I am going to explain this from the perspective of a child because that’s what I was when the ABC miniseries Roots first aired in January 1977. I know I watched a significant portion of the series, although it’s possible my parents decided at some point that it was too disturbing for a 7-year-old or that it was time for me to go to bed. I have ideas in my head about what the show looked like, the settings, the feel of it. I obviously have more information stored up in my memory banks that’s not a recollection of watching the show but of what I learned about it subsequently when studying history or culture or just hearing people talk about it.
What I recollect more strongly than the actual program is the reaction to it. It spurred a nationwide enthusiasm for people (including white people) to search their own genealogies. This was discussed in my elementary school and it drove my parents and I think some of their siblings or cousins to do some research. At one point, I was presented with a huge piece of paper that needed to be folded many times for storage. It traced back my family’s ancestors for several centuries. At different times, I’ve made reference to this document on my blog only to receive an email from one parent or the other explaining that I’d gotten some detail wrong. I might get a detail wrong now, too, but the most memorable fact uncovered was that we had ancestors who were on the Mayflower and that one of these people actually fell off the ship mid-voyage and had to be rescued. I remember reading a blurb about this fellow in some small New England museum and feeling a strange mix of amusement and shame.
The truth is that most Americans, including me, have almost no knowledge of their own family history beyond the great-grandparents. This is especially true for people whose families arrived here in the 19th century or earlier. If not for the Roots miniseries, I doubt I’d know almost anything about my family’s early history.
Since Stephen Miller is the driving force behind the Trump administration’s harsh immigration policies, people are looking into his genealogy and they’ve discovered a few interesting facts. Here’s one:
Together [E. Randol Schoenberg] and [Rob] Eshman followed Miller’s mother’s side…back to Wolf Lieb Glotzer and his wife, Bessie. That couple arrived from Belarus in 1903 with $8 to their name, escaping anti-Semitic pogroms. In an instance of what today would be called chain migration, they were joined by their son Natan and Wolf’s brother Moses, and eventually by another brother, Sam, who changed his name to Glosser. Sam Glosser was the maternal great-grandfather of Stephen Miller.
It’s quite possible that Miller didn’t know this himself, and if he didn’t, that wouldn’t be unusual in our strange culture.
Here’s another fact, from his father’s side of the family:
A photo of Nison (aka Max) Miller stares out from the screen, sullen and stern, in faded black and white. “Order of Court Denying Petition” is the title of the government form dated “14th November 1932,” to which it is attached, the one in which Miller is applying for naturalization as an American citizen.
And beneath the photo, the reason given for his denial: Ignorance.
Nison Miller took the test again, passed, and became a U.S. citizen. Parts of my family beat Nison by more than three hundred years, but one of my uncles went to the same Santa Monica high school as Stephen Miller―a high school where I would later unwittingly play pick-up basketball nearly every day for two years.
I believe one of America’s strengths is at least partly a happy side effect of our own ignorance about ourselves. We don’t develop our own sense of identity based on who or where we came from because we generally have only the vaguest knowledge about these things. There is even an advertisement for DNA testing on television right now that riffs on this, with a man who thought he was of German ancestry finding out that he was completely wrong. Because we don’t have a centuries-long idea of our identity, we can’t harbor centuries-long grievances. And because we are so anti-tribal in this sense, we find it much easier to integrate new people into our societies and see them as equals.
On the other hand, since specific knowledge is lacking, visual cues probably take more precedence in how we form in- and out-groups. We may not know whether we’re Scottish or French, but we know that we’re white and that person over there is not. In a more tribal society, the descendants of Irish or Italian immigrants would remain in the out group possibly forever. In our society, these people are now as white as anybody else and intermarry without a moment’s thought.
In other words, racial thinking does the work that genealogical knowledge does not. And that creates a barrier to integration for the non-white immigrants that predominate today. That’s certainly how Stephen Miller thinks.
When his ancestors arrived here, they were not considered white. They weren’t exactly welcome, either, at least by most Americans in most areas of the country. But I know how Miller grew up because I spent so much time on his high school campus. My friends (who were all Jewish) and I played basketball with Iranian Jews who had fled the 1979 revolution, Japanese-Americans, Indian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, black Muslim guys from Compton or East L.A, and Christians of all colors and backgrounds. Just like my friends, a guy like Miller could pass for “white” because of his complexion and (like my friends) he was accepted as white because no one cared. We didn’t so much relish or celebrate our diversity as take it for granted. But West Los Angeles and Santa Monica are nothing like most of the country where groups don’t mix so thoughtlessly or with the same frequency.
Miller was an oddball in that environment. In high school, he complained about Spanish speakers. That English was relatively new to his family did not occur to him. That his family was relatively new to America did not matter to him. He thought of himself as a member of the in-group and sought to cast others out. He may not have known that his father’s family fled a pogrom in Belarus in 1903, but he did not care what others might have been fleeing in their homelands before arriving in Southern California. America, even Los Angeles, was for white-looking English-speakers, and everyone else was an infestation.
I don’t want to psychoanalyze the guy, but I do believe that there must be some insecurities that drove the formation of his worldview. Even without ever knowing about my own Mayflower roots, I grew up with the privilege of not having to ever think about my heritage or appearance or religion and how these things might hold me back or arouse suspicion, fear, hostility or hate. If I felt these things at all, it was only because my “group” had been on the top of the heap while slavery and Jim Crow were in full swing and while the country was being cleared of Native-Americans. I knew some people feared or harbored resentments against whites, but I also knew this was never going to present significant obstacles for me in my life. I don’t think Jewish-Americans will ever be able to have that same degree of confidence in their place in our country, and that may help explain why Miller clings to his privileged place and is so eager to deny it to others. If so, his disposition is still a massive outlier within his community.
What I find tragic is that Miller is threatening the very strengths of our country that made it so easy for his family to integrate and for him to grow up feeling that he was part of the “true” America. In order for him to have this self-image, he had to be ignorant of his own past, but that’s precisely what he was allowed to be because we don’t really care about people’s past.
That’s what makes us great even if that’s also what makes us think in such racial terms. Miller is the perfect example of this. No one cares about where he came from or why, so he can walk right in and close the door behind him.