Make America great again. It’s a phrase that has become the defining goal for the current president. It’s used as a common tongue response to the atrocities we see on the nightly news, newspapers, and in our streets every single day. Make America Great Again has even transitioned to Keep America Great Again in the lead up to the 2020 presidential election. However, the underlying problem with both phrases is the historical context of the phrase. It begs the question, “when was America great in the first place?”
Sure, America has a laundry list of events that have cemented our country in the zeitgeist as the best country in the world. We threw off our oppressors in a revolution to found our own country. We fought against secession and ended slavery in this country. Our women marched for their right to vote, African Americans fought for civil rights and were successful with the Civil Rights Act going to pass. We have legalized gay marriage. We fought a unified force of fascism in Europe and put a man on the Moon. But does any of that make us “great”?
Our ancestors fled Europe looking for a better life, with freedom of choice. What happened next was the decimation of indigenous peoples that already lived in these lands. Realizing that they did not know cultivation or production, our ancestors imported slaves to work the land for them. Our ancestors used religion as a basis to cement the idea that subjugation of non-white bodies was righteous and just. Our founding fathers were overwhelmingly in favor of slavery and used the threat of slave revolt and indigenous uprisings to pass the ratification of the Constitution, a document that none of the framers even had the power or right to put into power. The Constitution and Bill of Rights state that all men are created equal, but continued to oppress non-white bodies to perpetuate their power structures. It took 132 years after the signing of the Constitution for women to be considered equal in the eyes of the law, and even now, we know that is not true. Our legislators consistently oppose reproductive rights and deny that there is a gender wage gap. We chased indigenous peoples out of their lands, forced them away from territory they had known their entire lives, and then marched them into reservations. We fought a war against secession and Abraham Lincoln only abolished slavery because he thought it in America’s best interest to recolonize freed slaves in other countries. The “Great Emancipator” wanted to hold America to being an all-white country. The American Colonization Society actively shipped African Americans to the colony of Liberia, on a continent they held no ties to after decades of being enslaved, just to get them out of this “great” country. After the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 15th Amendment gave the right to vote and prohibited it from being denied on race, color, or servitude in 1870. America then went to work implementing poll taxes, “grandfather clauses” — which stated that you could only vote if your grandfather could vote, literacy tests, and full-on intimidation to deny freed citizens the right to vote. Though most of us are taught that African Americans got the right to vote during the Civil Rights act of 1964, they had the right to vote almost 100 years prior and were denied it at every opportunity. The Electoral College was put into place to empower Southern, slaveholding white folks, diluting the political power of Black Americans.
The fascists that we fought in Europe and the Pacific were spearheaded by a dictator named Adolph Hitler. What we don’t learn in school is that Hitler was inspired in his genocidal conquest by the treatment of Black Americans and Indigenous peoples in America. He learned from our racist origins and took it a step further, a controlled genocide of undesirable peoples in Germany and their conquered territories. Every war we have fought after World War 2 was to maintain a global order that continued to supply the United States with power, products, or both. We saw the USSR and Communism as a threat to global order. The reality was that the USSR hated America because we sent troops to fight against the Russian Revolution back in 1917. Look that up. Any perceived threat to what we call Democracy is met with military force, covert operations, or straight denial of participation on the world stage.
America has done a lot of things that we can call great. America has never been inherently great. These facts are not mutually exclusive. People in America have made great strides to secure the promises that were supposed to be afforded to all people in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Powers in America have made great strides to secure the status quo and ensure that the power remains at the top. We have a police force that kills non-white folks at an overwhelmingly disproportionate rate. We have a President in power that not only colluded with foreign powers to seize an election but has used the highest office in the land at every turn to line his pockets for his monetary gain. He has sown division among neighbors, families, states, and regions. He has been fact-checked every speech and continues to push false narratives. He has embraced fascists, simply because they support him. Yet he is not the disease that plagues this country, only a symptom of it.
Our language is shaped in such a way as to denote whites simply as Americans. African American. Hispanic or Latinx American. Asian American. But white folk? Simply American. Our schools are shaped in such a way as to prepare students for factories or prison. They come in, sit in a row, do their work, bell rings, a transition to the next task, and so on. There are short allotted times for lunch and recreation. Don’t believe me? Look it up. Read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Friere. American education is based on conditioning a student for the rest of their lives, which our country determines doesn’t mean anything unless you are helping the upper-tier attain capital.
The truth is America was never great. America has done great things in its short history, but that doesn’t make up for the massive number of things it has done to ensure that oppression reigns supreme in this country. If a sports team won 10 championships, but did it through cheating, killing other players, and decimating other team’s stadiums, can we celebrate those championships? No one out there believes that all lives don’t matter. We believe that every single life on this planet matters. But until we begin to stand up for the lives that America has continued to pretend don’t matter, we cannot say all lives matter and have it be a true statement. So instead, we stand up for the marginalized, the oppressed, and the downtrodden. We say, Black Lives Matter. We say Trans Lives Matter. We say Indigenous Lives Matter. We say and know these things to be true, and we stand for them, fight for them, protest, and even riot for them. Because our society started with a contract that promised an equal opportunity for all and then broke it at every chance it got. Martin Luther King once said that the “riot is the language of the unheard.” We have had centuries to listen, are we going to act surprised when marginalized peoples stop trying to explain to us why this is all wrong? I will conclude by quoting the great James Baldwin, in his “Talk to Teachers”, which I highly recommend you all read or listen to. Baldwin states that “one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person. And based on the evidence — the moral and political evidence — one is compelled to say that this is a backward society.” We can’t make America Great Again because it never was great, to begin with. It started with good ideas, and it has had some since, but this is a backward society. So instead, I want to charge you to educate yourself, get involved in fighting against the injustice that exists outside of your front door, and help us build a new America. One that was promised to all of us. One that is founded on the principles of equality for all, not just the few we deem worthy. Let’s make a new America.