How can we understand President Donald Trump’s executive order banning the entry into the U.S. of immigrants from Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Iran and Iraq, as well as all refugees? As an act of national security, the ban makes no sense. Since Sept. 11, 2001, no refugees have committed terrorist acts in the United States. None of the terrorist acts since 9/11 have been committed by people from the banned countries. The ban does not restrict entry from the countries of origin of those who have committed terrorist acts in the U.S.

If the purpose is to keep out terrorists, there is absolutely no evidence that a ban like this will do so. And, by banning people who have aided the U.S. military in Iraq and have been forced from their homes for doing so, the U.S. is sending a clear message that it does not value its allies. A country without allies is a weak and insecure place.

Perhaps the purpose is showmanship: a performance of autocratic authority to demonstrate that the president has the power to unilaterally declare entire populations personas non grata. But as a piece of political theater, the ban has provoked massive backlash abroad and at home and a significant drop in his approval ratings. A deeply divided country scorned and ridiculed by others is a stiff price to pay for showmanship.

Could the ban be a racist gift to his core white, Christian, alt-right base? The U.S. has a history of bans and color bars to entry and citizenship, about which we are rightfully embarrassed in hindsight. The Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted citizenship to only white immigrants, a law that remained on the books until 1952. Entry to the U.S. remained open to anyone, however, until the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and then the Johnson Reed Act of 1924, which imposed the first comprehensive control over immigration.

The Reed Act placed a cap on the number of people to be admitted, set national origins quotas based on the 1890 census for entry and barred anyone ineligible for citizenship from entry. By using the 1890 census, the national origins quotas intentionally favored immigrants from northern Europe and restricted Jewish immigrants because of anti-Semitism and fears of Communist influence.

Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court declared ineligible for citizenship immigrants across a swath of territory stretching from Japan to Afghanistan — with an exception for the Philippines, then a U.S. territory — creating a new racial category of “Asian” to be universally banned.

When comprehensive immigration reform in 1965 removed national origins quotas and bans, it was heralded as a rejection of racist barriers to entry and a victory for American values of justice, human rights and fairness. The re-imposition of national origins bans feels like a throwback to a time when political authorities managed immigration to ensure white, Christian supremacy.

To understand the “immigration ban,” we first need a collective reckoning about what made America great in the first place. We have contradictory yet intertwined historical currents from which to choose. Is our choice going to be the history of genocide, enslavement, white supremacy, denial of citizenship, immigration bans and national origins quotas?

Or do we choose the history of opposition: the history of those who fought against the racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-black, discriminatory, genocidal policies of their time? Do we believe the history of committed struggle for justice and equality is what made America great? We don’t choose our history, but we do choose the history we want to valorize and promote as a bellwether for the future. I hope we make the right choice.

Catherine Besteman is a professor of anthropology at Colby College in Waterville.