Lately, there’s been a national cry for a return to the past. The slogan “Make America Great Again” seems to appear almost every time one turns on the television, picks up a newspaper, or over hears people speaking in supermarket aisles. This is not an article bashing (or supporting) any political candidate, rather I want to share what that slogan means to me…as a member of the Diocesan Anti-Racism Commission. So indulge me as I do a quick trip through our shared history in an effort to recall that period of American greatness.
The country was founded in 1776 and when independence was declared, it was also stated that “all men are created equal”. This would have been a time of American greatness except for the fact that people of African descent were not considered human. Neither were women or indigenous people deemed worthy of equal treatment in this new nation.
In the first half of the 19th century the concept of “Manifest Destiny” was part of the American rally. It stated that there was a God given right to expand westward. The failure to see the native people (whose land and lives were taken during this expansion) as children of God does not support the notion of greatness. Nor is it supported by the fact that the invention of the cotton gin ensured that free labor from an enslaved people would shore up the economy of the southern states. 1829 was not great when southern states outlawed the education of blacks.
From the 1850s through the 1870s, because of American objections to Chinese immigration, the California state government passed a series of measures requiring special licenses for Chinese businesses or workers to preventing naturalization. The anti-Chinese sentiment was based upon concern about the integrity of American racial composition. The Irish also faced discrimination during this mid-century in America. They were often being depicted in anti-Irish cartoons as hot-headed, old-fashioned, and drunkards. Meanwhile, enslaved people and indigenous people were being massacred and treated like chattel. It’s ironic that the largest U.S. civil and racial insurrection (other than the civil was) occurred in 1863 when white rioters, mainly but not exclusively Irish immigrants, attacking blacks wherever they could find them. The official death toll was listed at 119. This second half of the 19th century could not have been a period of greatness either.
So I will speed ahead to the 20th century. The industrial revolution, victories in WWI and WWII mark the early half of this period. This was also a period of Jim Crow laws, white terrorist lynching of whomever they want with impunity, race riots, and legalized discrimination. Wilson was a segregationist. FDR excluded farm and domestic workers from basic wage and work protection. Those segments of the labor force were largely black. Housing discrimination against blacks was federal policy — not just a simple, organic process of “white flight.” Of 67,000 mortgages taken out pursuant to the GI bill fewer than 100 were taken out by non-whites. Additional legislative and business policies such as redlining systematically denied blacks access to housing wealth, which still harms families and communities today. This does not inspire nostalgia.
While other ethnicities have been able to become “white”, for black America’s history is more painful on a personal level. It involves includes little girls being killed in churches, people being killed in bible studies, boys being killed while walking, wearing hoodies, eating skittles, playing with a toy gun in a park, playing with a toy gun in Walmart, the school to prison pipeline and on and on and on.
So I ask again, when was America great? And then again, what is great? As an Episcopalian, I hope that the answer is clear to my brothers and sisters in Christ. America will be great when the following pledge (that we all make) becomes the reality for our nation.
Celebrant: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People: I will, with God’s help.