America’s Original Sin: Trumpets Revive Belief in a ‘White Man’s Country’

It can’t be left to black Americans alone to resist the president’s racism. Citizens of all colours need to resist, and embrace activism

by Nell Painter edited by O Society August 6, 2019

white-power

The idea some US inhabitants deserve the land, deserve to stay and to occupy it, and that others must go – to be exterminated (Native Americans), to be exiled (black people), to be driven out (Chinese and Japanese people), to be barred from immigrating (Italians, Jews and other southern and eastern Europeans), to be removed (Mexicans) and, briefly, challenged as citizens (Irish Catholics) – has changed shape over time in terms of the permitted stayers and the non-permitted exiles.

But the conviction that only some people – that is, white people (however defined) – deserved US citizenship based on race held on for a very long time. After all, the initial US Congress began its work in 1790 by limiting eligibility for naturalisation to the free and the white.

In the 1970s, I thought changes in US laws and customs had put cries of “get out” and “go home” to rest. I thought the legislation of the 1960s on immigration, civil rights and access to the vote had put all that behind us, in law, at least, if not totally in practice. I thought the United States had turned a corner, had moved away from “this is a white man’s country” and relegated “go back to where you came from” to schoolyard taunts.

From left: Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley condemn Donald Trump’s outburst.
From left: Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley condemn Donald Trump’s outburst. Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP

I was wrong. With so many of my compatriots, I was gravely mistaken. The past is not the past.

I also thought back then that naked voter suppression had largely ended. And yet it still exists today. But it’s not just disfranchisement that’s current. It didn’t occur to me in the 1970s that outright bigotry like Donald Trump’s would be uttered in public. It didn’t cross my mind back then that a president would indulge in textbook-level racism out loud.

Today, along with millions worldwide, I’m shocked and angered by Trump’s taunts against four congressional women of colour, the latest and most acute in his record of verbal bigotry. To make matters worse, Trump’s followers in North Carolina revelled in his meanness by chanting his views, to his clear delight. In the 1970s, I could not imagine such presidential behaviour as the American future, although I would certainly recognise it in the American past.

Trump has made us admit that the “white man’s country” past – the past of publicly uttered white supremacy that Trump channels, the unabashed bigotry and xenophobia, the long, long past of race hate in the American south, but also in the west and the north—flourishes among us. His followers chant “send her back” and he preens in their enthusiasm.

White supremacy enjoyed a long and triumphal run, a run that continues, but the American past also includes campaigns against white supremacy, starting with anti-slavery and embodied in the black struggle for civil rights, most visible in the 1950s and 1960s but begun decades earlier and not yet ended. Black Americans led the struggle and paid the price in lives and mental health. And yet, for all that struggle and bloodshed, black Americans could not have enacted crucial legislation alone. Non-black allies also paid a price as they made the difference between an obscure struggle and widely reported campaigns. In the courts, communist allies defended black activists. In Congress, religious leaders taught representatives that black Americans, who were lifting the heaviest loads, were not in the work alone.

womens-march-berlin.jpgJust as Trump and his backers make historic racism newly visible, the American anti-racist past needs to come more fully alive. Racism may be momentarily more visible and better funded, but the 20th-century campaign for democracy is as much a part of American history. Black Americans are in the vanguard, as exemplified in the Moral Mondays campaign led by the Reverend William Barber in North Carolina – where Trump’s supporters yelled “send her back” and one of the state’s senators congratulated him on his good work. Other Americans of colour are already engaged. Progressive Democrats are joining up, as are Democrats whose constituencies are reliably Democratic. Yet among opponents of Trump’s nativism, Republicans are hardly to be found.

 

The notion there are two main political parties in the US – one on the centre left, the other on the centre right – is simply wrong. For the parties are increasingly defined by their racial politics. Democrats are multiracial multiculturalists. Republicans are the white party.

Even before Trump, the Republican party had been waging a southern strategy for more than half a century, ever more firmly committed to its white identity. The demography of the Republican congressional delegation, from its senators and representatives to its staffers and interns, makes a striking contrast with its Democratic counterpart. True, the Republican ranks are not 100% lily-white. But in light of Trump’s racist provocations and wide-scale Republican acquiescence, I wonder how long non-white Republicans will hold on.

Anti-racist protesters outside Donald Trump’s rally in Greenville, North Carolina.
Anti-racist protesters outside Donald Trump’s rally in Greenville, North Carolina. Photograph: Jonathan Drake/Reuters

Tellingly, the earliest and most emphatic Republican denunciation of Trump’s “go back” rhetoric came from Will Hurd, an African-American congressman. At this point, the Republican party seems more willing to tolerate Nazi-style racism than to denounce it unequivocally and by name.

With Trump and his party re-enacting the history of American white supremacy, citizens who cherish democracy must take the opposite side in our national drama and stage a counter re-enactment.

cville_009_JPG
A member of the “Right” holds up a shield with a sticker critical of “Antifa” during a confrontation with the “Left” outside of Emancipation Park during the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, VA, U.S., August 12, 2017.

Just as Trump carried his just-happen-to-be-white into proud-to-be-white followers and into white nationalism, anti-Trump Americans must carry the nation in a saner direction. And just as Trump’s racism calls up old themes in America’s history, anti-racists must now act on a history of their own, one sufficiently powerful to defeat Trumpism, as it defeated slavery, segregation and disfranchisement.

African Americans already know this history and are already motivated. Other people of colour are learning it and engaging with the cause. And while Trump has galvanised his white people for bigotry, now anti-Trump white people need to step up into activism – on behalf of multiracial, multicultural American democracy.

6 thoughts on “America’s Original Sin: Trumpets Revive Belief in a ‘White Man’s Country’

  1. “After all, the initial US Congress began its work in 1790 by limiting eligibility for naturalisation to the free and the white.”

    Here is an amusing historical factoid. The then established political order, in the federal and state governments, became more restrictive in excluding everyone other than free white male land owners. This meant there were fewer Americans with voting rights after the American Revolution than before it.

    And so taxation was even less representative. When the revolutionary veterans protested their loss of freedom, the new authoritarian state violently put them down with an army led by the newly elected President Washington who once led those same Shays’ rebels during the revolutionary war. Oh, the sad and demented irony of it all!

    “Trump has made us admit that the “white man’s country” past – the past of publicly uttered white supremacy that Trump channels, the unabashed bigotry and xenophobia, the long, long past of race hate in the American south, but also in the west and the north—flourishes among us.”

    Why did it take Trump to make people realize this? This simple fact of American society has been obvious to me my entire adult life. Sure, Trump made it so obvious it could be denied or ignored. And I suppose, for that reason, Trump deserves some credit. He has forced many people to face what they didn’t want to acknowledge. But that is a sad state of affairs that it required a cartoon evil villain to make people see what was right in front of their eyes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Among North Carolina cities, I’m familiar with Asheville but not Greenville, two very different kinds of places I assume. For several summers, I lived in the Black Mountain area, near Asheville. It’s beautiful country, of course. But for all the alternative culture, the fundamentalist religiosity around Asheville was a bit too much for my taste. I’ll never forget the time I was driving down a back road and saw a billboard with a public health message that informed the public that epileptic seizures were caused by a medical condition, not by demonic possession, and so please seek a doctor. We don’t have that kind of religious mindset here in the Upper Midwest.

      Anyway, I live in Iowa City, another small college town with a popular football team. Greenville is half again larger than Iowa City, but Iowa City doesn’t feel small as large high-rise buildings are popping up like weeds. It’s interesting that for having such a major college football team that football doesn’t particularly dominate the local culture. Iowa City is more well known as a center of art and literature. I don’t care much for organized sports, despite having played soccer growing up. Spectator sports seems boring to me. If I’m not playing, I don’t care. But fortunately, football is easy to ignore around here. And conformity isn’t particularly an expectation, not that the local liberal class can’t be culturally oppressive in other ways.

      We Midwesterners maybe don’t take either religion or sports as seriously as do Southerners. I became aware of the differences after having lived in South Carolina from 8th grade to the first semester of college before moving back to my childhood home here in Iowa City. What a profound difference it was. The fundamentalism of either Carolina is unique to that region. That said, I must admit I’m extremely fond of the Upper South, if not so much the Deep South. My family comes from the Upper South and it feels familiar to me, a middle ground between South and North. In doing genealogical research in Kentucky, there was many elements that resonated with a Midwestern sensibility while others were clearly Southern. One friendly guy who showed us around a family cemetery on his neighbor’s land said of someone he knew as a “good Christian”. I never hear that in Iowa where someone is simply “good people”.

      Like

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