At the 2016 Republican National Convention, Donald Trump and the Republican National delegates engaged in an uncritical romanticizing of America’s past. Every evening there was a theme that pined for the “good ole days.” The convention started with “Make America Safe Again,” followed by “Make America Work Again,” “Make America First Again,” and “Make America One Again.” Each theme served the campaign’s larger theme of “Make America Great Again.”
While virtually every speaker declared that Trump would unify America by returning America to a prior golden age of greatness, no one identified when this golden age existed. When exactly in American history was America “safe” or “one”? When exactly was America “great”?
While there is nothing wrong with the desire to make America great, such a state of being lies in America’s future, not America’s past. Since the first day Europeans landed on the shores of this country, America has never been “one,” “safe,” or “great.”
The decimation, colonization, genocide, and forced relocation to reservations of millions of this country’s indigenous people attests to the fact that America has never been “safe” for Native Americans.
Since the first enslaved Africans were brought to this country, America has never been “one.” America has always been a divided nation, and that division has never been merely a division among Americans with differing views. Instead, the division has always been a division between the nation itself and segments of the American population.
The 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford Supreme Court case clearly articulated the nation’s position regarding black people. The court declared that the framers of the Constitution believed blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect…”
It is this belief that blacks (and “non-Americans”) have no rights that white Americans are bound to respect that has divided this nation since its inception.
While reactions to the Dred Scott decision may have helped precipitate the Civil War, the war ended slavery in name only. Black servitude continued in the form of sharecropping and peonage and as a result of vagrancy laws. The Civil War did not unite a divided America; instead it divided the nation even further and ushered in a new era of emancipation without equality.
The so-called “Reconstruction” period that followed marked the beginning of white resistance to government efforts to “make America one.”
In 1896, the Supreme Court again articulated the nation’s view regarding black people. In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court put its stamp of approval not only on legalized discrimination and inequality, but also on the notion of white superiority and black inferiority.
In order to enforce and maintain systems of institutional discrimination and inequality—as well as notions of white superiority and black inferiority—violence against black people became a way of life.
Nothing exemplified this violence more graphically than what W. E. B. Du Bois identified as “the lynching industry,” which in addition to hangings included beatings, shootings, dragging, torture, burning, mutilation, and the destruction of entire communities.
Despite the horrific violence against blacks associated with the lynching industry and the tireless work of anti-lynching advocates—which included nearly 200 attempts from the 1920s to the 1950s to pass anti-lynching legislation as well as petitions to Congress by seven U.S. presidents to pass such legislation—Congress never passed an anti-lynching bill.
The Civil Rights period represented a period of fervent opposition to the Jim Crow system of legalized local, state, and national discrimination against blacks that contributed to a starkly unequal world of discrimination, disenfranchisement, segregation, and racialized violence.
One of the most significant acts of violence, which in many ways served as an impetus for the Civil Rights Movement itself (similar to how the Trayvon Martin murder served as an impetus for the Black Lives Matter movement), was the brutal 1955 torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmet Till.
Much of the violence during the Civil Rights period was initiated, perpetuated, and sustained by politicians and law enforcement. In his 1963 inaugural speech as governor of Alabama, George Wallace declared, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Wallace’s assertion once again illustrated the ideology of white (American) superiority and the idea that no black person (or non-American) has any rights that white Americans are bound to respect.
History clearly demonstrates that there was no period within the first 200 years of America’s existence when America was “one,” “safe,” or “great.” Does this mean the “golden age” of American greatness occurred sometime during the past fifty years?
The post-Civil Rights era marks a period of covert rather than overt racism that has sought to systematically dismantle and circumvent many of the legislative achievements of the Civil Rights era. Just as the post-Civil War period technically ended slavery without ensuring equality, the post-Civil Rights period technically ended government-mandated segregation and many forms of racial discrimination without ensuring equality.
What both of these periods illustrate is that it is impossible to ensure equality when notions of white (American) superiority still persist. While legislation can effectively reduce some forms of racism associated with blatant and overt acts of discrimination, legislation cannot eliminate notions of white superiority that have buttressed hundreds of years of racialized violence and division in America.
Over the course of the past fifty years, significant racial disparities have been identified in virtually every area of American life. How does one explain these disparities? Is it possible that notions of white superiority and black inferiority are part of the cause?
One of the greatest areas of racial disparity in America exits in the American criminal justice system. Nationally, blacks are imprisoned at more than five times the rate of whites. Blacks serve longer prison sentences and have higher arrest and conviction rates than whites, and—as American history has demonstrated (especially recent history)—as a percentage of the American population blacks are more often the victims of excessive police force. Black interaction with law enforcement has always carried with it risks of excessive police force against blacks.
During Donald Trump’s acceptance speech, he talked about making America great “again” by restoring “law and order” and eliminating violence in the streets of America—especially violence against police officers. Trump’s fear mongering rhetoric about immigrants and Black Lives Matter (BLM) supporters sought to link violence and chaos in America to non-white perpetrators.
Trump made no reference or allusion to the facts that in America, police officers are most often killed by white men or that women are more often raped by white men than by Mexican immigrants or that white men are responsible for a vast majority of violent crimes in America, especially homicide against white Americans and mass shootings (which are on the rise in America).
Furthermore, while mentioning police repeatedly in his speech, Trump said nothing about all of the police murders of unarmed black men, women, and children in the past few years or about the long and ugly history of racist policing in America—all factors that contribute to America not being safe.
While Trump’s RNC acceptance speech has been compared to Richard Nixon’s 1968 RNC acceptance speech, the speech also resonated with a 2005 statement by former secretary of education, William Bennet, who stated, “If you wanted to reduce crime, you could—if that were your sole purpose—you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down.”
While Trump said nothing about aborting black babies, a belief that lies at the heart of Bennet’s assertion, at the heart of the racial disparities within the criminal justice system in America, and at the heart of Donald Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” through the restoration of “law and order” is belief in the notion of white superiority and black inferiority that associates criminality with black (and brown) people.
The myth of white superiority and black inferiority has pervaded the American justice system through discretionary acts, decisions, and comments by legislators, law enforcement officials, prosecutors, witnesses, jurors, and judges ever since America’s legalization of slavery.
During the Republican Convention itself, U.S. Representative Steve King articulated white supremacy on national television. Responding to Charlie Pierce on an MSNBC panel conversation, King said, “This whole ‘white people’ business though does get a little tired, Charlie. I mean, I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about. Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?” [N.b.: The “other categories people” the panelists had just been talking about were black Americans and Mexicans.]
It is this notion of white superiority, shared by many Americans, that maintains and perpetuates significant racial disparities in virtually every area of American life. It is also this belief in white superiority and black inferiority that keeps America from being “one” and from being “great.”
While ethnic and racialized violence has divided America since its founding, many Americans (especially black Americans) have been working relentlessly to make America “one” and to make America “great.”
As a result of nearly 250 years of tireless work by countless Americans to defeat slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and racialized violence, America is greater today than it has ever been, and the key to making it a great nation is to push forward to make it even greater.
The only way America will ever be “one” and will ever be “great” is to acknowledge that it has never been one and has never been “great.” There have been great moments in American history, but great moments do not make a great nation. To suggest that there is some “great” golden age in America’s past to which we need to return and emulate is an egregious disrespect to all those who have lived and who continue to live under the daily violence of American oppression.
The solution for “fixing” all that divides America is not to return to some golden age in America’s past but to work today to finally “Make America Great” (not merely greater) for all people.
Guy Nave is professor of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, focusing on biblical studies, religion and social justice, and race-religion-and politics. He received his Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Yale University. He also blogs for Sojourners and Luther College’s Ideas and Creations page.