Nick Sciullo February 2019
August Wilson’s 1985 play Fences, recently made into a movie starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, uses fences as a metaphor for separation, difference, and even self-loathing. This play highlights both the material separation caused by fences, the focal point of the play is after all the construction of a fence, and the symbolic role fences play in dividing families. There are few more apt descriptions of the role the border wall plays in the Trump Administration’s rhetoric surrounding migration. Yet, Trump’s vitriol is not new so much as it is shockingly direct.
The United States has long been obsessed with borders from the Louisiana Purchase to its short-lived imperial era conquests of Cuba, the Philippines, and Hawaii, to Donald Trump’s desire to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. In some ways, this does not make the United States different than other countries who are often concerned with sovereignty over a discrete land mass. What the discussion of the border wall, as people refer to it in the United States, is missing is the linkages between this racialized wall and the fences that have long characterized the United States’s restriction of people of color’s movement. Far from being a benign border control, border checkpoints exist a one hour’s drive inland from the U.S.-Mexico border in the State of Texas. Other states have similar arrangements where policing the border has become tied to a larger regime of control.
Paradoxically, the U.S. has long held the freedom of movement to be a fundamental right, but has applied that right unevenly and not without intense and complicated restrictions. Recent anti-asylum-seeker rhetoric by Donald Trump highlights just how this right is racialized in the U.S. borderlands. Freedom of movement is, of course, prominently featured in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Yet, the United States has often enforced restrictions on a seemingly racial basis.
For example, the federal government, state governments, and individual slave owners substantially restricted the movement of African slaves. As Edlie Wong (2015) has argued, “Mobility was central to political struggles against African chattel slavery… Slavery demanded the regulation of movement. Disciplinary control over black bodies in space was essential to the theory of mastery.” (pp. 68-69) These restrictions included physical barriers like fences and an overseer’s horse, gun, or whip as well as passes and residency licenses. Then, there were the restrictions on learning to read as well as speaking that inhibited the communication necessary to make one’s way in the world. The barriers were extensive and mobility severely curtailed.
The restriction of movement is a central feature of the country’s population control. Recognizing this connection allows commentators, students, scholars, and activists to appreciate that this is not some new racist policy, but rather one that has existed for some time. The rhetoric of a Latinx threat mirrors that used to ramp up the fear of slave revolts, black hyper-sexuality, and violence. It has been recently argued that the Latinx threat is central to the construction of the United States, its borders, and Latinx migrants. Likewise, white restrictions of the movement of slaves did not just happen because they were slaves, but because of a complex racialized fear that helped define political and societal order.
So, it should come as no surprise that a racist, white President is engaged in a racist discourse of restricting movement. Trump has consistently derided darker-skin migrants as A.I.D.S. carriers (Haitians), members of the Los Angeles gang MS-13 (Latinx), biased (a Mexican-American judge), and murders and rapists (Mexicans). Race in politics, playing on the fears of whites, has been particularly evident ever since George H. W. Bush’s infamous Willie Horton advertisement. It reached high water mark with accusation that Barack Obama was not a natural-born U.S. citizen and thus ineligible for presidency, an idea Trump supported. If this threat rhetoric is accepted, then the racist logic of building a wall makes sense. However, the claims are not only ill-informed but also, at the very least, enable violence.
Today’s border wall is but one-way fences are used to restrict the movement of Latinx people. Jails, prisons, and detention centres use miles of fencing to further restrict movements. These fences form both the material interaction migrants have with the United States as well as the limits of that interaction imposed by the government. Fences then perform a constructive and destructive functions. They construct a political relationship while removing liberties and destroying families. Alas, from this perspective, the situation is all too reminiscent of slavery.
Using this knowledge of the racialized history of fence building, advocates will be better positioned to challenge the United States border wall. While many of the arguments about family separation, violence, economic waste, and environmental harms are persuasive, connecting today’s racism to that of the past helps us appreciate that the United States exists in a rhetorical space laden with racism; it is not a new political imperative. A prime example is the symbolic and material impacts fences have on migrants and the way they call forth the ghost of slavery.
Dr. Nick J. Sciullo is Assistant Professor of Communications at Texas A&M University, U.S. He has recently published articles in the Journal for the Study of Radicalism, Communication Education, and Humanities Bulletin. He published a book, Communicating Hip-Hop: How Hip-Hop Culture Influences Popular Culture, in 2018.
 Wilson, A. (1986). Fences. New York, NY: Plume.
 Crandall v. Nevada, 73 U.S. 35 (1868).
 Vesoulis, A. (2018, Nov. 30). President Trump reportedly wants to make asylum seekers wait in Mexico. It’s not that simple. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/5464757/donald-trump-asylum-border-migrant-caravan/
 Wong, E. (2015). Bound and determined: new abolitionism and the campaign against modern slavery. In J. O’Connell Davidson & N. Howard (Eds.), Migration and Mobility (pp. 68-71). London, UK: openDemocracy.
 Chavez, L.R. (2013). The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
 Leonhardt, L., and Philbrick, I.P. (2018, Jan. 15). Donald Trump’s racism: The definitive list. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/01/15/opinion/leonhardt-trump-racist.html