“American Inequality” in a time of crisis

It’s a sad “truism” of the U.S. past:

  • In the decades following the conclusion of the Civil War, as the South struggled to regain its economic footing and the expansion of industrial capitalism forever changed the way the American public related to work, the rise of new systems of racial segregation emerged to regulate the advancement of blacks in Southern society [source].
  • In the 1930s, amid the economic turmoil and uncertainty of the Great Depression, an estimated 1 million ethnic Mexicans were “repatriated” to Mexico. Rounded up into cattle cars, they left the U.S. with what they could carry, leaving behind their once vibrant dreams of prosperity for hard work. Shockingly, one in every four of those relocated were legal U.S. citizens, either by birth or naturalization [source].
  • A decade later, as the U.S. responded to the bombing of Pearl Harbor with its full participation in the Second World War, more than 110,000 ethnic Japanese were forcibly relocated to camps in remote spots throughout the nation. They were called many things, but they were “concentration camps,” where people found themselves imprisoned for nothing other than the “color of their skin.” A majority of those imprisoned were U.S. citizens; almost two-thirds were under the age of 18 years [source].

As the above examples—and the historical record—substantiate, in moments of profound crisis American society has used “race” to stabilize itself.  For centuries, whether during wars, economic downturns, or social upheaval, varied forms of “white supremacy” have represented a fallback position for the nation.

Of course, that is not to suggest, conversely, that eras of prosperity are times of racial equality.  A racism based on white supremacy has been the political and cultural default of U.S. society for most of its two centuries.  The process of reinvigoration taking place in times of crisis has also served to sustain the broader schema of racial advantage and disadvantage by creating new ways of sustaining inequality.

That is also not to say there aren’t exceptions.  Last November, when Americans chose Barack Obama to serve as President of the United States, many celebrated the “historic” election as evidence this history was, finally, “behind us.” “It’s the second Emancipation Proclamation,” said one scholar, in reference to the 1863 document in which President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves [source], while a CNN political analyst declared it “the passing of an old order” [source]. Speaking for many in her generation, a 50-year old woman proclaimed “It’s like Martin Luther King’s dream coming true” [source].  Even supporters of the opposition party expressed an optimistic tone.  Said one, “My sincere prayer is that we can finally all live together without the heavy baggage of the past weighing us down” [source].

Less than a year later, what do we have?  A groundswell of people in fear of losing their jobs.  Already, 9.7% of Americans are out of work (15.9% of black Americans; 12.5% of Latinos) [sources].  Two wars continue to be waged in the name of this country, with more and more men and women returning to the front lines, a sanctioned trauma we are choosing to ignore.  And a growing number of people now owe more on their home than it is worth on the open market.

And people showing up at Presidential rallies with guns, characterizing Obama as Hitler, labeling him everything from a fascist to a socialist—all for proposing to give health insurance the poorest of Americans.  Others questioning his legal birth in this country, even though mountains of evidence prove it beyond any measure of rational thought.

Americans move to their “comfort zone” in times of crisis.  We put on our sweats, make a big bowl of mac ‘n cheese, and sit in the big chair in the living room.  And then we’re afraid.  And then we’re angry.  And then…

Well, you get the picture.