A person’s whiteness has played a role in the United State’s citizenship debate and how various ethnic populations are treated since the founding of the country, civil rights expert Alexandra Filindra, Ph.D., told about 50 Commonwealth Honors Program students at a lecture at Worcester State University on Friday, March 2.
Filindra traced this attention to whiteness to the Naturalization Act of 1790, noting that Benjamin Franklin at one time even questioned the whiteness of German immigrants. She also outlined how eugenics established a racial hierarchy that influenced immigration laws and court rulings in this country and the Nazis’ “final solution.”
Although long debunked, the underlying messages of eugenics, based on the color of one’s skin and ancestry, are still relevant today, Filindra said, pointing out that some states have passed laws that allow police to stop drivers if they look Latino in an attempt to find undocumented immigrants.
But the most telling example was Filindra’s side-by-side comparison of the terrorism cases of John Walker Lindh, Yaser Esam Hamdi and Jose Padilla.
Each was born in the U.S. and was either of Islamic heritage or converted to Islam. The basic facts of each case vary, but her point was to show that Lindh, who is white, received a 20-year federal prison sentence; Hamdi, who is of Islamic heritage, was stripped of his U.S. citizenship and deported to Saudi Arabia; and Padilla was held for six years before he was tried and sentenced to life in prison.
Race is embedded in our culture, Filindra said. “We need to really make an effort to disassociate race with rights,” she concluded.
Filindra is an assistant professor of Political Science at William Paterson University and a Research Associate at the Center for the Study of Human Development at Brown University. Her field of interest is American public policy, immigration policy, race and ethnicity. She received her Ph.D. from Rutgers University and spent two years as a post-doctoral fellow at the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions at Brown University. Her work has appeared in the Harvard Educational Review, the Urban Affairs Review, International Migration, and other leading journals.
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