Root Out White Nationalism: Release the Tanton Papers

6 mins read

White nationalism is not just out in the open. It’s hidden in our laws as well. The New York Times Magazine’s brilliant 1619 Project reminds us that white supremacy is what our country relied on to perpetuate the evil of slavery. When it was abolished, the ideology (d)evolved to keep the power structure firmly in white hands. Telling history from the perspective of the oppressed isn’t revisionist history – it’s corrective. For too long, only one side of the story has been told, and it’s time to stop giving stage time to backward-thinking racists. Our country is a microcosm of humanity. It’s time for some representation.

I am an immigration lawyer, a Pakistani-American born and raised in the South. I’ve represented people from 115 countries and counting for the past 16 years. The reality of unity in diversity is very real to me. Not so for old-school white nationalists. Their vision of America is but a tiny, monochromatic slice of what this country actually is. They want to purge all the flavor out of this nation, and the crueler, the better. (Cruelty is the tool of the morally bankrupt, the creed of the fearful and feeble-minded.)

On July 16, one such white nationalist leader died: Dr. John Tanton, mastermind behind the anti-immigrant movement. The organizations he founded and nurtured, with the help of Mellon family heiress Cordelia Scaife-May, and eugenic outfits like the Nazi-inspired Pioneer Fund, have collectively pushed a vile white nationalist agenda for decades.

You probably never heard of Tanton. That’s exactly the way he wanted it. Call him “The Puppeteer.”

These organizations all mushroomed from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR. Spinoffs like the Center for Immigration Studies, NumbersUSA, the Immigration Reform Law Institute, Progressives for Immigration Reform, and others in the so-called “Tanton Network” quote each other, amplifying each other’s voices, and now, have injected their racism deep into the Trump administration, where their twisted ideology metastasizes into the horrific policies we’ve seen rolled out since inauguration.

The Muslim Ban. (1.0, 2.0, and 3.0). Revocation of DACA. De-designation of TPS countries. Dramatically ramped-up ICE raids. Caging and separating children as policy (it happened before, too). Reprogramming the immigration law into a deportation machine: changing asylum law and procedure, mass criminal prosecutions, the “Remain in Mexico” farce, expanded expedited removal, skyrocketing public charge denials at consulates worldwide: all largely affecting non-white people.

Yet it really sticks in their craw when they’re called racist. They grumble about the “race card,” lob accusations of divisiveness, scream to have people of color “sent back.”

We must root out white nationalism – wherever it may be hiding. It must be exposed for the faulty and dangerous ideology that it is. There are the masses who bought into racism, but there are others who have weaponized it as an ideology for control and influence. That’s John Tanton – a man who tapped into the same racist underbelly Donald Trump did to get elected.

Tanton donated his papers to the (public) University of Michigan, but struck a deal with his alma mater: half his papers had to remain closed to research until April 6, 2035. When I learned about the sealed Tanton Papers shortly after the election, I was determined to break that seal. The more we know about the genesis of the organizations in the White House’s ear creating policy affecting millions, the better. So I sued the University. And finally, on June 20, 2019, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in my favor, recommending release. It still wasn’t over: there is supposed to be a trial. But the University doesn’t want one. At every stage, they’ve fought tooth and nail, spending taxpayer money to hide the papers of a white nationalist one congressional aide called “the most influential unknown man in America.’

The first step in reclaiming and rebuilding an empowering, compassionate, and strong immigration policy is purging it of racism. That means shining a light on those who’ve silently formulated a facially non-racist way of pushing a racist agenda. The University’s dogged insistence on keeping this dark movement secret is inexcusable. Sunlight disinfects.

We deserve to know where their ideology comes from, and root out the white nationalism. Sidney Rittenberg, the sole American let in the inner circles of Mao’s Communist Party, only to be thrown into solitary confinement during the horrors of the Cultural Revolution wrote: “The painful lesson here is that mistaken ideology can produce thoughtless cruelty in gentle, kind-hearted people.” Ever wonder how Hitler did it?

Now might be a good time to pay attention to the patterns of history and unite behind a vision of prosperity ahead of 2020 instead of squabbling with racists. Don’t just resist: build.

Want to tell the University of Michigan to release the Tanton Papers? Sign the petition!


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Hassan Ahmad serves on the DemCast Board of Directors. An immigration lawyer and advocate fluent or proficient in 8 languages, he founded his practice on his belief in the right to seek prosperity. A former candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates, he serves on the Commonwealth Commission for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and the Virginia Asian Advisory Board. He has fought for asylum seekers, families, and businesses seeking prosperity for 16 years, and seeks to elevate stories of the aspiring American experience to policymakers at all levels. Hassan lives in northern Virginia with his wife & three children. ​

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