability of DACA recipients in sharp contrast to the American tradition of unconditional white amnesty. In short, the history of amnesty in the United States is necessarily a history of race itself. 

Unconditional white amnesty, as I argued in Black Perspectives, can most clearly be seen in the aftermath of the Civil War. In 1868 President Andrew Johnson — a politician with whom Donald Trump is often compared — enacted the most ubiquitous amnesty policy in American history as a way of “re-assimilating treasonous white confederates who had taken up arms against the United States during the Civil War.” 

That blanket amnesty built on smaller piecemeal pardons issued in preceding years. From December 1863 to July 1868, Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Johnson issued five proclamations “offering amnesty and pardon to persons who had been or were concerned in the late rebellion against the lawful authority of the Government of the United States.” Though the first five presidential pardons excluded amnesty for a number of high-ranking Confederate officers, Johnson’s Proclamation 179 on Christmas Day of 1868 granted “general amnesty” and unambiguous pardons to everyone who had fought for the Confederacy. By early 1869, over one million white Confederate soldiers were granted full amnesty, a figure that represents nearly 20 percent of the Confederacy’s nonenslaved population. 

Race determined civic identity after the Civil War, with whiteness trumping loyalty to country. Johnson’s desire to assimilate people into society did not extend to black Americans. In fact, he labored to exclude them from postwar restitution and civic participation. Just three years prior to Proclamation 179, Johnson overturned Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 — an idea conceived by formerly enslaved black ministers in Georgia — to offer 40 acres of land to recently emancipated black persons. 

In 1872, Congress passed the Amnesty Act, which extended Johnson’s pardon and returned the right to hold public office to most secessionists who had committed treason during the war. ...

Trump may not know this history, but he understands the racial politics of amnesty well. For years, Trump has expressed his intention to curb migration for both documented and undocumented individuals by “restor[ing] law and order” to the United States, promising “no amnesty” in a country that has, in fact, long granted amnesty to white people. ... 




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