By Dr Sulien Morgan.
Is America really imploding? It can seem that way to many both inside and outside the US, and particularly to those of the more liberal persuasion. Two things, more than anything else, in current American society are cause for concern; two things which should not be present at all in a western liberal society of the 21st century. The first is the continued trend of white police officers seeming all too ready to shoot and kill African-American males, as was yet again the case in Tulsa, where the unarmed Terence Crutcher was the casualty of a trigger-happy police woman. The second cause for concern is the very dangerous and very real possibility that Donald Trump will be elected President on November 4th.
Many people are surprised, many are shocked. How can it be that the United States, the bastion of liberty, allows its police to act in such a way? And how can its people support a very dangerous Presidential candidate, whose rhetoric does more to divide than unite the already fragmented country?
Yet really, there should be no surprise, no scratching of heads at what is currently transpiring – a nationwide police force which is increasingly appearing as a refuge for racists, and a society intent on electing a bigoted, divisive megalomaniac. The age old adage that, to understand the present one must understand the past, is nowhere more relevant and applicable than it is to the United States.
The United States was founded on the eradication of the native populace. The roots of inequality were sown with the clearing of the native inhabitants of America so that the ‘white man’ could occupy land and thus flourish. This is a country which enabled slavery to be practised, decade after decade, a practice not repealed by the highly-esteemed, and often referred-to, founding fathers, upon whose principles this nation was built. A country which, after abolishing slavery, pursued the practice of segregation based on the colour of one’s skin: a norm which continued into the second half of the twentieth century. This is a country where the Ku Klux Klan and the despicable Jim Crow laws are still within living memory.
Race has not been the sole intolerance of the United States and its host society. Religious intolerance went hand in with racial prejudice. When the poet Emma Lazarus wrote, ‘give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses’ thus portraying America as a welcoming homeland for immigrants, she didn’t add that those poor, tired, huddled masses would need to meet other criteria before being welcomed into mainstream American society, namely being white and Protestant. For the Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Scots, Welsh, English, Germans, amongst others, were to be welcomed but Catholic Poles, Irish and Italians were considered undesirable. They were to be closed out of the host society. So much was this the case that in Boston, the city’s Irish emigrant population were forced to create their own institutions, creating a parallel society within a society.
Apologists for US history may note that every country’s history is a march of progress, and that the election of an Irish Catholic President in 1960, and in 2008 the election of a black African American president, herald watershed marks in the country’s record of tolerance. And yet, if Donald Trump ascends to the white house, the societal progress of electing both JFK and Obama will appear to have been anomalies, with little left to suggest that the country’s march to a progressive and more tolerant society ever occurred.
Trump’s popularity has much to do with disaffection of ordinary Americans, aggrieved at how they are governed, taxed too much and work too hard for little reward. It is an easy step for them to be taken in by Trump’s rhetoric as they carry also a residue form America’s past. Its collective memory persists, passed on from generation to generation. A collective memory where minorities, those of a different race, or religion – Islam is the new enemy – do not belong, and are often blamed for everything which is wrong with the country
The dominant ethnic group, with its core values and beliefs, dictates what is American and what is not, what type of immigrant is welcome and what is not. They control the narrative, they are the host society. There is a history, a memory, a precedent, generation after generation, of the host society refusing admittance to blacks, Hispanics, Catholics, Muslims… There is a perpetuation of the idea that these minorities live in America but are not really American.
But the American experience is not a singular, it never has been. Donald Trump represents those regressive elements from American history that insist it is: an American experience moulded only in their image. If America is to change, the police shooting of innocent black males has to stop, and large sectors of its populace must never again view someone such as Donald Trump as electable. The way its society thinks needs to fundamentally change. It needs to grapple with its past, recognise its faults, its prejudices, its inequalities and find a new way to move forward in tolerance and acceptance.