I’ve heard it said that belonging sounds kind of soft, but to me, it’s a knife that cuts straight to the heart of our collective challenge. How do we cultivate a society that embodies the right to belong, that offers full cultural citizenship: justice and love, equity and compassion, the right to feel at home in one’s community, to feel safe in one’s school? To belong.
It’s not clear whether school shooter Nikolas Cruz actually trained with the white nationalist militia Republic of Florida (the group’s leader claimed Cruz, then said he’d mistaken him for someone else. But Cruz had been aligned for years with white supremacist views, according to a high school classmate and others: “He would always talk about how he felt whites were a bit higher than everyone,” Charo said. “He’d be like, ‘My people are over here industrializing the world and starting new things, while your people [meaning blacks and Latinos] are just taking up space.’”
When we debate who belongs—about how belonging must be earned and which categories of people are entitled to a say—we had better be ready to tussle with history.Consider a few scenes from the annals of belonging.
When I walked into the conference breakout room, introductions were already underway. The prompt opening this conversation was not just to say one’s name or current location, but to tell something about your people and their history on the land. Around the circle, Native people spoke of the chain of generations linking themselves and their children to a particular place on earth; people whose forebears from Europe settled on this continent five or six generations back spoke of the meaning of homeplace in their lives; people whose ancestors had arrived on slave ships centuries ago shared their connections to the lands where ancestors had farmed and raised families, even if they no longer lived there.
When my turn came, I said that I’d never met my paternal grandparents, who’d emigrated to England just before my father was born, that my maternal grandparents had escaped to the United States after my great-grandfather had been killed in a pogrom, and that while I didn’t know my family history any further back than that, it was a fairly safe bet I was descended from a long line of generations pushed out of one place after another by sinat chinam, Hebrew for baseless hatred, an expression that applies to all stories of genocide or exile grounded in identity.
I suspect few of us know the fullness of belonging and disbelonging as it has been expressed in countless individual and collective histories, nor do I see widespread awareness of the nuanced forms baseless hatred has taken. For example, I urge you to read this essay by John-Paul Pagano analyzing the impact of hatred that “punches up” versus “punches down,” that is based on villifying whole categories on account of their imagined evil superpowers rather than on account of their presumed inferiority.
What is the understanding of belonging that takes all those stories seriously?
In so many US cities, newcomers and developers with deep pockets drive out local people needing affordable places to live and work. Organizers are drawing attention to displacement, rallying people to protect longstanding communities. I hear from people who go to these meetings, people whose politics and economic values are right in line with the movement toward placekeeping and against displacement, who work with social justice projects. But so easily, the desire to limit economic depredation and prevent displacement is converted into an assertion of special belonging. I’ve been in more than one meeting where speakers made it clear that being born on the land—preferably descending from several generations on that same land—should be the chief criterion for belonging, that by implication everyone not tied to the soil was other. And suddenly all whose ancestors had been driven away by baseless hatred or were pushed out of a home place by economic necessity, suddenly, we don’t belong. Does denying my right to belong advance the just and equitable aims of anti-displacement organizing? No, in fact it undermines them.
What is the understanding of belonging that embraces all of us, regardless of the circumstances of our ancestors?
That the same concept can be introduced from love or from hate should make us think carefully through the implications before deploying it, to be sure we aren’t unintentionally aiding our opponents. Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil) was the Nazis’ way of saying that German land was bound to German blood, adding force to the movement to expell foreigners, chiefly Jews, as a contaminating force. It underpinned the Nazis’ Lebensraum (“living room”) policy, which justified conquest of adjacent lands to the east as properly belonging to ethnic Germans, as just needing a bit of “ethnic cleansing” to restore purity and fill Germany’s breadbasket.
More recently, “Blood and Soil” has become a visible white nationalist slogan in the U.S., shouted from crowded streets in Charlottesville and wherever Nazis and their allies have marched in recent months. The slogan may have specific provenance, but the underlying concept, that belonging is an attribute of those groups deemed the true inhabitants or possessors of the land, has a long and ignoble history, one that seems nearly irony-proof.
Consider the use of the concept of “states’ rights” to resist federal mandates to desegregate or to permit same-sex marriage. The argument is that local culture and customs emerging from the particular history and conditions of a place ought to supersede a higher authority’s right to impose federal law. It’s easy to see how in principle, decentralization of authority can be an instrument of democracy. But the forces presenting the states’ rights argument were white people in power in the post-Reconstruction South (who seem not to have recognized the irony of asserting blood and soil rights in states squarely on the Trail of Tears of “Indian removal” just a century earlier). “States’ Rights Party” was the official name in 1948 of the Dixiecrat party led by Strom Thurmond. Former Governor George Wallace of Alabama declaimed in his 1963 inaugural address, “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” He was later quoted as saying he should have said, “States’ rights now! States’ rights tomorrow! States’ rights forever!” After all, the two were interchangeable, with states’ rights merely a dog-whistle substitute for segregation.
The necessary precondition to bring about cultural democracy—a true state of belonging, equity, justice, and caring—is being able to recognize and respond to multiple coexisting truths:
We have a collective responsibility to repair the massive damage that has been done by moving Indigenous nations off their lands, stealing their water and mineral rights, and other crimes against the first peoples of the Americas. (I want to point you to a USDAC project that is being effective in spreading the first step, acknowledgment: Honor Native Land.)
We have a collective responsibility to protect all people’s rights to grow where they are planted, opposing policies that allow profit- and “ethnic cleansing”-driven rezoning, “urban removal,” and rapacious development to prevail over protection of human social and cultural fabric. (The USDAC’s “Cultural Impact Study” proposal is a powerful tool toward that end.)
We have a collective responsibility to welcome the stranger, including visitors, immigrants, refugees, and wanderers whose places on the land no longer exist or are no longer livable, whether due to natural disaster, social emergency, or both. (The USDAC’s Policy on Belonging provides feasible and adaptable policy tools to make belonging a core human right in your community.)
We have a collective responsibility to assert and protect belonging not as a privilege, but as a human right conferred on any person who does not transgress others’ right to belong. Nazis and other white supremacists forfeit their right to belong by attempting to deprive others of that same right. It is our duty to protect their targets from the harm they wish to inflict, to punish the perpetrators when that harm succeeds, to change the policies that arm them, and also—however unlikely success—to attempt wherever possible to persuade them of the error of their repugnant ways.
The history of such concepts as “Blood and Soil” and “States’ Rights”—and of even cruder cousins such as the “white man’s burden” and “manifest destiny,” justifying genocide and conquest in the name of racial superiority—shows us how easily principles grounded in special rights of certain groups can be turned against those who proclaim them.
Hutu extremists in Rwanda asserted their superiority leading to genocide against the Tutsi; their movement can be seen as a reaction to earlier German and Belgian colonizers’ policies of treating the Tutsi as a superior African people while still insisting on their own ultimate superiority to conquer and possess Africa. On this continent, some Indigenous people carried out raids to acquire slaves from among Native nations deemed lesser, while both Franciscan orders and U.S. troops enslaved Native people, grounding their actions in the same presumed superiority. Here in New Mexico, there’s a yearly “Entrada,” a pageant re-enacting the purported (but historically false) welcoming of the Spanish conquerors by Native people (whom they proceeded to displace, persecute, exploit, and murder). In recent years, protests have grown steadily in scale and impact, impressive and encouraging. What about the conviction that Indigenous people, Hispanos, and those who immigrated from Mexico are entitled to a fullness of belonging those born elsewhere can never earn? Truth, yes. Acknowledgment, yes. Recognition of their rights to ancestral lands, yes. Recognizing the right to belong as a universal human right presents no conflict with these other rights.
When we get into a conversation about who belongs—about how belonging is earned and who has a say in a community’s future—we had better be ready to tussle with history.
Only one perspective on belonging offers the generosity, compassion, and willingness to face the complexity of history that can save us now. The right to belong must be an inalienable human right, not an attribute of a racial or other category nor a privilege that must be earned.
The right to belong must encompass all of us, in full acknowledgment of our mixed histories—neither sweeping the past under the carpet nor making it a barrier to full cultural citizenship—whether we came to our places against our will or willingly. When we attach belonging to a racial or other such category, we aid the white supremacist project of racial categorization, forgetting, as Eric Ward has said, that racism is real but race is not. Belonging must never be used as an excuse or justification for othering our neighbors. And it must never exempt us from vetting our own behavior and others’ for its exclusionary, discriminatory, or antidemocratic impacts.
Truth is complicated, but we are obliged to open ourselves to its full breadth, or succumb to baseless hatred.