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Mark Kirk’s racist attack on Tammy Duckworth’s patriotism was all too familiar to people of color

A white senator suggested a woman of color’s family can’t have military history. It’s all too typical.

Rep. Tammy Duckworth and Sen. Mark Kirk at an Illinois Senate debate. Reboot Illinois

Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and her family have always served their country. Not only is Duckworth currently a US representative, but before that she fought in Iraq in the US Army, and her family has long served in the US military — all the way back to the American Revolution.

With this record, Duckworth, a Democrat, on Tuesday officially managed to win the US Senate race in Illinois. But perhaps the most outstanding moment in this Senate race came when her Republican opponent, Sen. Mark Kirk, openly questioned her patriotism — seemingly because of her Asian heritage.

It happened at a debate. After Duckworth brought up her family’s long history of serving in the US military, Kirk said, “I had forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington.”

Duckworth, you see, was born in Thailand to an American father and a mother of Thai and Chinese descent. Kirk was suggesting that since Duckworth was born in another country, has ancestors from other countries, and is Asian American herself, she wasn’t being honest about her family’s long history of patriotism. (Kirk later apologized for the remark.)

To many people, this comment seemed to come out of nowhere. Most of the reactions on social media seemed to be of total disbelief. Where the hell did that come from?

But to people of color, people of non-Christian faiths, and especially immigrants, this is probably not a shock. Even when you have literal military service to your name, there’s always a higher bar for proving your patriotism if you’re not a white, native US citizen — to the point that even basic facts about your life will be questioned.

I’ve experienced this firsthand. Whenever I write an article or tweet that is in any way critical of American institutions (particularly policing and race issues), I know what the reaction from some people will be. I’ll almost certainly always get a few people telling me, “If you don’t like it here, go back to where you came from.” I’ll likely be called a “spic,” “beaner,” or “wetback” somewhere along the way. (For the record, I was born in Venezuela, not Mexico. My family moved here when I was 6 years old, and I am a US citizen.)

When these people see my criticisms of America, they don’t see someone who loves his country so much that he would like to see it work out its blemishes so everyone can thrive from its benefits. Instead, they see an outsider trying to tear down their country. After all, if I loved my country, why would I criticize it?

Never mind that they’ve also likely protested and criticized the state of America — maybe by marching at a Tea Party protest, rallying for Donald Trump, or taking over a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon. When they do it, it’s trying to get the country back on track to make it great again. When I do it, I’m unpatriotic.

I am not alone. This is typical of the nonwhite, non-native American experience.

People of color constantly have to prove their patriotism

“There’s always this litmus test of proving one’s worthiness to be here,” Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University, told Fusion. “Do you really deserve this citizenship?” She added, “It’s always this conversation when it comes to people of color — standing up for themselves, where all of a sudden you’re not patriotic. So as long as you’re being subservient and allowing white supremacist actions to continue, then we’re fine.”

This is a constant challenge for people of color, religious minorities, and immigrants in America.

Waleed Shahid, an organizer with the Working Families Party, gave a telling example to Fusion: After 9/11, many Muslim Americans felt like they would now be the subjects of suspicion and hate. So they turned to the American flag. “People in my community and the Muslim community put up the flag as a shield,” he said. “It was out of a real fear that if they didn’t do that, that people would be suspicious of them, that they would be hurt.”

Muslim Americans face this kind of suspicion all the time. Trump has made this explicit throughout his campaign: He proposed banning all Muslims from entering the country, with the inherent assumption that all Muslims are to be suspected of terrorism.

But there is a subtler version of this on the other side of the political spectrum. For example, when asked to rebut Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, Hillary Clinton has at times suggested that we need Muslims in the US not because they’re individuals that can, like everyone else, contribute something unique to the country, but because they can help us fight other Muslims.

“Millions of peace-loving Muslims raise their families across the country,” Clinton said after the Orlando nightclub shooting. “They are the most likely to recognize the insidious effects of radicalization before it’s too late, and the best positioned to help us block it. We should be intensifying contacts in those communities, not scapegoating or isolating them.”

Neda Maghbouleh, a University of Toronto sociology professor, explained the problem with this rhetoric to Vox’s Tara Golshan:

When [Clinton] frames the choices this way, it means that for Muslims to be “good” and worthy cultural and political citizens of America, they have to pledge fealty to the same law enforcement, media, and politicians that have been surveilling, jailing, and abusing them based on their names, their faith, and their physical appearances. Americans of other faiths can hold a range of views about the media and cops and politics without threat of having their citizenship revoked. “Good” Muslims simply can’t.

Trump did something similar to a federal judge earlier this year, arguing that Judge Gonzalo Curiel had “an absolute conflict” in presiding over a Trump University case because of his Mexican heritage. Never mind that Curiel was born in Indiana. Trump questioned whether Curiel’s loyalties were really to the country he was born in or the country his parents came from.

It’s not just the presidential campaigns. We see this time and time again in the broader public.

When NFL player Colin Kaepernick peacefully protests racism at a football game by refusing to stand for the national anthem, he’s characterized as a “traitor.” When a group of armed white people take over a federal building in Oregon to protest federal ownership of lands they’d like to exploit for resources, they’re just protesters — to the point that a jury nullified a criminal charge that described exactly what they did.

When Black Lives Matter protesters march against America’s long history of racism, they’re described as “terrorists” and “a hate group.” When overwhelmingly white Trump supporters suggest that America isn’t great (so it needs to be made great again), they’re seen by much of the public as simply patriotic voters.

You don’t have to think too much about the difference in these cases. If a person looks like what someone perceives as “a typical American” (read: white), he gets the benefit of the doubt when he questions his country’s flaws. If you don’t match the look of “a typical American” (read: nonwhite, religious minorities, or immigrants), your motives are immediately questioned.

Social science research has found, after all, that people of color are more likely to be seen as criminals, violent, and inherently less innocent — even when they’re children. They are also likely to be “othered” — seen as part of an outside group that doesn’t belong and can’t be trusted.

So whereas people like Sen. Kirk can go on about their patriotism and service to their country without any questions, people like Rep. Duckworth — even if they have actual military service to their name and family history — often have to clear extra hurdles to show that they even belong in America.


Watch: Fear and loathing at a Trump rally