I had a conversation with another student awhile back. He was talking about his fondness for British period pieces and I asked if he liked Downton Abbey. Anticipating a hearty “yes,” I settled in my seat in preparation for discussing my favorite characters and scenes.
I was visibly disappointed when he told me no, I don’t like that kind of British period piece.”
And why is that? I asked
Well, they didn’t have an equal society, he said. The whole upperclass and lowerclass thing isn’t right and it still influences the outcome of people’s lives today.
I didn’t find not liking a (true) aspect of history as good justification for not liking the awesomeness that is Downton Abbey so I hit him with some all lives matter logic: all societies have some type of stratified structure — some type of hierarchy, I said
He shook his head vehemently, nope not like this. He was adamant that the British caste system of landed gentry was the worst thing ever. He concluded his argument with: I mean it’s not a free society like America where everyone has freedom and equality.
I remember looking at him quizzically when he said that and only nodding my head in response. This guy was in his mid to late 50s and firmly believed that America is/was the embodiment of democracy. It was as if he’d never heard of slavery, Native American genocide, the Chinese Exclusionary Act, or Japanese internment camps. I let the conversation die by not replying and opening the (always present) book in my hand.
I get this type of argument on my FB page often. People use America as a measuring stick for democracy. More countries should be like us! they declare. They recite the oft-repeated words from our Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal as if those five words are themselves proof of the very equality they speak of. As if America’s very robust economic system wasn’t developed from the selling and trading of human beings. They say this with the wide-eyed and firm conviction of any cult member, truly believing that America is an equal and just society. Sometimes they offer some encompassing sentiment meant to make me a believer too: America is the greatest democracy the world has ever seen they tell me.
Yes it is, I reply, for white men and their white families.
Those five inspiring words might as well have had an asterisk next to them with a barely legible disclaimer in the margins: blacks, natives, and other POC need not apply.
For much of her history, America has been what Pierre van Den Berghe calls a Herrenvolk Democracy: a democracy for the majority ethnic group whereby they maintain control and power over minority groups while exhibiting a facade of egalitarianism. This definition sounds more like the America that I know and experience as a black woman.
America turned 239 years old this past fourth of July. If one takes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as the point where the laws were finally (at least nominally) equal then that is only 51 years that America has been a democracy for all of her citizens. That means that for 188 out of her 239 years (79% of her lifespan), America has been a democracy for only her white citizenry.
And what, pray tell, was America to her black occupants (who were not considered citizens or given citizens rights until 1964)?
Answering that question is the key to understanding the world that we live in today. The world where the black community cries out for justice for their children slain at the hands of agents of the state. Where black students demand their rights to be treated with the same dignity and respect as other students. Where a movement called “Black Lives Matter” is still a necessity.
If I learned nothing else from my time spent as a nuclear engineer, it is this: To solve a problem, you have got to get to the root cause. If we are to reconcile our past, then we must first start with truth. In order to heal the lingering specter of racism, we need to take an honest look at our shared history. We need to confront the very real and painful truth of the hypocrisy of “American Democracy.”
You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. ~ John 8:3
Most people don’t want to be free though. They would rather gloss over all of the torture, rape, plunder, subjugation, and oppression in our history and stare in confusion at the people who take the street in hot pursuit of the freedom-and-justice-for-all promised in our founding documents.
But the clamor for freedom isn’t going to go away. The people (including me) demanding justice aren’t going to stop. One way or another, the problem of the color line will have to be solved.