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America has a long history of tearing families apart

The craziness emanating from Washington with such heartrending consequences for thousands of immigrants has triggered angry responses, including from people hitherto content to accept anything that President Donald Trump does.

He has finally come for a group that even conservative Christian Republicans are unwilling to ignore: children. This pious lot that has elevated political power over its own usually loudly-articulated moral standards seems to have remembered what Jesus said: “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me.”

They, like so many other members of the human race, are horrified that children were ripped from parents and held in camps or dispersed to foster care facilities far from where their parents are detained. From the left, the right, the center and the studiously unpolitical, we are hearing variations on the sentiment that this is not the American way and that we are better than this.

Hmmm. Really?

The scenes unfolding at the southern border are shocking and horrifying, to be sure. But anyone who honestly recalls the history of this country realizes that the immigration crisis, as it is being called, is but the latest manifestation of our split personality as a nation.

At Monticello, the home of President Thomas Jefferson, I was reminded of that a couple of weekends ago when several hundred descendants of people who had been enslaved there returned for the opening of new exhibits and newly-restored buildings that begin to tell a more complete story. Here one confronts the contradiction between the American ideal of equality for all that Jefferson himself helped establish in the Declaration of Independence and the harsh reality of that asterisk that slavery represented: all except black people. Jefferson railed against the evil of slavery and yet was too cowardly to follow a different course, even when presented with options.

And now, even tour guides at Monticello disabuse visitors of the assumption that he, a founding father associated with gentility and enlightenment, was a benevolent slave master. He was not. The people whose fate Jefferson held in his hands, like others enslaved into the 19th century, could be sold or given away as gifts — and families were ripped apart like we are seeing now. Though many Americans knew this was wrong, they did nothing, bowing instead to political and economic expediencies.

On paper, slavery ended in 1865; but involuntary servitude just took different forms.

In more recent times, we have seen internment camps — not unlike what greets undocumented migrants coming over the Mexico-U.S. border. There are still Japanese-Americans alive who remember their families being torn asunder during World War II and confined to barbed-wire enclosed places far from the homes, businesses and social ties they had long known.

In 1988, the U.S. formally apologized and offered $20,000 to each survivor of those camps.

Let’s not delude ourselves. Too often in American history who we are is expressed in what we allow our representatives to do in our names. Forget, for now, what that means internationally. At home that has meant genocide of Native Americans; enslavement and then denial of opportunity and the privileges of citizenship to blacks; outright exclusion of immigrants from Asia for a while and then the World War II internment; callous disregard for the poor; abandonment of the goal of quality public education; denial of universal health care; reckless stewardship of the environment — and on and on.

A nation founded on the belief that all (with that asterisk) are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness has had to be forced to actually extend those rights to all. Through our history we have seen abolitionists, suffragists, pacifists, unionists, feminists and human rights advocates railed against, demonized, assaulted and killed while trying to make us become who we say we are.

That was evident when I visited Montgomery and Selma, Ala., over the weekend — two stations on my personal pilgrimage this summer. In the 1950s and 1960s, people marched, lobbied, were beaten and gave their lives for black people’s right to be treated as human beings in America, beginning with the right to vote — something that on paper had been available to black men since 1870 and to women since 1920. Now the monuments and museums and interpretive history centers tell the stories of what had to be overcome.

They remind us that saying we are good, decent people does not make us so. Actions — ours and those of the men and women we allow to represent us — are what matter.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email:

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