Part of President Trump’s new immigration proposal is something called “patriotic assimilation.” It’s a euphemism for an immigrant entry exam that evokes the Jim Crow literacy tests used to disenfranchise black voters. One administration official told the Washington Post that green-card applicants would be required to pass an exam based on such everyday American household dinner topics as Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.
That is a perplexing choice for the administration, given the timing. That letter, dated January 1, 1802, is the foundation of many understandings of the First Amendment when it comes to the separation of church and state. That is anything but what we saw this week, as their Republican allies in statehouses throughout the Midwest and South pushed through unconstitutional, misogynist and pseudoscientific restrictions on abortion.
In my native Ohio, a child who is raped might not even know she is pregnant before she runs out of time to abort her rapist’s fetus. Missouri sent its eight-week restriction to its eager Republican governor for signature on Friday. And Alabama’s law, arguably the most barbaric of them all, criminalizes the procedure from the moment of conception and carries a prison sentence for doctors of up to 99 years. That is a much longer bid than the maximum any rapist in the state could get, all while his victim is forced to bear his child. Each law, in its own way, subjugates women and girls — and since white women statistically have greater access to the procedure, signals a specific attack on women of color. This is a particular issue in Georgia, where noted vote suppressor Brian Kemp is governor. Under the law scheduled to go into effect on January 1st, women who self-terminate their pregnancies can be imprisoned for life or executed, thereby accomplishing two goals: subduing them for their gender, and taking away their ballot. (Men who impregnated them, per the law, suffer no consequence.)
It has been plain for a while now that the anti-abortion cause has nothing to do with actual deities or morality. If it did, it wouldn’t put the lives of doctors, patients and clinic employees in jeopardy to make its argument. States would be more concerned with their terrible infant mortality rates than they would about saving fetuses. Ending reproductive rights in America has never been about anything holy. Anti-abortionists like to remind us of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s statements about eugenics or claim they’re trying to stop a “black genocide,” but their movement was born to keep white patriarchy alive. And it is white men who are the primary beneficiaries of such policies.
As Politico Magazine detailed in 2014, the forced-birth movement, as I term it, got its primary motivation from a ruling three years before Roe v. Wade. A 1970 D.C. District Court decision denied tax-exempt status to “segregation academies” formed to escape the consequences of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education precedent. These academies were connected to churches, and soon the IRS wanted to know whether their institutions too discriminated upon the basis of race. Heritage Foundation founder Paul Weyrich and evangelist Jerry Falwell Sr., over the course of the 1970s, seized upon the opportunity to mobilize a powerful voting bloc out of the disgruntled religious conservatives thwarted in their efforts to discriminate. But even back then, it was impolitic to promote themselves as “the racist caucus,” so they went hunting for an issue. Abortion was it — a political bogeyman ginned up out of a mix of opportunism, misogyny, and a rising religious unease with a spike in abortions after legalization. No scientific expertise in women’s physiology was required. White supremacy had all it needed, its natural symbiote: patriarchy.
The Republican movement behind forced-birth bills is truly ignorance allied with power, as James Baldwin once warned us about. The rhetoric may be more vociferous and reckless now than it was when the religious right was first revving up, but it is no less cynical. Even if it escapes the lips or is written or signed into law by women like Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama, the primary goal of that revanchist talk has always been to take America back to a time when the word of white men went all but unquestioned.
This is a particularly intoxicating prospect for men like Trump, who have grown up with this palatial reality all of their lives. What he sold in all those books and buildings and casinos and steaks was not just wealth, but his brand of white manhood. It is one reason why, despite the fact that his brash trade wars with China and Canada have made life harder for farmers and other American low-wage workers, some of them insist that they won’t leave his side.
Not wealthy enough to benefit the most from GOP tax cuts? Your local hospital going under? Your kids stuck in endless wars? It’s OK: hang with the GOP for the potential benefits of increased race-based stratification. Even if Trump’s policies are making your farm go under or depriving you of the steel you need, the benefits of whiteness await you. Because if something bad happens to you, it’s someone else’s fault. And that someone else is probably black. Or perhaps an immigrant from Mexico.
This is the investment that the Republicans have made in the intoxication of whiteness. It applies to these abhorrent attempts to end abortion as well. Legislation like these bills in Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, and Missouri isn’t merely about trying to get the Supreme Court’s conservatives to overturn Roe. These states, and the (mostly) men behind the bills, are making a point about where women stand in relation to men, and moreover, where white men stand in relation to everyone else. This isn’t about who voted for what, or who signed what bill. It is about what message is sent, and who benefits.
When women are told that their bodies belong to the state at a time when access to health care remains drastically unequal by race and class, it means that rich white men win when abortion restrictions become law. They will all be challenged in court, wasting a lot of taxpayer money that could have been better used improving those health care systems or even educating the children that Republicans claim to care so much about. Then it will come time for those five Justices to decide the future for anyone who will ever be possibly carry a fetus to term, or choose not to do so.
It is a mistake to get lost in religious debate around this. Remember, always, that Jesus was the hustle used to get us here. The fight to keep women from getting abortions is really about reinforcing a belief that white men should maintain dominion over this country and the people in it. The only God that matters most to these guys is themselves.