On April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, third-grade teacher Jane Elliott decided to teach her students about the dangers of the “us versus them” mentality. On the first day of the exercise, she informed her students that blue-eyed children were superior to those with brown eyes.
She gifted the blue-eyed children special favors such as extra recess time, while openly disparaging the brown-eyed children as lazy or stupid. Elliott encouraged the blue-eyed children to avoid contact with those with brown eyes.
The results of the experiment were profound. The blue-eyed children quickly began to think of themselves as superior, while the brown-eyed children internalized their inferiority to the point that their academic achievement began to suffer.
Thankfully, these group differences melted away after the end of the exercise, but Elliott had imparted an important lesson to her students: meaningless group distinctions can have very real negative consequences.
And so it is over 50 years later, where those in positions of authority continue to exacerbate group differences for political gain. No one demonstrates this better than President Donald Trump, who branded his candidacy and subsequent presidency as “America First.”
On its face, “America First” means just that – the United States will be a world leader in the global economy, in military strength, in cultural exports.
America First also means that we should prioritize our nation’s singular interests, even if it makes the world collectively more dangerous, more fragmented or more polluted. And yet America First has one final meaning, one that suggests we should prioritize the comfort of Americans over the safety and security of all others.
Nativism, or the ideology that native-born individuals should be prioritized above naturalized citizens, is nothing new in the United States.
One need only to look at the treatment of Italians, the Irish, the Chinese, or Eastern Europeans throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries to see that America has always treated those born elsewhere as second-class citizens. But recent years have seen a rise in nativism that would not look out of place in mid-century Europe.
Part of this is a reaction to the increasing status of immigrants and people of color in this country.
Legal discrimination is largely a thing of the past, and if demographic trends continue, whites will lose the majority status within a few decades.
As racial and ethnic minorities have climbed the social ladder and continued their calls for equality, whites now face a social landscape where they feel their superiority is threatened. As a result, their own group identities become more salient – white, American, etc. – and everyone else is seen as the equivalent to Jane Elliott’s brown-eyed students.
Rather than try to assuage these racial and ethnic tensions, Trump has decided to exacerbate them. Earlier this week, the president took to Twitter to claim that four Democratic congresswomen, “who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe” should “go back and fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Despite the fact that three of the four women were born in the United States, and all are U.S. citizens, Trump’s nod to the xenophobic elements of his base is unmistakable. When chants of “Send her back” broke out at a rally in North Carolina, Trump paused his speech and basked in the nativist fervor he had wrought.
It was not always this way. The scene in North Carolina provided a stark contrast to the presidential campaign of 2008, when the late U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., aggressively countered suggestions from his supporters that former President Barack Obama was an Arab.
Though McCain differed from Obama on important policy issues, he never sank to the level of using demagoguery to win votes. Trump is a different sort of Republican, however, and given the support received in North Carolina, we can probably expect more of this sort of rhetoric going into 2020.
As Jane Elliott taught her third-graders 50 years ago, group identities are easily manipulated by those in power. Given how easily we succumb to an us-versus-them mentality, one has to wonder where that rhetoric will take us.
Nick Anspach is an assistant professor of political science at York College of Pennsylvania in York, Pa.