America, Divided and Conquered

Matthew J. Koehler
Sep 24, 2018 · 5 min read

The greatest weapon the colonial powers have used in the past against our people has always been his ability to divide and conquer. If I take my hand and slap you, it might sting you because these digits are separated. But all I have to do to put you back in your place is bring those digits together. –Malcom X

In mid 17th century Virginia, long before civil rights or even abolition, poor whites and black slaves came together to demand justice from the ruling class. The rebellion failed but not without a valuable lesson for the elites: A unified citizenry is dangerous.

The ruling class managed to divide and conquer the slaves and poor whites by changing the social hierarchy. The indentured whites were given more rights and privileges, ensuring that no matter how marginalized they were, they’d still believe themselves above the slaves.

Future alliances were a long time coming as attitudes would have to change amongst more of the white population, but those alliances eventually did form. Each time, different groups, divided by race and social class, converged to achieve a greater human goal. Usually achieving greater equality before the hegemony divides and conquers again.

As the Civil Rights movement wound down in the late 1960’s, America declared a victory for equality even as whites ran from cities to the exclusive middle class suburbs. There, white America amassed more wealth and privilege for its middle class families. Black Americans were excluded from this enterprise by redlining and racist zoning practices.

During this time, racist ideologies evolved and the language became subtler. The new post-racial narrative was devoid of racial overtures, yet still played off white fears. Politicians effectively used white fear to make policy, strengthen their base, and stay in power.

At the start of Nixon’s drug war in 1971 (the drug war has been around in one form or another since before prohibition), the post-racial zeitgeist introduced “law and order” — a phrase that tread more carefully around race. It became a rallying cry all across America (and is currently a phrase loved by the Trump administration), starting in white suburbs where fear of spreading inner city crime was strongest. Though, by the mid 1990’s law and order policies had garnered some wary support in the black community.

America quickly focused on its new enemies: drugs and crime.

Politicians of the day did their part by painting bleak pictures of inner cities without having to resort to racially charged rhetoric. Meanwhile, TV screens across the country were inundated with images of the dangerous black criminal.

There were two Americas, here. The one we like to recall with no small amount of nostalgia and another America that no one saw. Inner cities resembled a police state — impoverished, riddled with violence, neglected — a place where young black men could be expected to end up in prison.

To absolve itself of this sin, white America pointed to its black friends and colleagues as evidence of being post-racial, and brushed off the hypocrisy. They also kept their hypocritical fear of literally any black man passing them in the street quietly to themselves.

Today, the post-racial narrative sports Internet memes of white cops playing with black kids, black and brown faces on mainstream television, and prominent black conservatives claiming that racism is a thing of the past. The period at the end of this post-racial story is a popular two-term black president. Problem solved.

This whitewashed narrative on race is both blatantly hypocritical and dangerously unjust. Depending on your race, your education standards are likely to be subpar, and teachers won’t expect much of you. You’ll likely be charged more severely and face longer incarceration. You may find yourself a victim of white fear — having 911 called on you for simply having a BBQ. To add injury to insult, you’re also more likely to be shot by police.

White America doesn’t like to hear this, but generations of people from communities across the country know that post-racial is a lie. They’ve lived it.

We never were a truly united country but stories of rampant inequality don’t fit well with the American narrative — especially the narrative being pushed by Trump’s administration.

The current administration wants to redefine what it is to be American. Disagreeing with them makes you naïve and ignorant, but opposing them makes you dangerous. Black or white, male or female, if you don’t submit yourself to this whitewashed version of America, you’re an enemy of the State.

Old bigotries are being extricated from their platform, while still being used to manipulate our worst instincts. The hegemony has repurposed America’s hate and anger, directing towards those who refuse to fall into line. Dissenting citizens are no exception.

You see America must be made great again, even if we have to unbalance the scales of justice to do it:

  • Like a woman’s right to choose, which is slowly being stripped away state-by-state.
  • You can still marry whomever you love, but children will be kept in the hands of more traditional families.
  • Climate change is just a theory, but if you believe in it you must be against jobs.
  • Opposing harsh immigration policies because of the human suffering it causes is also un-American.
  • Opposing mass deportation because of the harm it causes is un-American. Opposing an over-priced wall as an unnecessary tax burden is un-American.
  • Cringing at the jingoistic America First policy, and the narrative about our exceptional nature, makes you both un-American and a snowflake.
  • Being horrified at the separation of children from their parents, makes you naive and ignorant and a supporter of open borders.
  • To call the new administration out for lies and alternative facts is un-American. Disagreeing with our dear leader is anti-American.

Make no mistake, there’s an enemy out there and they don’t think like us.

Is this hyperbole? Maybe. But take a closer look at the administration’s closest ally and role model: Russia. The once secular communist boogeyman has become a symbol of the conservative movement, making nationalism and xenophobia acceptable again.

Putin redefined Russia’s relationship to liberal progressivism, married the church to the state, and used xenophobia to usher in a new era of nationalism. In doing so, he’s turned popular opinion against Islam, gays, liberal democratic values, and social progress. At the same time, he’s consolidated power and given a model to any leader that would use this grassroots rage against their own country’s dissenters and outsiders.

We should be worried that the Trump administration agrees with this approach and has fallen into lockstep with it. We should be worried that the growing divide between political ideologies is so great that every election is zero sum. Winners get to define the character and course of the country without input from those who lose, and the losers become the enemy of the winners.

There is no democracy in this approach, only a desperate struggle to that pits one political extremism against another.

The spread fingers have become a fist.

Matthew J. Koehler

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Stories. Verse. Humor. Most of this is true. Bylines around the Web. Editor of a small publication in the District. For parenting woes:

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