Make America Great AGAIN?

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This blog was previously published by CounterPunch, used here with permission. 

At the 2016 Republican National Convention, Donald Trump and the Republican National delegates engaged in an uncritical romanticizing of America's past. Every evening there was a theme that pined for the "good ole days." The convention started with "Make America Safe Again," followed by "Make America Work Again," "Make America First Again," and "Make America One Again." Each theme served the campaign’s larger theme of "Make America Great Again."

While virtually every speaker declared that Trump would unify America by returning America to a prior golden age of greatness, no one identified when this golden age existed. When exactly in American history was America "safe" or "one"? When exactly was America "great"?

While there is nothing wrong with the desire to make America great, such a state of being lies in America's future, not America's past. Since the first day Europeans landed on the shores of this country, America has never been "one," "safe," or "great."

The decimation, colonization, genocide, and forced relocation to reservations of millions of this country's indigenous people attests to the fact that America has never been "safe" for Native Americans.

Since the first enslaved Africans were brought to this country, America has never been "one." America has always been a divided nation, and that division has never been merely a division among Americans with differing views. Instead, the division has always been a division between the nation itself and segments of the American population. 

The 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford Supreme Court case clearly articulated the nation's position regarding black people. The court declared that the framers of the Constitution believed blacks "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect..."

It is this belief that blacks (and "non-Americans") have no rights that white Americans are bound to respect that has divided this nation since its inception.

While reactions to the Dred Scott decision may have helped precipitate the Civil War, the war ended slavery in name only. Black servitude continued in the form of sharecropping and peonage and as a result of vagrancy laws. The Civil War did not unite a divided America; instead it divided the nation even further and ushered in a new era of emancipation without equality.

The so-called "Reconstruction" period that followed marked the beginning of white resistance to government efforts to "make America one."

In 1896, the Supreme Court again articulated the nation's view regarding black people. In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court put its stamp of approval not only on legalized discrimination and inequality, but also on the notion of white superiority and black inferiority.

In order to enforce and maintain systems of institutional discrimination and inequality—as well as notions of white superiority and black inferiority—violence against black people became a way of life.

Nothing exemplified this violence more graphically than what W.E.B. Du Bois identified as "the lynching industry," which in addition to hangings included beatings, shootings, dragging, torture, burning, mutilation, and the destruction of entire communities.

Despite the horrific violence against blacks associated with the lynching industry and the tireless work of anti-lynching advocates—which included nearly 200 attempts from the 1920s to the 1950s to pass anti-lynching legislation as well as petitions to Congress by seven U.S. presidents to pass such legislation—Congress never passed an anti-lynching bill.

The Civil Rights period represented a period of fervent opposition to the Jim Crow system of legalized local, state, and national discrimination against blacks that contributed to a starkly unequal world of discrimination, disenfranchisement, segregation, and racialized violence.

One of the most significant acts of violence, which in many ways served as an impetus for the Civil Rights Movement itself (similar to how the Trayvon Martin murder served as an impetus for the Black Lives Matter movement), was the brutal 1955 torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmet Till.

Much of the violence during the Civil Rights period was initiated, perpetuated, and sustained by politicians and law enforcement. In his 1963 inaugural speech as governor of Alabama, George Wallace declared, "In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Wallace's assertion once again illustrated the ideology of white (American) superiority and the idea that no black person (or non-American) has any rights that white Americans are bound to respect.

History clearly demonstrates that there was no period within the first 200 years of America’s existence when America was "one," "safe," or "great." Does this mean the "golden age" of American greatness occurred sometime during the past 50 years?

The post-Civil Rights era marks a period of covert rather than overt racism that has sought to systematically dismantle and circumvent many of the legislative achievements of the Civil Rights era. Just as the post-Civil War period technically ended slavery without ensuring equality, the post-Civil Rights period technically ended government-mandated segregation and many forms of racial discrimination without ensuring equality.

What both of these periods illustrate is that it is impossible to ensure equality when notions of white (American) superiority still persist. While legislation can effectively reduce some forms of racism associated with blatant and overt acts of discrimination, legislation cannot eliminate notions of white superiority that have buttressed hundreds of years of racialized violence and division in America.

Over the course of the past 50 years, significant racial disparities have been identified in virtually every area of American life. How does one explain these disparities? Is it possible that notions of white superiority and black inferiority are part of the cause?

One of the greatest areas of racial disparity in America exists in the American criminal justice system. Nationally, blacks are imprisoned at more than five times the rate of whites. Blacks serve longer prison sentences and have higher arrest and conviction rates than whites, and—as American history has demonstrated (especially recent history)—as a percentage of the American population blacks are more often the victims of excessive police force. Black interaction with law enforcement has always carried with it risks of excessive police force against blacks.

During Donald Trump's acceptance speech, he talked about making America great "again" by restoring "law and order" and eliminating violence in the streets of America—especially violence against police officers. Trump's fear mongering rhetoric about immigrants and Black Lives Matter (BLM) supporters sought to link violence and chaos in America to non-white perpetrators.

Trump made no reference or allusion to the facts that in America, police officers are most often killed by white men or that women are more often raped by white men than by Mexican immigrants or that white men are responsible for a vast majority of violent crimes in America, especially homicide against white Americans and mass shootings (which are on the rise in America).

Furthermore, while mentioning police repeatedly in his speech, Trump said nothing about all of the police murders of unarmed black men, women and children in the past few years or about the long and ugly history of racist policing in America—all factors that contribute to America not being safe.

While Trump's RNC acceptance speech has been compared to Richard Nixon's 1968 RNC acceptance speech, the speech also resonated with a 2005 statement by former secretary of education, William Bennet, who stated, "If you wanted to reduce crime, you could—if that were your sole purpose—you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down."

While Trump said nothing about aborting black babies, a belief that lies at the heart of Bennet's assertion, at the heart of the racial disparities within the criminal justice system in America, and at the heart of Donald Trump's promise to "Make America Great Again" through the restoration of "law and order" is belief in the notion of white superiority and black inferiority that associates criminality with black (and brown) people.

The myth of white superiority and black inferiority has pervaded the American justice system through discretionary acts, decisions and comments by legislators, law enforcement officials, prosecutors, witnesses, jurors and judges ever since America's legalization of slavery.

During the Republican Convention itself, U.S. Representative Steve King articulated white supremacy on national television. Responding to Charlie Pierce on an MSNBC panel conversation, King said, "This whole 'white people' business though does get a little tired, Charlie. I mean, I'd ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you're talking about. Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?" [N.b.: The "other categories people" the panelists had just been talking about were black Americans and Mexicans.]

It is this notion of white superiority, shared by many Americans, that maintains and perpetuates significant racial disparities in virtually every area of American life. It is also this belief in white superiority and black inferiority that keeps America from being "one" and from being "great."

While ethnic and racialized violence has divided America since its founding, many Americans (especially black Americans) have been working relentlessly to make America "one" and to make America "great."

As a result of nearly 250 years of tireless work by countless Americans to defeat slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and racialized violence, America is greater today than it has ever been, and the key to making it a great nation is to push forward to make it even greater.

The only way America will ever be "one" and will ever be "great" is to acknowledge that it has never been one and has never been "great." There have been great moments in American history, but great moments do not make a great nation. To suggest that there is some "great" golden age in America's past to which we need to return and emulate is an egregious disrespect to all those who have lived and who continue to live under the daily violence of American oppression.

The solution for "fixing" all that divides America is not to return to some golden age in America's past but to work today to finally "Make America Great" (not merely greater) for all people.

Guy Nave

Guy Nave

Guy Nave, professor of religion, has been part of the Religion Department faculty since 2001, focusing on the topics of Christianity, biblical studies, religion and social justice, the social construction of religious meaning, and race-religion-and-politics. Professor Nave is currently researching the power, politics and meaning behind the rhetoric of "change," as well as the role of Christianity in bringing about social "change." In addition to writing for Luther College's Ideas and Creations blog, Nave is the founder of the online social media platform Clamoring for Change and is a guest contributor to a number of online sites, including Sojourners Commentary blog series.

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  • August 6 2016 at 4:40 pm
    Donald L. Eells
    For example look at the history of Old New York (New Amsterdam). Settlers switched countries as the war ships arrived from the next country. People died and the Indians died and killed settlers too. Crime was present even for the settling puritans. It continued to the present. I am sure the same history was present throughout the entire United States. The settlers in the 1600s, 1700s and later were rarely safe, BUT yet they thought this Country was great. Name any historical figure, they all saw the opportunities and greatness of this developing country. Change and growth continues and the founding fathers set up a .costitution that sets out our basic rights, liberties and formate for our government. Such document must be read to accept and interprete societal changes that could not be foreseen in the 1700s. A living document can adjust to new norms. 200 years from now, who can perceive America? It might be merged into one government called the World, or it might be under a cement bunker 50 feet underground while the earth cools from radiation or laser wars??? Whatever the case, even then some leader will be saying Lets Make America Great!
  • August 6 2016 at 9:25 pm
    Kevin Williams
    Dr. Nave's article is historically accurate and ideologically balanced. If America is to be truly great, living up to its highest ideals, it must be great for all Americans, not just those of one cultural group. America is moving in this direction, but there remains a great deal of work for us all.
  • August 6 2016 at 9:31 pm
    Adrian Durlester
    Brillian article. Suggest you fix the following typo: "One of the greatest areas of racial disparity in America **exits** in the American criminal justice system."
  • August 6 2016 at 9:39 pm
    Kristen Koch
    Thank you, Dr. Nave for your wisdom and faithfulness. And thank you Luther Seminary for publishing this article.
  • August 6 2016 at 9:56 pm
    Jean Binder
    "As a result of nearly 250 years of tireless work by countless Americans to defeat slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and racialized violence, America is greater today than it has ever been, and the key to making it a great nation is to push forward to make it even greater." Excellent point.
  • August 6 2016 at 10:06 pm
    Pastor Phyllis Haynes

    Thanks for sharing this.

  • August 6 2016 at 10:45 pm
    Pastor karin moberg
    Amen! Thanks for beginning with the fact that after "The decimation, colonization, genocide, and forced relocation to reservations of millions of this country's indigenous people attests to the fact that America has never been "safe" for Native Americans." So often this goes unacknowledged...we indeed have so much work to do.
  • August 6 2016 at 11:55 pm
    Julia Schumacher '09
    Fantastic article! Thank you, Dr. Nave.
  • August 7 2016 at 1:56 am
    J Howell
    It concerns me deeply that these issues still plague the nation. I am overjoyed there is a place that people can go to to discuss, share ideas, and concerns. Luther college has shown they are able to change with the times regarding diseminating information and being a sane voice in an insane time. That in itself is something to consider when looking at higher education for my children. No longer are you just another college but a college of interest.
  • August 7 2016 at 5:48 am
    Thank you for speaking out for truth. I think most people do not have a good enough grasp of history to understand why we need to say that black lives matter. Until this latest election cycle, I thought we were done with the idea of white superiority. It's sad that articles like this still need to be written, but thank you for doing it.
  • August 7 2016 at 6:47 am
    Kelly C
    Excellent article, Dr. Nave! It is well-thought and well-supported. I appreciate how every reference has a link. I would expect no less from Luther College. I continue to pray for my nation, that we may live up to the ideals we have set for ourselves. Pieces like this one are indispensable in attaining that goal! Thank you.
  • August 7 2016 at 9:13 am
    Guy Nave
    I appreciate everyone who has taken the time to read this LONG post, to leave encouraging comments, and to "share" this post with others. Thank you!
  • August 7 2016 at 9:28 am
    I'm impressed Luther College that you posted Dr. Nave's article. It displays the character of your institution. Too many in our Nation are ignorant to the founding & behaviors of our US of A and Trump is one of them. I challenge everyone to share this article with all, especially educators. This article can be incorporated in your curriculum. Thank you Dr. Nave & Luther
  • August 7 2016 at 10:18 am
    Laurie M '08
    It is refreshing to read something related to this election that is actually based in facts and the history of our country and not in fear. Thank you Dr. Guy Nave for writing this blog post, and prior posts, reminding all of us about where we came from and what is really going on in our country.
  • August 7 2016 at 12:38 pm
    Shawn Kennedy
    One of the things I'll always appreciate from my time at Luther was being exposed to a variety of viewpoints. The many times I said to myself "I never thought of it like that", especially as a 1st year student, helped form me into the person I am today. Reflecting back, I often wish I had an opportunity to retake Dr. Nave's courses with a more focused and attentive mind. These posts and his willingness to always share and discuss gives me, and us, that opportunity. As always, thanks for your time and insight Dr. Nave - I truly appreciate it. Shawn Kennedy Luther '06
  • August 7 2016 at 12:47 pm
    Anne Edison-Albright
    This a clear and powerful message. Thank you!
  • August 7 2016 at 1:06 pm
    Hans Lee
    Thank you for your leadership, and for speaking truth into the ongoing struggle for racial justice. I am thankful to have you at my alma mater!
  • August 7 2016 at 2:13 pm
    Rev. Bonnie Wilcox
    You have brilliantly and accurately pointed out that America has never been "great" in issues of white superiority and black inferiority. Add to your work our nation's history regarding women, children, and GLBT people and you continue to find no evidence of a greater time in American history. And who would want to live without penicillin, or seat belts, or what we've learned about tobacco's effects on our bodies? Preach, brother.
  • August 7 2016 at 2:28 pm
    Margie Walker
    Excellent Article Guy!
  • August 7 2016 at 3:21 pm
    Sue Edison-Swift
    Thank you for this post, I will share it widely. It's time to take off the white-washed glasses that makes us nostalgic for the past and work for "a future with hope" for all.
  • August 7 2016 at 8:17 pm
    The Rev. John Michles
    Well reasoned, well written and well documented not spin. Thanks for your blog post. Keep providing a reality check on public statements.
  • August 8 2016 at 11:01 am
    Adam Svec
    I graduated from Luther in 2002. Since then, I've completed lots of graduate work (M.A., Au.D, and Ph.D.) at the University of Minnesota. To this day, "Paideia II: Race, the American Dilemma" was the most illuminating and useful class I've ever taken. The course challenged me to seriously examine what majority culture (e.g., white folks) imposes upon folks outside of the majority (e.g., non-white folks) and the ways in which that imposition is relatively invisible to most individuals in the majority (e.g., white people are not good at comprehending what it's like not to be white in the US). In line with that illumination, Guy Nave's piece recently published in Counter Punch is remarkably timely while remaining timelessly relevant. If more pieces like this come out of Luther College, it will build upon its national reputation as a beacon for justice, peace, humanity, and sensitivity to the needs of non-white members of our community. God speed, Dr. Nave.
  • August 8 2016 at 11:49 am
    Guy Nave

    Thank you, Adam, and everyone who has shared kind and powerful memories and comments. All of your words mean much to me, and I am encouraged by the work ALL of you are doing.

    I strongly believe that as Luther College prepares to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (1517-2017), taking a BOLD and vocal stance against a culture of violence and fear mongering rooted in racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, would be a remarkable way of honoring Martin Luther's courageous stance!

  • August 8 2016 at 12:38 pm
    eli williamson '02
    Thank you Guy for the timely article that articulates the blatant ridiculousness of the slogan, "Make America Great Again."
  • August 8 2016 at 1:08 pm
    Jennaya Robison
    Incredible, Guy. Thank you for this.
  • August 8 2016 at 8:13 pm
    Carl Peterson

    Thank you to Luther College and the Religion Department in particular for being the conscience of our community. 

  • August 8 2016 at 10:56 pm
    Pete Hoesing
    Couldn't agree more with Adam Svec's remarks above: that Paideia II course continues to shape my teaching and lifelong learning processes. Rev. Dr. Nave's ongoing rejection of white supremacist sociopolitical organization, the Luther faculty's commitment to grappling with the difficult questions that such a project implies, and the broader institutional tradition of social justice at Luther remain inspirational. None of these can abide what Dr. King called "the appalling silence of the good people," and neither should we. Thank you for constantly reminding us of that responsibility.
  • August 10 2016 at 4:02 pm
    Steve McCargar
    Thanks, Guy, for the incisive and thorough critique of Trump's "Make America Great Again" baloney...The fact that a person of his manifest incompetence, malevolence and outright racism could become the nominee for president of the party of Lincoln is truly a blight on our body politic...Every American who believes that the arc of history needs to bend toward justice must speak out now.
  • August 25 2016 at 10:58 am
    Yer Vang
    Thank you for clarifying the American history that is often overlooked and dismissed. America can be great when all of its people are valued and respected equally. Please keep sharing the truth; we need more of it.

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