Brenda Lopez Romero was about 12 years old when she and her father stopped at a diner just north of Helen.
As they walked in, several white men stood up from their table.
“Are you lost?” they said. “Did you just cross the river?”
Then that phrase: “You need to go back where you came from.”
A native of Mexico, Lopez Romero remembers the sting of those racist taunts.
“You’re made felt to feel unsafe being where you belong,” she said last week. “That is part of the chord that it strikes when you hear these words.”
Lopez Romero, now a 36-year-old immigration attorney, state representative from Gwinnett County and candidate for U.S. Congress, says she never thought she would hear similar language coming from the President of the United States.
But last Sunday, Donald Trump used Twitter to tell four Congresswomen of color to “go back” to the countries from which they came. It was a stunning remark given that all four — Democratic U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib — are American citizens and all but Omar were born in the United States.
Trump’s racist tweets sparked painful conversations in many immigrant and minority communities across the country. That’s particularly true in Gwinnett County, the northeast Atlanta suburb where Lopez Romero is among a growing number of political leaders who felt inclined to share their stories.
Gwinnett is a community where a full quarter of its nearly 1 million residents are foreign-born and about two-thirds are black, Latino or Asian — and where a longtime Republican foothold is quickly diminishing, meaning comments like Trump’s tweets could have an enormous effect during a 2020 election season that’s sure to be volatile and racially charged.
That season will include the presidential race and the crucial contest for Georgia’s 7th Congressional district, which was the closest in the country last fall. The district covers most of Gwinnett and a sizable chunk of neighboring Forsyth County — which is much more conservative, but also has the fastest growing Asian community in the United States.
“After having attempted to work and to earn their right to be proud Americans, and to be so easily dismissed by what should be the face of our country, the standard bearer of our country?” Lopez Romero said. “I think that will and that does engage a lot of people that would not otherwise be engaged in the political or electoral process.”
‘They’ll think twice’
Edward Muldrow, chairman of the Gwinnett County Republican Party, doesn’t think Trump’s tweets were racist and they would not have a lasting negative impact to his party’s political ambitions in the county.
“For decades the phrase ‘America, love it or leave it’ has been used,” said Muldrow, who is black. “It was not considered racist when white people said it to other white people.”
“Now, people want to say the statement is racist because it is said to a person who comes from a country where she would have little to no rights to speak out against its government publicly,” he continued, referencing Rep. Omar, a Somali immigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen. “Yet she continuously puts down the very government that she wants to be a part of and was democratically elected to.”
Statements like Trump’s have deep roots in American history. Depending on the era, members of just about every racial, religious and ethnic group — from the Irish to the Chinese, freed slaves to Jews and Catholics and immigrants in general — have had the phrase hurled at them while having their right to exist in America questioned.
“This ‘sending them back’ strips them of the history of their contributions of building this nation, strips them of the citizenship rights they’ve earned, and strips them of their humanity,” said Carol Anderson, the chair of African-American studies at Emory University.
Indeed, Trump’s statements prompted immigrants and people of color from across the country to share their own stories on of being told to “go back” where they came from, regardless of their actual birthplace or citizenship status.
Count several members of Gwinnett County’s delegation to the state legislature — which now includes about a dozen people of color — among them.
State Rep. Sam Park, a Democrat from Lawrenceville, is the son of Korean immigrants. He has such stories.
A few years ago, he was in traffic when a woman stopped her car, got out and screamed at him to “Go back to where you come from!”
Park said he simply pointed out to the woman that she was standing in the road.
“I think it surprised her I spoke English,” he said.
Park said incidents like that aren’t uncommon. But when the words come from the president, it’s disheartening personally and energizing politically.
“I’ve talked to many conservative Korean-American leaders who are leaning more and more toward the Democratic Party because they feel driven away by all this anti-immigrant rhetoric,” he said.
When Sheikh Rahman, D-Lawrenceville, was elected to the Georgia Senate last year, he became that chamber’s first Muslim member. He came to America in the wake of the Iran hostage crisis of the late 1970s and early ’80s.
He’s from Bangledesh, but that didn’t stop someone from shouting “hey raghead, go home” at him while he was walking down the street in Charlotte, N.C.
“When people go to the polls, they’ll think” about the Trump’s rhetoric, Rahman said. “They’ll think twice.”
Series of racial episodes
Muldrow, the Gwinnett GOP chair, isn’t sure about that.
He pointed to a thriving economy and echoed a favorite Trump claim about unemployment for people of color being at an all-time low. He said conservative policies are helping the country — and Gwinnett — prosper.
“If we stay focused on facts instead of emotions and hyperbole,” Muldrow said, “we should be fine.”
Trump’s comments do, of course, play to a significant portion of his base. A national USA Today/Ipsos poll released Wednesday found that 57% of Republicans agreed with his “go back” tweets; one-third strongly agreed.
Anderson, the Emory professor, likened Trump’s recent comments to the use of the n-word. She doubted, however, that the comments would play a pivotal political role moving forward.
But Democratic strategist Howard Franklin argued there are “diminishing returns” from the president’s continued controversial statements. Female voters of color will likely play a key role in 2020 — and Trump attacking women who look like them could provide extra incentive for votes against the president and his party, Franklin said.
In Gwinnett, a series of recent incidents have also pushed racial tensions to the surface.
There was the traffic stop captured on video where two white police officers assaulted a black motorist.
There are the ongoing protests denouncing the Gwinnett sheriff’s continued participation in the 287(g) program, a controversial agreement that ramps up cooperation between local deputies and federal immigration authorities.
County Commissioner Tommy Hunter earned both national headlines and a public reprimand in 2017 after calling U.S. Rep. John Lewis “a racist pig” on Facebook — while Lewis was in a public spat with Trump.
Local Democrats have credited Hunter with helping energize their party in Gwinnett. Trump has provided them plenty of new ammunition, they said, in his most recent comments.
State Rep. Donna McLeod, D-Grayson, grew up in Jamaica and Canada, where she waited for seven years to get a green card. She became a U.S. citizen in 2012.
“You can’t grasp how weird it feels, how hurtful it is” to have your Americanness questioned, she said. “Because you’re told a set of rules you must follow and you follow it. And still you’re being told you’re not supposed to be here.”
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