Nation must come to grips with its past

Samuel Damren

In a recent Fox News interview, Nikki Haley contended that while the U.S. “has  always had racism,” America has “never been a racist country.”  Haley tried to recover from the self-contradictory statement later in the interview, but failed.

The sound bites were paraded across networks and the internet.

As political policy, Haley went on to assert “our goal is to make sure that today is better than yesterday.  Are we perfect?  No.  But our goal is to always make sure we try and be more perfect every day that we can.  I know I faced racism when I was growing up.  But I can tell you, today is a lot better than it was then.”

Haley is 52.  She grew up in small-town South Carolina in the 1970s, and is of Indian-Sikh descent.  No one disputes her observation that given the racism she faced “growing up … today is a lot better than it was then.”

But how can that observation possibly square with MAGA rhetoric – not Haley’s –to “Make America Great Again?”

It doesn’t and can’t.

The farther back in time one travels, the plague of racism in the chronicles of American history only gets more virulent and worse and worse and worse.  In combatting that plague, Haley is right that “today is a lot better than it was,” but past America was certainly never “great” on the issue.

On the other hand, that conclusion may depend on perspective.  A significant number of Americans, particularly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant American men and their families, did significantly benefit during America’s racist past.

They benefitted because better employment, housing, education, and economic and social opportunities were long made available to them at the expense of persons of color and ethnic minorities.

If viewed from a purposefully blindered perspective of simply what benefits were received in the past compared to the benefits received today, past periods of our racist history were undeniably “great” for many white communities.

At the heart of a perspective based on that self-interest lies the “white grievance” which permeates today’s “hot button” political issues - “We don’t have it as good today as we used to and we want to go back to when America was great for us.”

It is the MAGA lament.

Today, white men have to compete – as they never had to in earlier periods of American history – for jobs, housing, education and other opportunities with not only people of color and ethnic minorities, but also with the LGBTQ+ community and minority religious communities as well as with women.

This expansion of opportunities was the product of decades upon decades of struggle.

Many Americans, perhaps a majority, accept and appreciate today’s reality and the fairness and strength provided by that reality in supporting a more open and inclusive American community.  That same reality remains a big problem for others, especially when it comes to advances in LGBTQ+ rights.

During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump was asked when in the past America was actually great.  He identified two periods: first, the early 1900s; and, second, post-World War II through the 1950s. Trump has never identified any other periods we should emulate in order to make America great “again.”

In the next three commentaries in this series, both of these periods will be examined in some detail.

The focus of the commentaries will not be on racial discrimination.  It is a given that no person of color, nor a majority of white Americans, would ever be willing to return to the offensive and destructive racism of previous periods in our history.

It is also a given that few Americans (except for anti-vaxxers) would be willing to return to a period of time when the technological and medical advances we enjoy today would not be available.  

For that reason, the focus of the commentaries will not be on differences between today’s technology and medical advances compared to past eras.

Instead, the series will focus on government policies that shaped American lives during those periods contrasted with today’s policies; something that a President can influence more than any other American elected official and something for which Presidents, fairly or unfairly, are held to account.

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