Mothers’ Day May 14, 2017
As a naturalized US citizen (the only citizenship I consciously chose for myself), my education on the troubled soul of US society continues. I just read a book newly published: The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander: a spellbinding NYT Bestseller touted as a seminal work that will change our “justice” system. But it left me bereft of any hope that America’s deep flaw, its obsession with the blight of racial hierarchy, can ever be redeemed.
Race in America is the proverbial genie that’s been let out of the bottle and can’t be collared again. Not as long as every piece of governmental policy or societal legislation implemented in the USA since the Civil War is totally motivated by racial considerations (with every lofty-minded effort at remediation being quickly nullified by a vicious backlash of countermeasures); and not as long as politicians of all stripes see racial polarization as an easy route to gaining votes with emotive appeal. America did not invent ethnic or racial supremacy but has nurtured, intensified, and systematized it —that supremely pernicious doctrine of skin color as a determinant of capability—to an extent not seen anywhere else, by making race (explicitly or otherwise) the perennial fulcrum of all social regulations in the USA.
As anthropologists point out, every community down history (including the people of my village in Nigeria, as I can attest) has thought of itself as “the real people,” and its neighbors as inferior: mere barbarians. The more distant the neighbors are, the more barbaric they are thought to be. Indeed, the word “bantu,” which describes the largest ethnographic collection of Africans, simply means “humans.” (Muntu is one person, bantu means people; so when a Congo native says “We are bantu,” he means: “We may not be sure what you are, but we are humans!”) That view of humanity as a nested hierarchy was understandable in an age of ignorance; it has no place in our knowledgeable world of today. Still, such bigotry is not unique to white people: it is innate to the human psyche—mostly because it offers a powerful, albeit false, assurance to the many who like to think they are superior to the “others” at the bottom of the totem pole. Accordingly, modern societies strive hard to suppress ethnic/racial triumphalism in the interest of seeking greatness through togetherness.
All societies, that is, EXCEPT THE USA. In the USA the pervasive and soporific poison of racial supremacy has been allowed (nay, encouraged) to fester and poison the body politic for too long—even as citizens are urged, tongue-in-cheek, to sweep it under the carpet by adopting coded language that pretends to be color-blind while exuding “color” with every single breath. The latest and most diabolical tool is social legislation (like the “Law and Order” mantra so seductive to all Americans) which manages to employ scrupulously race-neutral rhetoric while at the same time targeting racial categories with the unerring accuracy of a homing device. The amount of ingenuity lavished on such endless quest for racial outcomes in the USA is truly breath-taking, deserving of a Nobel Prize.
As with “Defense” so with “Law and Order”: both are worthy goals that every nation seeks for its security. But today the USA alone among countries of the world goes overboard in its pursuit of “enemies”—both external and internal—and in both cases starting with pre-conceived notions of those who should be targeted as enemies. And so, in domestic policy as in foreign policy, the USA is caught up in a self-fulfilling prophecy, a vicious cycle of paranoia.
Looking through history too (my favorite subject) one realizes that few nations ever regain greatness once it is squandered—especially through internal strife. It appears the rest of the world will forge ahead while the USA struggles ineffectually as the biblical house divided against itself. As noted in my essay last week on the topic of regaining greatness, 40% of the world’s scientists and engineers resided in the USA at one stage, when this country was at the pinnacle of promise; but nowadays the percentage is down to single digits as the country has become more xenophobic, bellicose, and riven with intractable domestic problems that result periodically in the elevation of an unreconstructed troglodyte to the US presidency. That trend is a tailspin, and not a prognosis for regaining greatness that was lost.
Post-bellum Americans gratefully immortalize Lincoln for saving the USA. The tribute to him at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, reads like medieval hagiography: “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” Lincoln was of course as lofty and honorable a person as ever walked the streets of America. But his was a pyrrhic victory, gained at the cost of 600,000 lives, including his own. If the goal was to end slavery, the gain was, alas, quickly subverted by another two centuries (and counting) of Jim Crow in its old/explicit form, as well as its new/implicit, guise. If it was merely to preserve the union, one must ask if the game was worth the candle: What special benefits did the South bring to the commonwealth that the rest of the USA couldn’t do without? The case of Yugoslavia amply illustrates the fact that sundering a (con)federal assemblage of disparate and incompatible states can sometimes redound to the benefit of the member states so liberated.
So we are left to wonder what decency might have graced America if Abraham Lincoln had had the forbearance to let the diseased Confederacy go—just cut it loose as you might cut off a gangrenous foot rather than let it spread necrosis and putrefaction through the rest of your body. The reprobate secessionist states might have evolved along a trajectory similar to that of Brazil, but at least they would not have hobbled a rump USA with the legacy of supremacist bigotry which, once unleashed, is near-impossible to rein in. Experience from US history (the nearly three centuries of Southerners’ relentless and defiant enslavement of their fellow humans) and from anatomy (the fact that human waste drains southwards, anyway) should have told Lincoln it was just futile to think the Deep South could be reformed and cleansed.
A chain being no stronger than its weakest link, the USA cannot ever progress faster or farther than it can drag the worm-infested and barnacle-encrusted Deep South.