Iowa Rep. Steve King Sounds Like the Antebellum American Colonization Society

In a recent interview, Rep. Steve King of Iowa made the following comments:

I’m making this point that if we shut off the DACA program, and there are 800,000 of them in the United States today, they would deploy—and I use that word that way—back to their home territories, most likely. And they would go back there with a U.S. taxpayer-funded education, many of them the college education, they will have top-notch English skills, they would understand how a free-enterprise economy works, how a generally corrupt-free society, first world works. They would have seen the transportation system we have, the educational system, the research and development systems that we have, how a civilized people interact with each other. All of that would go with them back to their home countries, and wouldn’t that be the best economic and cultural development, civilizational development that, say, Mexico could ever experience?

While there is a lot that could be said about Rep. King’s comments—and by that I mean that his view of DACA recipients’ countries of origin is backwards and simplistic, and his belief that he should be able to make people move to across international boundaries regardless of whether they want to just because of his say so is horrific and tyrannical—my mind immediately went to a very similar argument made in a very different time.

Did you know that during the antebellum period, individuals not unlike King argued that the U.S. should send freed blacks to Africa to civilize and bring Christianity to the continent? No really.

The American Colonization Society (ACS) was founded in 1817. To do this, the ACS founded a colony on the west coast of Africa; this colony would ultimately be known as Liberia. By the 1830s the ACS had under criticism from abolitionists who feared that its purpose was to rid the United States of its “colored” population. And indeed, this was one of the selling points of the ACS—many who supported the society believed that a large free black population was incompatible with the United States.

The ACS objected, of course. Their goal was not to rid the nation of its “colored” population, they argued, but rather “to spread civilization, sound morals, and true religion throughout Africa” by sending free blacks to colonize the continent.

Do you see the similarity to Rep. King’s remarks? Let’s take a look:

  • Existence of a group that is unwanted (whether by Rep. King or by the ACS).
  • Belief that this group has been “civilized” during their time in the U.S.
  • Belief that a benighted region of the world needs this “civilizing” influence.

Of course, those African Americans who emigrated to Liberia were typically not forced to do so, and not all whites who supported colonization were merely trying to get rid of the nation’s free blacks. As the Library of Congress states:

From the start, colonization of free blacks in Africa was an issue on which both whites and blacks were divided. Some blacks supported emigration because they thought that black Americans would never receive justice in the United States. Others believed African-Americans should remain in the United States to fight against slavery and for full legal rights as American citizens. Some whites saw colonization as a way of ridding the nation of blacks, while others believed black Americans would be happier in Africa, where they could live free of racial discrimination. Still others believed black American colonists could play a central role in Christianizing and civilizing Africa.

Still, there were those who toyed with the idea of forced colonization, similar to the proposal Rep. King is making today. Some believed the federal government should forcibly resettle the country’s entire African American population, whether in Africa, the Caribbean, or South America.

How did financing the emigration of free blacks to Liberia turn out? Not so great. It turns out that telling people to go forth and “civilize” a land of benighted “heathens” is not such a great idea. Under the guidance of the American Colonization Society, the colony’s free black immigrants—who became known as Americo-Liberians—founded the nation of Liberia in 1847. These Americo-Liberians made up a small percentage of the new nation’s population, but became the country’s elite; they didn’t give the indigenous inhabitants the right to vote until 1946. It seems that when you’re told you’re better than everyone else by virtue of being more “civilized,” you sometimes believe it.

Would someone please tell Rep. King that trying to “civilize” other nations by sending people he doesn’t want back to the places their ancestors come from is a terrible idea? How about we stop trying to deport people based on skin color or immigration status and instead start supporting trade policies and international treaties that promote the fair development of all nations.

Oh, and we could stop talking about other countries like we’re still British imperialists. DACA recipients have benefitted from seeing “how a civilized people interact with each other,” Rep. King wrote. What, you mean shooting unarmed black men, jailing drug offenders, defunding family planning, and resegregation our schools? Cheese on crackers, wasn’t this “civilized people” rhetoric supposed to have died with Teddy Roosevelt? How very Victorian you sound, Rep. King. And no, that’s not a compliment.

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