“The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency & propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.”

General George Washington, 2 December 1783

“For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

… while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”

President George Washington, 18 August 1790

Over the past three years, the U.S. has seen a significant increase in violent actions that fit the definition of domestic terrorism in the U.S. code. These acts of domestic terrorism have been undertaken by white supremacists who have been radicalized in both online/digital communities and within real-world interactions. And these attacks, and the white supremacist ideology motivating them, have now become the most deadly and prevalent terrorist threat facing the United States.

Those of us who pay attention to American history, especially domestic political history, know these attacks are not new. They have happened before – directed at African Americans, both enslaved and free men and women; ethnic Catholics and Jewish Americans who emigrated from almost every European country; Muslim Americans, as well as those mistaken for them after 9/11; and virtually every other immigrant group.

That they are not new should not lead us not to be shocked by them or lulled into a false sense of complacency about the problem. Nor should we fail to recognize what is underlying the white supremacy that motivates the attacks.

As has happened throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the U.S. and Americans are once again engaged in what is all too often a violent discussion of what ‘Americanness’ is and who gets to be an American. From the founding of the U.S to today, a portion of this dispute over ‘Americanness’ deals with African Americans. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, this dispute also included other ethnic and religious minorities.

At various times Americans of Chinese, Japanese, Irish, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Polish, and other ethno-national descent have been the targets;identified as not being American enough or of never being able to become American enough. The same has gone for Catholics, many of whom have overlapped with one of the ethno-nationalities above, as well as Jews who find themselves in that same space of having both a religious minority and ethnic minority status.

Members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints fled the eastern U.S. to avoid this type of discrimination and persecution and, at one point, fled to Mexico before returning to the U.S. As the 20th century has given way to the 21st, the focus of this intolerance has been on central and south American immigrants fleeing the political and criminal violence of their failing states, as well as Muslim Americans,  post 9/11.

Despite the high-minded ideals that President Washington addressed to the Jewish congregation of Newport, R.I. in 1780, America and Americans have all too often failed to live up to his vision and wisdom. Candidates for municipal, state, and federal offices are beginning, or will soon begin, their campaigns for election or reelection next year. They will discuss issues of healthcare, levels of taxation, education standards, issues pertaining to gun safety and control.

Yet underlying every single one of these issues is the real issue at the heart of American politics in 2019: what does being “American” mean and who gets to be American? Until we, as Americans regardless of our backgrounds – ethnic, racial, religious, political, urban/suburban/rural, socio-economic, etc. – resolve this dispute, the violence will not just continue, but it will escalate.

Do we give to bigotry no sanction and to persecution no assistance, or do we divide ourselves up by superficial socio-cultural characteristics and make war upon each other? These are the questions that we must each ask ourselves and answer as 2019 lurches towards 2020 and the forthcoming elections.