Like many people on the night of January 12th, I watched President Barack Obama give his last State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and countless others both in attendance and across the world. This address, like all State of the Union addresses, has prompted and will continue to prompt close examination of its themes, of the president’s references to those currently jockeying for his office, and of the accuracy of his most minute factual assertion. While I’m sure these examinations have their place, I think it is even more crucial to look at the way in which President Obama’s conceptualization of intangibles – like Americanness and the prioritization of certain identities – shaped his rhetoric and, in turn, shaped the vision of America which his listeners received from him.
Perhaps no political slogan this election cycle has been so mocked and satirized as Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” Critics rightfully ask what period exactly Trump would have the United States return to, and what “greatness” he sees in history which does not exist now. His inflammatory rhetoric confirms that the greatness which he wishes to reattain (as if it ever truly were lost) is the dominance of white, upper-class, Christian men which has been virtually unquestioned through most of American history. Although I find Trump’s ideals to be repulsive, he is at least engaging with a realistic vision of America’s past. The days of oppression which he yearns for did actually exist. The same cannot be said for President Obama’s idyllic vision in the State of the Union: a vision of America as being innately good and having met every historical conflict with resolution to overcome irrational fear and injustice.
This false vision is echoed in the generic response to every instance of identity-based violence and violent rhetoric: “this is not what America is! This is not what America stands for!” There is this desire to impute goodness to America’s core, a goodness that has never been demonstrated in its history. Donald Trump’s call for suppression of Muslim immigrants ties in to a long history of identity-based immigration laws and practices. Violence and discrimination against oppressed groups are ingrained into the fabric of our country. Its financial centers are built on exploitation, slavery, and genocide.
Mainstream American collective consciousness tends to look back at the atrocities committed by America and by mainstream American society as little more than anomalies. Either America was great at one point, became mired with oppression, and then threw off that evil, or it has turned a corner from its historically oppressive past and has become diverse and accepting. It is unclear, however, when exactly that corner was turned into this modern era of tolerance. The progress that has been made has been fought viciously by the state at every stage. The expansion of legal rights from the original enfranchised group of white, male, land-owning church-members to the supposed whole of the citizenry was not a benevolent expansion as the State of the Union would have one think. It was the hard-fought result of those who demanded more than the unjust state was allotting them.
The myth of a “good” America pacifies its believers. It allows them to simultaneously recognize that the past was bad and also feel no need for America to change or progress. President Obama’s call for us to “see ourselves not first and foremost as black or white or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born; not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans first” is toxic. People cannot consider themselves Americans first and then their identities if those identities are targeted by the American state. Furthermore, this ideal encourages the non-marginalized populace to universalize their experience and condemn as “un-American” all those to whom their identity matters.
The question that we must ask ourselves is at what point does “what America does” become “what America is”? “What America does” is oppression. The forms thereof have grudgingly changed over the years, but still it persists. How can we look at our national history and claim that oppression is not what America is about? On what basis do we speak of our current country in glowing terms as one with an affirmative commitment to the moral right? Historic struggles to end slavery, to prevent and end the genocide of Native Americans, to wrest sole control of the government from white men, to end police brutality and murder, to gain civil rights and black liberation, and countless others were not struggles against some vague historical entity or time, they were against the same state that exists today and against the same power structures in whose shadows we live.
It is irresponsible to merely assume that the United States is, today, committed to affirmative justice for those of marginalized identities. It is dangerous to put aside our identities, trusting simply that what is “good for America” is good for us. Particularly for those of us who are white, it is crucial to listen to and support black people and other people of color in their struggle against a racist government, and not to simply assume that the days of racial discrimination are in the past and America has somehow become “good” now.
I found it fitting that the State of the Union was followed by a commercial for the show House of Cards with the tag-line “America deserves Frank Underwood.” It’s true. America, as a whole, has never occupied the moral high ground and deserves the Frank Underwoods and Donald Trumps of the political world. It is important that those of us who tend to forget this not allow ourselves to do so as we push for a less oppressive state and culture. As we condemn the rhetoric of “Make America Great Again,” let’s also carefully consider the ways in which we are saying “America is Good Enough As It Is” and make a practice of questioning the widespread vision of America today as being somehow innately different than its oppressive past.