Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
So tell me why, can’t you understand
That there ain’t no such thing as a superman
What happens to a nation once its most privileged symbols have been thoroughly discredited? Where does a country turn to begin again?
After eight years of the Bush-Cheney regime, the United States confronts these questions in light of a deep and profound crisis of legitimacy. The current crisis is intimately shaped by the demands of 21st century American imperialism and is reflected in the (un)spoken language of white supremacy.
The financial crisis engulfing the global capitalist system has exposed the hollow core of the American Dream. As thousands of individuals and families have their homes go into foreclosure, the symbolic center of the American Dream – the home – has turned into an economic nightmare from which no one can awaken.
The reckless financialization of global capitalism which accelerated over the course of the last decade has not only discredited free market fundamentalism, but has also severely compromised the economic and political standing of America’s unique brand of consumer capitalism. The ideology of an infinite American prosperity is no longer tenable as capitalism unravels and more and more Americans face desperate economic times with equally desperate choices.
The trends that progressives have for years been highlighting – the consolidation of wealth among a coterie of the elite, the record gap between rich and poor, the downward decline of wages, and the ever increasing level of poverty – are now coming to the forefront of public conversation.
And in so doing, calling into question the foundational assumptions of American superiority.
While the veiled and coded language of American foreign policy has been deciphered and well understood by those on the receiving end of America’s imperial promises, the rogue and cynical exploits by the recent administration has taken the mask off of the imperialistic machinations of American power. Average citizens have been forced to face the wide gulf between the rhetoric of politicians and the military actions pursued in the name of the American people.
As if the crisis of capitalism and the overreach of imperial America were not enough, Americans are now in the midst of a hotly contested presidential election dominated by the age old American pastime of the politics of race. While racial politics have always been a prized weapon in the arsenal of both political parties, what makes the 2008 incarnation of this political ritual unique is that the appeals to white supremacy – not the amorphous language of “race” to which mainstream media commentators refer – while recognized and justly denounced in its most extreme expression, still resonates within the political landscape precisely because of the crisis of capitalism and the military exploits of the American Empire.
In times of economic crisis and national malaise, the old political standby of subtle and not so subtle appeals to white supremacy becomes logical. Why? Because so much of what constitutes the American nationalist imaginary joins all that is felt to be familiar, normal, secure, and safe with the attributes, disposition, and outlook of the quintessential white person. And in moments of national anxiety and economic insecurity politicians must reassure the American people that all is right (and white) with America.
Thus, it should not come as a surprise that there has been a lack of critical commentary on the white supremacist dimensions lurking just beneath the surface of what is taken to be a legitimate political appeal to the middle class as represented in the language and image of “Joe Six-Pack” and “Joe the Plumber.” So as the story goes, the dreaded “outsiders” of the White Republic are produced and reproduced – immigrants, terrorists, socialists, muslims, black nationalists, and the list goes on – in an effort to make sure that all that is solid for the United States of America does not melt into air.
On November 5, 2008, Americans will wake up to a new day. And as with all new days there will be work left over from the previous day to do. But for the United States of America, the work that is left over is from the beginning and has steadily increased over the course of centuries.
And, once again, we will begin the long arduous process of making a nation. Perhaps, just perhaps, we will eschew the short sighted vision of power and might and just try to do what is just and right, both in America and throughout the world.
Corey D. B. Walker is an assistant professor of Africana studies at Brown University and the author of A Noble Fight: African American Freemasons and the Struggle for Democracy in America.