Make America Great Again…But For Whom?
Was anyone else as struck by this cartoon as I was?
Like most Americans, I have been keeping close track of Donald Trump’s justifications for why America is no longer great (Mexican rapists, Islamic terrorists, China) and the insults being hurled at Colin Kaepernick for declaring the same (ungrateful, un-American, unworthy). But up until now, I had never seen the two juxtaposed or recognized the striking irony of, and parallels between, their two arguments and the national response to them.
When a rich, privileged, white celebrity claims that America is broken — that politicians and their policies have left a large swath of the white American population behind — there is no argument from either side of the aisle. His supporters, ignoring the means by which this individual proposes to remedy the situation, focus on the truth of the man’s statement and praise him as a “straight-talker” whose racist, misogynistic rhetoric is just what is needed to shake up the system. Despite having achieved so much, his supporters do not question his right to speak for the unprivileged white masses, nor do they question the machinations and deceptions he has used to obtain and sustain that privilege. He is held up as an exemplar of the American Dream — hard-working, entrepreneurial, successful (despite all evidence to the contrary) — and thus an individual deserving of adulation and imitation.
But when a rich, privileged, black celebrity claims that America is broken — that politicians and their policies have left a large swath of the black American population behind — there is an uproar from the right and begrudging admission by the left. His detractors, ignoring the truth of the man’s statement, focus on the means by which he is making that statement and lambast him for being un-American, for disrespecting the armed forces, for exercising his First Amendment rights at the “wrong time.” Because he has achieved so much, his detractors question his right to speak for the unprivileged black masses, and accuse him of all sorts of machinations and deceptions intended to undermine his own country. He is held up as an exemplar of the stereotypical black American — ungrateful, unworthy, unaware of his place (despite all evidence to the contrary) — and thus an individual deserving of reprobation and castigation.
The irony is that both Trump and Kaepernick are right. Large swaths of both white and black Americans have been left behind. With this shared grievance, these groups should be uniting to elect a candidate who will advocate for policy that will ensure that the rising economic tide that we are currently experiencing lifts all boats. The US has the largest amount of total private wealth ($63.5 trillion) of any country in the world, but, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), it also has the fourth highest income Gini coefficient (0.40) after Turkey, Mexico and Chile. This should be a class struggle, not a racial one.
However, as with most things in the US, race is not so easily removed from the equation. Because while income inequality may be an issue for many Americans, it is particularly egregious for black Americans who, according to a study by Demos, a public policy organization promoting democracy and equality, have just 6% of the wealth of a typical white household. But struggling white Americans don’t want to hear that the struggle is more real for others. Because if they admit that, then they would have to admit that their grievances might not be the top priority. They’d rather carry on in their ignorant white delusion that, because we elected a black president, black Americans have no right to use discrimination as an “excuse” for inequality anymore. They claim that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks. They convince themselves that equality cannot but come at their own expense. Because, as someone once wisely said:
“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
For Donald Trump, his supporters, and their vision of what a “great” America looks like, equality looks a lot like losing. And losing is not an option.
And so we divide ourselves along racial lines (thinly veiled by alignment with particular political parties) and continue to talk at each other, not with each other, failing to see the common ground we share. The conversation deteriorates to a judgment of who is more “American” and whose grievances are therefore more valid. And the result will be a fragmented society and the perpetuation of a system that is still rigged in favor of the privileged few.
Oh, the irony.