Let’s get clear about something. The slogan “Make America Great Again” refers to one thing, and one thing only: a time in this country when the establishment of white power and supremacy was stronger and more stable than it was in 2016. It refers to an ideology, to a pre-Civil Rights stranglehold on social justice, organized discrimination against people of color that reinforced the existence of a nonwhite underclass, and a Jim Crow society that oppressed and segregated to consolidate power for the few at the expense of the many.
It does not refer to some romanticized time in American society that was generally better than the society we have today. It does not refer to the 1950s or the 1920s or any other specific period. A return to “greatness” implores the use of a mindset that locates power at the intersection of whiteness, racial segregation, and control of social and economic systems, property, and the process of capitalism.
Suddenly, with a vote, inauguration, and sweeping executive orders that are serving as social combat, an increasing number of us are alarmed by what amounts to societal degradation before our very eyes. Have we been taken over by a modern Mussolini? Is today’s hate the new heil Hitler? Is the American system of governance under assault by an extremist Tea Party faction that has capitalized on a weak GOP?
Not exactly. What feels like a sudden, bleak turn in U.S. politics for so many is actually the manifestation of an unrelenting system of dominance with roots in pre-independence America, slavery, and racial separation of power. Our new president knew this during his campaign, and now his executive orders reflect a commitment to America’s most discriminatory and oppressive methods. He is indeed a demagogue whose irrational nature feels rational and logical to far too many Americans.
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander describes America’s social structure as a caste system that periodically renews itself. From the creation of whiteness to slavery to Jim Crow to today’s system of mass incarceration, clear patterns of social control are embedded in our history. They operate to oppress and subjugate the poor and nonwhite populace, and they feel especially intractable because they were designed by and for an historically powerful white minority. Sadly, these social control efforts have been largely successful.
In the U.S., our dominant caste relies on the solidarity of whiteness. This is how wealthy whites who primarily control our political, social, and corporate systems appear to represent a broad spectrum of whites — even poor whites are included, or are led to believe as much. It appears natural, then, that the billionaire can pass along prosperity to the coal miner, can pass along prosperity, even if it is, at best, a trickle.
Today’s White House is the embodiment of fear about diminishing white superiority, a growing movement toward equality, and increasing access to power by nonwhites. Since the rise of the Tea Party, I’ve often felt that the very foundation of American society is under threat. But much of what America has been built on has given us the very systems of prejudice and divisiveness that our new president is working to strengthen. What is actually at stake is the ability for our nation to fulfill its ideals, ideals that we have never achieved and cannot achieve if we remain grounded in fear while making walls meant to divide.
The task before us is less about resistance and more about what we are willing to create. Resistance requires energy, but creation requires much more—alliances, strategy, resources, will, and political power. To be reactionary is one thing, but to be calculating and forward thinking is an entirely different approach.
We can’t create a new America without a commitment to American ideals, and we can’t create something new without understanding why we have arrived at this point in history. The president’s rhetoric is layered with racial prejudice and white supremacy, and in order to break that down, we all—in particular well-intentioned whites—need to do the hard personal work of dismantling our role in systems that would prefer our allegiance.
Even if we are left clinging to hope and change, today’s White House is a result of much deeper problems in American society. The calm, cool, and collected nature of the Obama administration kept us sedated while the weakening white establishment sought revenge. Class and grace displaced the urgency of the problem, and the smoldering appetite for equality and racial reconciliation was no match for a backlash against the legitimacy of a black man as president.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has asked if a nation can ever recover if it refuses to address its original sins. The new White House gives us a clear sign that it probably can’t and doesn’t want to anyway. Perhaps what is most frightening about the new government is that the nation’s original sins are seen as historically positive, and they are being used to set precedents for new policies.
Looking at what’s ahead, we must understand that change will cost all of us something—personally, institutionally, and societally. We cannot hope for change but must actively work toward it with focused attention on why our systems of oppression continue to function. It’s time to question, time to act, and if the activism and protests are any indication of a growing movement, then maybe we can harness this new momentum to achieve a new, unprecedented, and wholly original form of American greatness.
Rafael Otto is a writer, poet, and musician based in Portland, Oregon. Follow him on Twitter: @RafaelOttoPDX.
Header photo of person holding U.S. flag on mountaintop by J_Mankin, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Rafael Otto courtesy Rafael Otto.