'Go back' is how racists try to deny my American-ness. But I'm never leaving.

Trump’s notion that anyone who challenges the broken status quo here should leave is the most anti-American sentiment expressed by a sitting president.
Image: Donald Trump, Alex Acosta
President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media on the South Lawn of the White House on July 12, 2019.Andrew Harnik / AP
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By Kurt Bardella, NBC News THINK contributor

My introduction to American racism came when I was seven years old: Like anyone who looks like me, I was asked, “Where are you from,” or maybe “Where is your family from.” As far as I was concerned, though, I was “from” Rochester, New York — and so was my family.

It wasn’t until the word “China” was invoked that I realized that they were referring to my race (or that they didn’t consider my parents my “family”).

Inevitably, as I got older, the questions would graduate to statements, and the statements would turn into commands, and I would get the “go back to where ya came from” line.

I wish I could tell you that, three decades later, that type of racism is nothing more than a relic of the past. Unfortunately, as we have seen this week, it has, if anything, only become worse.

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On Sunday, the president of the United States issued a racist directive to several members of Congress similar to the ones I’ve heard all my life, tweeting, “So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.”

On Monday, he added, “We will never be a Socialist or Communist Country. IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY HERE, YOU CAN LEAVE! It is your choice, and your choice alone. This is about love for America. Certain people HATE our country…”

The Congress members he was attacking were the first-term Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., Rashid Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., nicknamed “The Squad.” For the record — not that this matters — three of the four were, in fact, born right here in the United States.

More to the point, though, is that Trump’s notion that anyone who challenges the broken status quo here should instead be quiet and leave is perhaps the most anti-American sentiment ever expressed by a sitting president. But this kind of racism — you don’t really belong here the way that “we” belong here and if you don’t like the way that “we” do things, you should leave us be — is something with which many nonwhite Americans in the political sphere are confronted daily.

Like so many marginalized people in America, when we speak our mind in the political sphere, when we challenge the normalcy of the white status quo, we are attacked as less-than-fully American. I guarantee you, every single person of color who writes a column or appears on cable news to debates the national issues of the day (particularly from a perspective critical of the current president) receives a barrages of tweets, direct Facebook messages and emails from white Americans telling them to effectively “go back home.” These reminders that others perceive the color of our skin as a reason to reject our Americanness is a constant reality that has been a part of our lives for as long as we can remember.

Of course, Donald Trump’s weaponization of existing racism is not new; it has been his tool of choice ever since he expanded his presence on the political scene by questioning the legitimacy of the first black president. As president, he has praised white nationalists in Charlottesville, pardoned a racist sheriff in Arizona, labeled Haiti and African nations “shithole countries,” attacked NFL players for protesting the National Anthem and presided over an administration that locked up and tortured Central American children and their families at the southern border while deriding them as potential gang members.

All the while, the Republican Party has either said nothing or defended his actions. This week, we learned that the reason why the bulk of the Republican Party hasn’t spoken out against Trump’s racism is because many of them, in fact, agree with his racist statements. Of the 197 Republicans currently serving in the House of Representatives, 193 of them did not vote to support Tuesday’s House resolution condemning Trump’s racist attacks against their fellow colleagues. It can no longer be said that the GOP is simply complicit in or passively enabling the spread of racism in America; now it is actively supporting it.

Pushing back on the president’s racist attacks on their colleagues is one of those, “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” moments for all people of color. If Republicans cannot muster the moral clarity to simply condemn racism in its most blatant and transparent form — to state that Americans who are nonwhite should not be told by the president to “go back” to countries in which they never lived for daring to critique their homeland — then they, too, are racist. Having this kind of overwhelming support from the Republican Party for his disgusting attacks will only embolden Trump to double down on his efforts to divide this country.

The message the president has now sent is very simple: If you challenge their vision of white America, the president and his political party want you to leave it.

This is, and should be, an inflection point in the American story: We are either going to be a nation that fosters diversity, or one that repels it. We can either be a country that embraces the things that make us different, or one that preys on those differences to sow division and hate. We will either be an America that is committed to the democratic ideals of expression and freedom, or one that suffocates them.

I know which America I came to, and which one I plan on living in. So, to Trump and the Republican Party, my name is Kurt Bardella. My first name is German, my last is Italian and I was born in Seoul and adopted and brought to this great nation when I was just a few months old. I am a proud citizen of the United States of America, and I’m not “going back where I came from” — but only because I prefer living in D.C. to Rochester.