I’ve long since lost track of when I first heard it. In all likelihood, it was during the primaries, maybe it was after Trump said that Mexico was dumping rapists and murderers across its northern border. Maybe it was after he attacked the parents of a dead Muslim soldier, implying that his grieving father had beaten his grieving mother into silent submission. Maybe it came earlier: Maybe after it became common knowledge that Trump took out full paged ads calling for a return of the death penalty, just so the state of New York could kill five Black teenagers falsely convicted of raping a White jogger. I could have first heard it in a thousand places, but, I can never ignore it when I hear it. It grates. It twists itself into my abdomen, it triggers a mild but unmistakable bullshit induced stress response. Trump says something hateful: pundits respond: “This is not what America is about.” “These are not American values.” etc. etc. It is as though major media companies were paying commentators to authoritatively deny that the sky is blue.
This mass delusion has returned. Trump slanders the Black nations of the globe by calling them shit holes. We are assured that “This is not who we are.” As a Black American, I’m inclined to correct the issuer of such a blanket proclamation. This is not who we, Black Americans are, it is not who “we,” Indigenous Americans are, nor who “we” Asian Americans or Latinx Americans are. But, White America, it is who you are. Donald Trump is the distilled essence of your ideological heritage and the rest of us are curious as to why you think we’re fool enough to believe these high sounding lies.
I’m a historian, I study history. History happened, history matters, history is how we got here. When we look at America’s past, what do we find there? We find a country that built its economy on slavery using land stolen from peoples it has pushed to the very brink of non-existence. We find an America whose political life for some 300 years was rooted in an explicit, full-throated ideology of White supremacy which in the last 50 years has shape-shifted into dog whistles, behind-the-scenes whispers and implicit biases. Slavery prevailed 250 years, then for 100 years racist oppression was the published law of the land. Senators from Mississippi and South Carolina proclaimed the unassailable supremacy of lynch law on the floor of the US Senate. Former congressmen led racist, blood thirsty mobs to overthrow democratically elected city governments. No less a figure than the president of these United States screened racist propaganda in the White House. National railroad companies ran their trains on special schedules to accommodate tourists wanting to witness a lynching. At the slightest pseudo-provocation, mobs of armed White men destroyed wealthy Black neighborhoods and were aided by national guardsmen who attacked the terrorized, going so far in one case as to dynamite Black civilians from the air. It is only within the last 50 years that explicit racism has become officially undesirable. 50 years is an instant in the life of a culture. Opposing this notion we have the other 350 years of independent and colonial American history and the fact that White Americans depend on structural racism to maintain their collective status even as they claim to abhor that upon which their very Whiteness depends.
Most of the claims made for what America is and is not have come in the area of immigration. For 175 years after the first immigration and naturalization act in 1790 America’s immigration policy was explicitly racist and designed to ensure an eternal White majority. Only with the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization act were the doors thrown open to the greater part of humanity irrespective of race. When White commentators wax poetic about America’s immigrant past, they conveniently forget that almost all those immigrants were White while remembering the bigotry to which their own White ancestors were subjected. While the commentators never seem to put these data points into conversation, doing so invites the question: How can it be the case that America has always welcomed immigrants and that Trump’s xenophobia “Is not who we are” yet also be the case that the immigrant forbears of most White Americans were treated with utter disdain when they first got here? To hazard the obvious, you cannot be welcoming and culturally xenophobic at the same time.
Immigrants from Europe were “welcomed” only in the sense that they were given a favored place in the queue. Here we find a tension between xenophobias old and new. To an American, the violent fear and hatred of Irish immigrants can seem strange. America’s White population is primarily of British stock, Ireland is separated from Britain by a narrow body of water, the two peoples share a religion (though different sects). Such bigotry in the present seems almost too absurd to be taken seriously which may explain why these data points are never put together, White Americans no longer have to worry about the old bigotry that plagued their immigrant forbears, it has been superseded by the same almighty force that gave immigrants from Europe favored status despite native-born White Americans’ vicious bigotry: America’s cultural bedrock of racism. In America, racism trumps all, which made the Irish, Jews, Slavs, Germans Italians candidates for a level of inclusion which Black Americans could never and I would argue can never, approach. By the iron law of Whiteness, White countries can never truly be shit holes. The Ellis Island story has a happy ending, the blighted hero gets to be White in a White supremacist superpower. So as much as the punditocratic descendants of the “tired and poor” may flare indignant at Trump’s slandering of immigrants, they are free of the kind of historical burden which would force them to question what America really is.
Black Americans especially have no such luxury, our burden is heavy and constant. Awhile back, I saw a White woman quote Langston Hughes’s poem “Let America be America Again,” against Trump and his excesses:
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
Yet she ignored the very next line
(America never was America to me)
Langston Hughes was not dreaming of some America to which he longed to return. Writing in 1935, when nationwide Jim Crow reigned supreme, the year of eighteen mass lynchings; Hughes was positing that it might be nice if the country which America claimed to be was one in which he actually lived. Some 83 years later, this still sounds like a nice, poetically unlikely idea.
Speaking of poetry, there is a deep poetry to Trump’s latest….can we still call them gaffes? We can read his actions. On Tuesday Trump told a bipartisan room full of White people (With one Latinx representative) that he would sign whatever they brought him by way of immigration reform, he said “I trust the people in this room.” Thursday when told that the proposed reform was a bit too open to immigrants from poor, Black countries, Trump told a room full of White men that the people they wanted to let in came from “shit hole” countries. Again, he trusted the people in the room, the old White men just like him. Were it not for the chance to score some partisan points in the run-up to a mid-term, I have little reason to believe that Dick Durbin would have betrayed his fellow old, White elite. This is the basic pact that has always defined America.
So, whence all this “Not who we are” business? There’s a basic confusion around the boundaries of “we” as I alluded to earlier. Earlier this week the country celebrated the life the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., every February the country celebrates Black history, with the history of the Black freedom struggle front and center. King has a granite likeness on the national mall alongside the National Museum of African American Culture. Every schoolchild knows that Rosa Parks launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott by refusing to give up her seat to a White man. All of this adds up to the Americanization of the civil rights movement. Every culture prefers to emphasize its best and minimize its worst; and there is certainly something useful in trying to turn the story of how it became more possible for people who are not White, male property owners to live like human beings within this nation’s borders into the American story. The problem is that the extent to which this has occurred is not nearly the extent to which the narrative would lead us to believe it has.
If White Americans had a realistic understanding of the level of racial justice in this country and how far short it falls of the supposed ideal, this story might be a spur to still greater heights. As things stand, it allows the American mainstream to appropriate the truly spectacular story of outsiders who have resisted the dominant culture of White supremacy for centuries. The story of the Black freedom struggle is not the story of America maturing into some color blind ideal, the story of America is the story of a settler-colonialist slave-o-cracy which has contorted and transformed itself in response to incredibly effective resistance movements, movements which have been brutally persecuted every step of the way, which have had to fight valiantly for every single inch of ground in the face of a viciously racist social, political, economic regime. Then, the insult of insults, once these valiant freedom fighters have achieved a modicum of success, those who expended their every effort trying to destroy them turn around and enshrine them in a grand narrative which justifies the status quo. America gets to hide behind its own oppressed and graft their labors to its own distorted image.
But it is a mistake, in fact it is an outright lie to pretend that America is most accurately represented by Rosa Parks and not by the Klan just like it is a lie to pretend that when Trump looks beyond America’s borders and sees shit-holes, dens of rapine, harbors of terrorism and sneaky, job stealing Asians, he is functioning as anything other than a traditional (White) American. The first step beyond alcoholism is to admit that you have a problem. The first step beyond being a racist hellhole is to stop lying about who you are.
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