We face an interesting dichotomy in America—we formed this nation because we found our treatment from the British untenable, yet today our president suggests that if we find things untenable we should leave.
Trump’s call to “go back where you came from,” which was recently leveled, then re-leveled and tweeted, then retweeted against four female members of Congress, was really intended for all of us who want our country to be better—who fail to perpetuate the myth of America as the shining city on the hill. That phrase, so often attributed to Ronald Reagan, was coined around 1630 by John Winthrop in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. (Reagan added shining to Winthrop’s original city on the hill.)
We’ve weathered many storms on this hill—the Civil War, the Great Depression, 9/11—and now we face another: do we admit that much of America’s greatness has been built on the backs of subjugated minorities and commit to rectifying the situation so that the shining city is open to everyone, or do we continue to perpetuate the America where white man pats himself on the back for “freeing” the slaves and “Christianizing” the savages—two events whose necessity the white man created.
For years we have glossed over these questions, answering them with pieces of legislation designed to improve the situation, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Civil Rights Act, but it took a racist president to point out to us how far we hadn’t come—how mired in the slave/master paradigm we remain four hundred years after the first slaves were brought here. And now he wants us to get out of the way so that we can continue our journey into the past where America was great—and white. We are urged to forget our history by those afraid to recognize it, or ignorant of it, or both.
We hold Germany accountable for the Holocaust, and we would scoff if the Germans asked the rest of the world to forget about it as if it didn’t influence and taint its history—and to some degree its present. Slavery in America is no different. To look upon it as a phase we went through and overcame is to be facile. If it was a phase, it continues today—visible in the strengthening of white supremacists, the continued presence of the KKK, and the American prison system whose cells house nearly two and one half percent of America’s black population, but only one half of one percent of whites. It’s a phase where people of color are far more likely to be shot by the police than whites, where all-white jury pools convict black defendants significantly 16 percentage points more often than white defendants, and where Republican-appointed judges give substantially longer prison sentences to black offenders than non-black offenders.
Repairing this system has been, is now, and will continue to be a daunting task. Generational change in and of itself will not suffice, not when people in the highest offices spew racial hatred, impede participatory government, and use the penal system as internment camps. And yet many Americans wave the flag, sing a patriotic song, and hope that by looking away it will fix itself. If we treated physical illness that way, we’d all be dead.
America may still be the shining city—it remains one of the great achievements in the history of the world—but the luster has to be maintained before it dims and fades. And sometimes that maintenance requires some scraping and prepping, not simply spraying over the dullness.