I was in high-school when I stopped standing for the pledge of allegiance. As the occupation in Iraq reached its peak and the War on Terror rampaged on, the further and further away I felt from the stars and stripes hanging from the wall.
During our current presidential campaign, that same sense of distance has returned. And for good reason.
We have a presumptive Republican nominee leading an army of racists, xenophobes, and bullies. Although polls show Hillary Clinton in the lead, the race is close.
Now, I’m not here just to point out that this isn’t new. For example, in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan manipulated phrases such as “welfare queen” and spoke on state’s rights in places like Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists were murdered by right-wing extremists. As Frank Rich, reporter for New York magazine, has expressed in his article titled “What the Donald Shares With The Ronald”:
“Both have marketed the same brand of outrage to the same angry segments of the electorate, faced the same jeering press, attracted some of the same battlefront allies (Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Phyllis Schlafly), offended the same elites (including two generations of Bushes), outmaneuvered similar political adversaries, and espoused the same conservative populism built broadly on the pillars of jingoistic nationalism, nostalgia, contempt for Washington, and racial resentment.”
However, I am interested in unpacking the type of discourse that has consistently breathed life into such campaigns. That behind it all is the cunning use of language and symbols around the paradigm of “American Exceptionalism.”
American Exceptionalism, when boiled down to its core, props up the belief that the U.S. is special and all its citizens enjoy absolute liberty and freedom. Basically, we’re perfect and always have been.
In school, we were taught that slavery was the nation’s “original sin” and that men in powdered wigs were trying to follow their better angels. We were led to believe that Manifest Destiny was inevitable and that European settlers needed more land. I was fortunate to have parents and teachers who encouraged me to read beyond what was offered in the classroom and so I was able to find my own answers by writers such as James Baldwin and Sherman Alexie.
The truth became apparent when I went to Rutgers and I understood that the U.S. was founded on White Supremacy, and that Black and Brown men and women were perceived as tools, and not as full human beings.
George Washington himself owned slaves and during his presidency, signed “the first fugitive slave law, which allowed fugitives to be seized in any state, tried and returned to their owners. Anyone who harbored or assisted a fugitive faced a $500 penalty and possible imprisonment.”
Even Alexis de Tocqueville, a name synonymous with the study of early American culture, recognized the hierarchy.
“Tocqueville’s ‘Three Races’ chapter clearly illustrates that he was aware of the role that property rights in whiteness and white privilege played in American political development,” Alvin B. Tillery, Jr. writes in his study of Tocqueville’s observations on race. “In other words, he saw both the state and the federal governments as fundamentally committed to passing laws that created and sustained both property rights in whiteness and generalized white privilege in the Jacksonian republic.”
Yet, we continue to praise and build statues in honor of men responsible in the death and destruction of countless lives. Some argue that people should ignore the image of Washington on their money or pretend that Jefferson’s Monticello doesn’t exist.
“Monuments, flags, these are not just history,” Eric Foner explained in a recent interview, “They are expressions of power.”
Who controls the history, controls the dominant conversations of our society. Both conservatives and liberals play into the discourse of American Exceptionalism.
For instance, Elizabeth Warren tweeted that the presumptive Republican nominee “stands ready to tear apart an America that was built on values like decency, community, and concern for our neighbors” (bolded by me).
Similarly, Sanders continues to paint past movements, such as labor, as always on the side of the underdog. It is true that without unions many of us wouldn’t have our 40-hour weeks, and minimum wage. However, Sanders romanticizes the complexity of history.
As sociologist Deborah K. King explains in her seminal work, “Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness: The Context of a Black Feminist ideology,” labor movements were once quick to represent solely the interests of White men:
“Samuel Gompers, the leading force of trade unionism and president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL, founded in 1886), believed that the best means of improving wages for Anglo males was to restrict the labor supply. His strategy was to advocate the return of women to the home and the banning of blacks and Asians from the unions. Although the AFL never formally adopted these restrictions at the national level, many local chapters did so through both formal rules and informal practices.”
In “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race,” famed historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, states:
“The metalanguage of race also transcended the voices of class and ethnic conflict among Northern whites in the great upheavals of labor during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Amid their opposition, capital and labor agreed sufficiently to exclude blacks from union membership and from more than a marginal place within the emerging industrial work force. Job ceilings and hiring practices limited the overwhelming majority of black men and women to dead-end, low paying employment-employment whites disdained or were in the process of abandoning. The actual class positions of blacks did not matter, nor did the acknowledgment of differential statuses (such as by income, type of employment, morals and manners, education, or color) by blacks themselves. An entire system of cultural preconceptions disregarded these complexities and tensions by grouping all blacks into a normative well of inferiority and subserviency.”
Being delusional is deadly. It is akin to telling your friend who has a drinking problem that they simply have to sleep more and avoid stairs. If we continue to believe in our grand psychosis, we will repeat our mistakes.
This past week, I’ve been reading Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community by Martin Luther King, Jr. Although there are parts of Dr. King’s perspective that I disagree with, such as his pessimistic view of Black Power and his main focus on men of color as opposed to also including women, I was reminded of how much of a visionary he truly was.
In the chapter “Racism and the White Backlash,” King unequivocally believed that White America, including liberals, hadn’t done enough to support the civil rights struggle.
“But the white backlash is nothing new,” King explained, “It is the surfacing of old prejudices, hostilities, and ambivalences that have always been there. It was caused neither by the cry of Black Power nor by the unfortunate recent wave of riots in our cities. The white backlash of today is rooted in the same problem that has characterized America ever since the black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation. The white backlash is an expression of the same vacillations, the same search for rationalizations, the same lack of commitment that have always characterized white America on the questions of race.”
Dr. King opposed the war in Vietnam, warned against what he described as “neocolonialism” in Asia and Africa, and remained a steadfast supporter of mass nonviolent protest. He believed in guaranteed income, and condemned the Western world for investing in countries like apartheid South Africa. The West, Dr. King hoped, would admit to its crimes and aid developing nations.
“The West must enter into the program with humility and penitence and a sober realization that everything will not always ‘go our way,’” he said, “It cannot be forgotten that the Western powers were but yesterday the colonial masters. The house of the West is far from in order, and its hands are far from clean.”
I could also sense his frustration within the page. I could picture him in his room in Jamaica while he wrote this, gazing out the window and sensing the urge to just walk away and spend the rest of his life on the beach with his family.
Most of all, I could sense the distance he probably felt.
The same distance that can engulf any of us at any moment. That distance crowding up my happiness after I graduated college and didn’t know what I wanted to do. That distance that grew as we enter a political world where once again, the voices of POC are marginalized.
“We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest , who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
Just like that, I was brought back. To the America I am born and raised in, to the streets where I learned to ride my bike. Where I had my first crush and heartbreak. Where my best friends and parents are, always by my side.
“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal opposition to poverty, racism and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when ‘every value shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.’”
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Sudip Bhattacharya is a PhD student in Political Science at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he focuses on race and identity in American politics. He is also a staff writer for AsAm news, which concentrates on Asian Americans in the U.S.
Before, he worked as a full-time journalist, writing articles for CNN Politics, the Washington City Paper, Lancaster Newspapers, The Daily Gazette (Schenectady), the Jersey Journal, and The Aerogram (a website dedicated to South Asian American issues). You can reach him @ResistRun on Twitter.