A week ago Sunday night, two different contests were underway. In California, lawyers for the state of Hawaii prepared to argue in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit against President Trump’s executive order banning nationals from six Middle Eastern countries from entering the country. In Las Vegas, five immigrant women were vying for the title of Miss USA.
On the surface, beauty pageants might appear to have little in common with immigration policy. But pageants are actually a vehicle for reflecting and defining what it looks like to be American, and their demographics over time can help explain what the executive order is really about.
Beauty pageants typically bring to mind frivolous women, regressive notions of femininity, and controversial, often insipid answers to interview questions. That’s not entirely off base. But in the United States, their history is also inherently political and, more specifically, racial.
In her book “Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women,” historian Blain Roberts notes that beauty pageants emerged in the South during Jim Crow as a way to assert white superiority. White Southerners created an entire cosmetics industry equating beauty with whiteness and trained a string of winning Miss Americas who embodied their racial ideal in a national representative. The Miss America pageant, which started in 1921, lifted its official rule that contestants be “of the white race” in 1950, but state and local pageant officials continued to enforce it: Miss Black America emerged as a secondary pageant in 1968 to protest the exclusion of black women. (The first black contestant, representing Iowa, competed in the Miss America pageant in 1971.) Later, with an influx of immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of relaxed immigration laws, pageants for other ethnic groups, such as Miss India USA and Miss Chinatown USA, offered foreign-born citizens avenues to recognize within their own communities a beauty ideal that was rejected by the mainstream culture.
As the diversity of national beauty pageant winners has increased in the past three decades, so has resistance to the changing picture of American-ness. Since the 1984 crowning of the first black Miss America — Vanessa Williams, who received death threats - winners of that pageant have included eight African Americans and two Asian Americans, and half of the Miss USA titleholders in the past decade have been women of color.
But the first Muslim to win Miss USA in 2010, Lebanese American Rima Fakih, was immediately dubbed “Miss Hezbollah” by conservative news outlets. The first Indian American to win Miss America, Nina Davuluri in 2013, got the unofficial Twitter title of “Miss 7-11” or “Miss 9/11” (depending on the user’s ability to understand the difference between Indians and Arabs) and prompted a racist backlash for not looking "American enough.”
This isn’t only a U.S. issue. When a half-Japanese, half-black contestant won the Miss Japan pageant in 2015, followed by a half-Indian, half-Japanese winner in 2016, the country, which is only 3 percent biracial, entered a heated national debate about what it means to look Japanese.
The United States is at the same crossroads, and the conversation in the courts since Trump took office mirrors the one onstage. Although Trump’s travel ban has been dubbed a “Muslim ban,” it is part and parcel of a larger effort to control how the United States looks as well as how it prays. The ban, combined with contemporaneous executive orders to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and aggressive deportation of immigrants, is an attempt to reverse the forces that are changing the country’s racial composition. To wit: With current immigration rates and increasing intermarriage between races, Americans identifying as two or more races are expected to triple in the next five decades, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Racial minorities now make up almost half of children younger than 5, and census numbers predict the percentage of total Americans identifying as a race that is not white to be 56 percent by 2060, making the United States a “majority-minority” country.
The recent Miss USA pageant brought this ongoing transformation into full relief: Seven of the 10 finalists were women of color, with an Indian-born American representing New Jersey and an Italian-born African American representing the District of Columbia ultimately the last two competing for the crown. It’s no surprise that whether by blocking visas or building walls, there are parts of the country desperate to hang on to a vision of the United States that is rapidly disappearing from their TV screens as well as their neighborhoods. The courts are grappling with the legal manifestation of the same backlash.
There’s some irony in the overlap between the pageant and the legal challenges to Trump’s orders. The president owned the Miss USA pageant for years; he sold it to the talent agency WME-IMG shortly after announcing his candidacy in 2015. Beauty pageants even became a campaign issue when Trump’s treatment of a former Miss Universe from Venezuela, whom he referred to as “Miss Housekeeping,” underscored his anti-immigrant sentiments.
Against this backdrop, the coincidence of the Trump travel ban case with the Miss USA pageant invites us to look at pageants through a political lens. Perhaps rather than being an outdated relic of the past, pageants offer a glimpse into the nation’s future.
Rangappa is an associate dean at Yale Law School.