Every year the freshman in the school I teach at read Our America. It is the story of two young men growing up in the Ida B. Wells housing projects on the South Side of Chicago. The title is powerful in and of itself; Our America implies there is more than one America. This idea doesn’t fit well with the narrative America likes to tell about itself: You know the whole being the beacon of freedom, equality, and the land of liberty and justice for all thing. This is especially true on holidays like the one coming up, the Fourth of July. Everybody is decked out in their red, white and blue and drunk off the greatness of America and its founding fathers. Any memory of genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, the wealth gap, patriarchy etcetera gets dismissed by claiming we have made progress. We’re not perfect but, got damn, we are pretty close! Let us tell it. Yet, none of that changes the reality: there are separate, distinct Americas. While certainly always visible, to those who are looking, the events of the past several days have made these differing realities unavoidable. It is fitting we make sense of this in the days leading up to the Fourth of July.
How, if we are one America, is it possible for Trayvon Martin to be perceived as a threat worthy or deadly force?
How, if we are one America, can Republicans in Texas insist on passing some of the most misogynist legislation imaginable?
How, if we are one America, can we demonize Rachel Jeantel for being that last person to talk to her friend seconds before he was shot to death?
How, if we are one America, can we accept such class inequality?
The answer is obvious: we are not one America.
If you are a woman, America is a place where your value is directly correlated with your ability to get a dick hard. God forbid you want control of your own body because, just like those wealthy white men who founded this country without the voice of women, your say doesn’t matter much. In fact you will literally have to put your body on the line, and even that won’t be enough because the misogynist pig of a governor will just use his power to call yet another special session. Love and Respect to Wendy Davis. Of course, this is only exasperated if you are a woman of color. Then you are relegated to a special kind of hyper-sexualization and objectification. And, if you don’t want to be an object for the sexual gratification of others, or, you are not perceived as wanted, then you are dismissed as being a welfare queen and a drain on society. Or, if you are a woman of color, your credibility as a witness can be called into question because you cannot read cursive. More than that though, Rachel Jeantel demonstrated just how different the world of whites and people of color truly are, shit, the whites folks leading the court couldn’t even understand her!
Whiteness has always been a prerequisite for inclusion in the “we the people” (Check out Charles Mills’ work The Racial Contract for more on that). Beginning with the genocide of the Natives, slavery, Jim Crow, and the myriad of government policies and laws which elevated whiteness that followed, people of color have never experienced full citizenship. Young black men are still perceived as being a threat worthy of being extinguished with violence. From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin it seems not much has changed. In fact, the Malcolm X Grassroots Organization released a study that showed every 36 hours a black person is killed by the police. It seems the police are still protecting whites from the perceived threat of blackness. The Trayvon Martin killing and subsequent trial of George Zimmerman illustrate just how ingrained this fear of black masculinity is. Picture this: a 17 year old white boy is shot to death in your local suburb by a 28 year old black man– is self-defense even a possibility?
Beyond the police, this devaluing of blackness manifests in the highest law-making body in the land. Our very government has solidified, via the gutting of the Civil Rights Act, the second class status of non-whites, essentially legalizing these separate Americas.
Revisiting Rachel Jeantel can shed light on this separate America. Only in a separate America is it possible for Rachel Jeantel to be villanized for being a product of the public education system. If there were really one America Rachel Jeantel’s would 1) have her ancestry and culture affirmed and understood and 2) had her school and education invested in. Instead Rachel’s school was funded through property taxes. The problem here is: because of racism the homes of people of color are valued low, resulting in lower taxes, and ultimately, a poorly funded school. How’s that for irony: white folks mad about the existence of the separate America they created via policies. African-Americans are not the only community of color living in separate realities. This is true of all non-white communities; however, even whites are subject to a different America.
All of this takes place against the backdrop of economics and class. In order to maintain the status quo, privileges have been extended to poor whites more than any other segment of the population. From Shay’s and Bacon’s rebellion’s poor whites have been able to demand changes from the government and have, for the most part, received them. That does not mean they are living in the same America as the wealthy. In fact, most poor whites have simply been positioned to buffer and deter the expansion of equality and justice. Today, poor whites have been told to go to college and they will be able to access the “American Dream.” However, according to a new Pew Economic Mobility project report children from wealthy backgrounds and no college degree are 2.5 times more likely to be wealthy than children from low-income backgrounds with a degree. This shatters the myth that education equals social mobility. Class strikes at the heart of America’s double standard. While racism is real, race is not. It was invented to justify slavery which was necessary for the economic growth of wealthy white slave owners. In fact, those slave owners were not opposed to using whites as indentured servants and even slaves (Irish slaves). In essence race has been used to divide segments of the population (blacks, poor whites, and Natives) that could have actually created a land where everybody was created equal. Divide and conquer is not a new strategy, yet it is successful time and time again. The government is well aware of the power that lies in the communities it marginalizes. The wealthy could not maintain if these segments of the population unified, and therefore will not allow it. Why do you think the NSA is listening to your phone calls, and Edward Snowden is being called a traitor? Ask yourself, who exactly is he betraying?
So, as we begin to celebrate the Fourth, let us celebrate what we can be as opposed to what we are. Let us pressure the powers that be to live up to the rhetoric in the documents we are supposed to be celebrating. Let us remember whose blood sweat and tears have nurtured any goodness that has grown in this land. At some point in the day talk to somebody about race, gender, and class. Look into the other America’s and have the courage to truly stand for liberty and justice for all.