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Two White Men

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

There have been fifty-seven presidential elections in the United States since the first in 1788. In each of them, two white men (with the recent exceptions of Obama winning in 2008 and 2012 and Hilary Clinton losing in 2016) have competed for the privilege of leading this country. With these few exceptions, each and every pair of them has been dedicated to this nation’s not-so-hidden agenda – the maintenance of white-male supremacy – a system of oppression first established by Columbus, in 1492. This November 3rd, presidential election number fifty-nine will be held and, true to form, it will be a contest between two white men who, I suggest, both share the ingrained, cultural assumption that their sex and skin color makes them entitled to rule and otherwise enjoy the privileges of wealth and power. So it is that every four years, we make a ‘choice’ between two white men deeply implicated in white-male supremacy.

How do we know this?

Our institutions, which our presidents are sworn to uphold, are designed to maintain this privilege. The U.S. Supreme Court is an oracle that claims every question in the present can be answered by precedent. This is a country that defines itself by reference to the past. Never mind that our past is founded on the slave labor of Black Americans and the genocidal elimination of Native Americans. Its innate prejudice is further elaborated by the Chinese Exclusion acts, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the mass incarceration of black and brown men, and, most recently, the heinous acts of family separation and commitment to concentration camps that await Mexican and Central American immigrants. These are acts committed under the full protection of the laws and institutions of the United States, and by a leadership that has fully internalized the validity of white-male supremacy.

How do we know this?

Women, through much of American history, had a status little better than slaves. In her paper, Race and Gender Discrimination: A Historical Case for Equal Treatment under the Fourteenth Amendment, 1994, Sandra L. Rierson, a noted legal scholar, writes,

“Historically, women and Blacks in America have shared a common experience, especially in the context of those rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. Sexism and racism in American society have prevented women of all races and Black men from enjoying the rights–civil, social, and political –to which they are entitled under the Constitution.”

This is a country where women are treated, regardless of color, as inferior beings – politely, the weaker sex – and denied the constitutional protection of equal rights; their voting rights only tardily granted in 1920. Control over their own bodies is ever threatened. Despite their critical role in social reproduction, the system pays them nothing for their domestic labor and less than men for their work outside the home. If they work, it likely denies them paid maternity leave and then fails to provide child-care and other social services for their children. White males may suffer many deprivations, but they are forever bolstered by the notion that they are called upon to uphold these systems of prejudice. Whatever impoverishment or indignities they may suffer, they can exult in this power that society grants them. The worst of them – bullies all – become politicians and even presidential candidates.

How do we know this?

Our government fights wars of Empire that are extensions of the colonial urge to exploit people of color and to extract wealth from the lands upon which they depend for their survival. The territory that now constitutes the United States includes the thirteen original colonies liberated from the British in 1783; Jefferson’s Louisiana purchase, negotiated from the French in 1803; Texas, a vast swathe of the southwest and all of California, acquired from a defeated Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, 1848; Alaska purchased from the Russians in 1867; and Hawaii annexed in 1898 by President McKinley – all lands sustainably inhabited solely by their indigenous peoples before Columbus. The nation’s late nineteenth and early twentieth century colonial adventurism in Central America and the Pacific similarly depended on Imperial notions of racial and civilizational superiority.

After its reluctant, laggardly participation in the twentieth century’s two World Wars, America has pursued an almost continuous string of regional wars in the Mid-east, Africa and Asia that have all exhibited racist characteristics. When WWII broadened to the Pacific theater, this country’s innate prejudices fully emerged. In the concluding act of that war, it is unlikely that the U.S. would have dropped two gratuitous, experimental atomic bombs on white civilian populations. It was the in-grained white supremacism of the president and his generals that doomed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

How do we know this?

The economic and health conditions in the US reflect the profound racism and sexism inherent in all its commercial, financial and governmental institutions. The Brookings Institute estimates that the average wealth of white families is almost ten times greater than that of Black families. This disparity is only amplified in the current pandemic in which infection and death rates recorded in populations of color are up to five times higher than in the non-Hispanic, white population, according to the CDC. Essential workers in the U.S. are predominantly of color and disproportionately female. Many of the disadvantages experienced by the country’s non-white population can be attributed to historical circumstances. But these circumstances have baked-in prejudice at the heart of American society, and it is this prejudice that is reaffirmed, every four years, in the investiture of a white man as president in an act of profound practical and symbolic significance. It betokens the population’s subservience to the white-male and confirms the patriarchalism evident at every level of social organization.

To make these arguments is to veer into the realm of the glaringly obvious. Yet, many of the historical antecedents that confirm the genesis of the American Republic as a constitutionally racist and sexist society, upheld both by its presidents and its most revered institutions of governance, are obscured by the multi-layered mythology that emphasizes the country’s Enlightenment credentials as a cradle of freedom and equality. But the language in the Declaration of Independence self-evidently establishes it to be a sexist document, typical of its time, while it entirely ignores the considerable presence of enslaved Africans within the colonies when it blithely suggests that, “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

The U.S. Constitution of 1787 began as a document that permitted slavery under State law and confirmed the continuation of the slave trade until 1816. The notorious compromise that resulted in the inclusion of the Fugitive Slave Clause (Article IV, Section2, Clause 3), made all Americans of that time a party to the dehumanization of African Americans as fungible economic objects, obliging them to return fleeing slaves to their lives of enslavement. It made all Americans a party to the crass reduction of Black men to three-fifths of their headcount in order to provide states in which they were held the political clout to uphold the institution of slavery.

In denial of this history, the administration of Donald J. Trump issued an Executive Order on Combatting Race and Sex Stereotyping, on September, 22. Its purpose is to roll back the progress made this summer by the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in exposing the falsehood that all Americans, of whatever gender or race, are equal under the laws of the Republic. Trump’s Order denounces, “the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans.” The Executive Order goes on to suggest that, “This destructive ideology is grounded in misrepresentations of our country’s history and its role in the world. Although presented as new and revolutionary, they resurrect the discredited notions of the nineteenth century’s apologists for slavery who, like President Lincoln’s rival Stephen A. Douglas, maintained that our government “was made on the white basis…by white men, for the benefit of white men.”

The Executive Order presents a laughably sanitized version of American history any refutation of which is threatening, it suggests, to the country’s ability to realize its ‘destiny.’ The bombast is recognizably Trumpian as we read, “Our Founding documents rejected these racialized views of America, which were soundly defeated on the blood-stained battlefields of the Civil War. Yet they are now being repackaged and sold as cutting-edge insights. They are designed to divide us and to prevent us from uniting as one people in pursuit of one common destiny for our great country.”

America’s ‘common destiny’ in the late eighteenth century was to secure Indian lands beyond the Appalachians. Following their victory over the French in the Seven Years War, the British had declared, in King George’s Royal Proclamation of 1763, that this territory was to be the exclusive province of Native peoples. However, they were already lightly settled by colonists and it is where at least two of our revered Founding Fathers, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, were engaged in land speculation. Britain, as the sole colonial power after the war, stood in the way of such speculation because of its promised protection of the Indian tribes residing on the prospective real estate. It was this fact that weighed far more heavily than the price of tea in the Founding Father’s decision to declare independence from Britain. By the middle of the nineteenth century, ‘Manifest Destiny’ would be declared as the ideology that validated the dispossession of native peoples across the continent and, by century’s end, the almost total, government sponsored, destruction of the vast buffalo herds that had been central to the survival the Great Plains tribes.

The nineteenth century English philosopher, John Stuart Mill, noted that in antebellum American society, Blacks were forced to do agricultural labor and women coerced to marry and produce children – echoing the primordial oppression of the weak by the strong. Manifestations of race and gender oppression have changed over time, but they remain obdurate, and are now fully systematized in our revered institutions. Their removal requires radical institutional dismantling, yet we continue to elect our presidents to defend these bastions of the indefensible. In the election of 2020, to paraphrase James Carville’s 1992 dictum, “It’s the Institutions stupid.” In this epiphany is revealed the horrifying truth that the voting public is unknowingly complicit in the elaborate mythology that preserves the nation’s racism and sexism – the twin supports of its overarching ideology of white-male supremacy.

 

John Davis is an architect living in southern California. Read more of his writing at urbanwildland.org  

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