President Trump's plan to pen an executive order that would stop granting citizenship to children born to noncitizens in the United States is more than a swipe at immigrants. It is an attack on African Americans.
That's because the Constitution's 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States," was written specifically to protect the rights of formerly enslaved people. At the time of its passage in 1868, political violence was a reality, and recently freed blacks trying to eke out an existence faced brutal reprisals both from defeated Confederates and Northern racists.
Blacks face a similar moment now, but we don't face it alone. As recent mail bombs and shootings have shown us, political dissenters are not safe in their offices, Jews are not safe in their synagogues, blacks are not safe in grocery stores, and none of us can safely assume that law equals justice. That kind of existential uncertainty won't be limited to minority groups if Trump is allowed to independently change the Constitution's meaning. All of us will be in danger.
That's how some experts on race and the law are viewing this. Among them is Dr. Tim Golden, director of the Donald Blake Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture at Walla Walla University in Washington state.
"The notion that executive power could be used to nullify explicit constitutional text should be frightening to anybody — black or white," said Golden, a former criminal defense attorney. "It should be especially disturbing to black people. What it says is the historical origins of the amendment don't really matter. Black people are erased, but the targets here are immigrants.
"It says that you can sort of take your pick of an oppressed group and wipe out their status with the stroke of a pen."
Most legal experts say the president's plan to strip away birthright citizenship through the use of an executive order is unconstitutional. Still, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R., S.C.), upon hearing Trump's plan, said that he would introduce legislation mirroring the president's proposal.
Though many political observers say it's all a publicity stunt meant to excite the GOP base on the eve of the all-important midterm elections, let's suppose for a moment that Trump and his allies actually follow through. The results would go well beyond the immigrant community.
That's because the 14th Amendment is about more than birthright citizenship. In fact, it is one of the most frequently cited amendments in Supreme Court cases, because it also guarantees due process and equal treatment under the law. And if Trump, or any president, can eradicate such safeguards with the stroke of a pen, no one in America will be safe from government tyranny.
African Americans know this well. Or at least we should, because it was the unequal treatment of blacks that necessitated the 14th Amendment in the first place.
In 1865, shortly after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime, Mississippi and South Carolina — two of the vanquished states in the Confederacy — penned a group of laws known as the Black Codes. Those laws made it a crime for blacks to be vagrant or without a job.
The laws were used to force blacks into signing yearly contracts to work for extremely low wages. If they didn't sign, they risked arrest, and if they were arrested, they could be made to work for free.
The 14th Amendment was meant to alleviate some of the legal discrimination that blacks faced, by providing freed slaves with citizenship, due process, and equal treatment. Now the president seeks to ignore that very amendment while stripping away the rights of immigrants.
But if he's allowed to do so, who's next? Will he decide that Jews are no longer in vogue? Will he decide that Native Americans must be eradicated? Will he decide that Muslims can no longer be Americans, or that men can subjugate women?
None of these things is beyond the realm of possibility, and while an executive order from the president would surely make its way to the Supreme Court, the court — with its conservative majority — could very well agree with the president.
"If the Supreme Court says the president can do this, it does two things," Golden said. "It says African Americans have no rights as citizens given the historical origins of the 14th Amendment, and it also says we can substitute immigrants for African Americans and we can deny citizenship rights to people who were born in this country."