On March 12, U.S. Representative Steve King of Iowa (R) retweeted a political cartoon championing Dutch politician Geert Wilders. “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny,” tweeted King. “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
King, who is Euro-American, has since doubled-down on his statements and recently commented that he “meant exactly what he said” when touting European civilization as a “superior civilization.” He also denied that advocating Europeans and Euro-Americans to have more babies was about race.
While King and others pretend that they can avoid talking about “race” by slyly replacing the word with “culture,” the concept, meaning, and intent are the same. We need to be clear about what this language means: some of our representatives in the U.S. Congress are openly promoting ethnic nationalism and the ideals of “white supremacy.”
“A champion for Western civilization”
Some of those in Congress are joining the 45th president in what can only be called the language of white supremacy – the idea that people from Europe, identified racially as “white,” have the greatest civilization and contain cultures that are unmatched by so-called inferior peoples from around the world.
45 and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, are currently leading the way on these ideals with executive orders that ban immigrants from certain Muslim-majority nations and a massive systematic buildup of institutions that will more effectively deport undocumented immigrants, especially Indigenous and/or Latina/o peoples from south of the U.S. border.
Ideologies of racial nativism are nothing new (see George J. Sánchez), and like 45, Bannon, Wilders, and others, King encourages hostility towards certain immigrants by promoting European or western civilization above all others. “I’m a champion for western civilization,” said King, defending his comments.
King continued on western civilization: “And yes, our English language is a big part of it. It’s a carrier of freedom. Wherever the English language has gone globally, freedom went with it.” Many Native Americans and African Americans, among others, might disagree with King’s history lesson.
Lately, there have been great cases of historical amnesia sweeping the memories of our nation’s leaders, where they re-tell the rise of the United States as a nation through rose-colored lenses. In this distorted view, Indigenous peoples thanked European colonizers for bringing them “civilization” and African slaves were immigrants who dreamed of opportunity in “America” (a la Ben Carson).
Such skewed historical and contemporary views would almost be laughable if they weren’t actually taken seriously by those in power and those listening to them. When a representative in the United States Congress says, “Western civilization is a superior civilization and we want to share it with everybody,” we the people should hit the pause button and engage in some dialogue.
“It’s never been about race”
When CNN’s Chris Cuomo pushed King about these comments in a recent interview, the congressman refused to acknowledge that he was talking about race. He said that “certain groups of people” will contribute more to U.S. society than others, but insisted that the differences between these groups are based in culture, not race. King claimed:
“It’s the culture, not the blood. And if you could go anywhere in the world and adopt these little babies and put them into households that were already assimilated into America, those babies will grow up as American as any other baby, with as much patriotism and as much love of country as any other baby. It’s not about race. It’s never been about race. And in fact, the struggles across this planet, we describe them as race, they’re not race. They’re culture based. It’s a clash of cultures, not the race.”
King is both right and wrong here (though mostly wrong). Right in that you can assimilate people to believe that western civilization is superior if you indoctrinate them from birth – or if you repeat it enough times. There do appear to be cultural clashes as well – though this point is more complex than King makes it and could be further debated. The rest of what King has to say is flat-out wrong, specifically his arguments about race, which he conveniently tries to make about culture. King’s comments, even while he tries to cloak them in culture, speak directly about race.
Since the colonial period, European empires believed that race was malleable and that culture could corrupt or improve groups of people. This cultural argument was the same one used when the U.S. government tore Native American children away from their homes and placed them in American Indian boarding schools (“Kill the Indian… save the man”).
Other discriminatory actions were based in biological racial beliefs, such as Asian and African American inferiority with U.S. Chinese Exclusion Acts, Japanese American internment, and Jim Crow segregation. While these examples were certainly based in biological racial arguments, people also supported these institutions by claiming that people of color were incapable of fully assimilating into Euro-American culture.
The list of examples goes on, but the point is that race has been viewed over time in both the biological and cultural sense, maneuvering to uphold ideas of “white supremacy.” Today, claiming that all people in “America” need to assimilate to Western culture denigrates multiple groups of people by declaring their cultures are inherently inferior. While this might get a shout-out from David Duke, most people disagree with these views.
“Somebody else’s babies”
King himself cannot help but move back and forth between understandings of race as culture and biology. Again, his original tweet called for Europeans and Euro-Americans to restore “our civilization” by encouraging them to have more babies.
However, in his follow-up CNN interview, he argued that babies from around the world could be assimilated into Western civilization in “American” homes. This directly contradicted his original tweet, which rejected the idea that the U.S. could further Western civilization “with somebody else’s babies.”
Rep. King made clear that the call to have more children is directed at those of European ancestry or “whites” – whom he believes carry this “civilization” within them biologically and should be taught it by their parents culturally.
After all, King retweeted a nationalist supporting Geert Wilders, a man who has made the same argument for the Netherlands – Mr. “Make the Netherlands ours again.” In King’s eyes, Euro-Americans should align themselves with an anti-Islamic Dutch nationalist because of a common tie to western culture and civilization (Wilders has also stated: “I don’t hate Muslims, I hate Islam.”).
Some might defend King’s comments by saying that both Euro-Americans and Europeans share cultural ties to the western world, of which they are proud. True, there’s nothing wrong with having cultural pride. The problem comes when people claim superiority and stoke fears that their culture alone is under attack and risking collapse.
The truth is that all cultures change. And people from outside of Europe have always helped shape the complex concept of western civilization. European and Euro-American cultures have and will continue to transform. There’s nothing wrong with that and we shouldn’t try to frame those changes as a “clash of culture(s)” and pit one group against others.
People whose ancestry connects them to parts of Africa, Asia, the Pacific Islands, the Middle East, the Americas – including Latin America and the Caribbean – and a long list of others, who have unique cultures, are not inferior because they do not originate from the western civilizations of Europe.
Anyone who suggests otherwise should not be leading our beautifully diverse nation.
This article also appears in Huffington Post.