Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
— Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”
Sometimes, after a good night’s rest and an early workout that leaves me with enough strength to sufficiently suppress my gag reflex, I will tune in to watch one of my favorite science-fiction shows, Morning Joe. Set in a fantastic, parallel universe, many people watch Morning Joe for the longform political discussions. I, however, watch it to bask in the glory of one of America’s greatest storytellers.
I fucking love Joe Scarborough.
I marvel at his penchant for self-righteous demagoguery. His ability to suck the sanity out of any rational discussion like a sentient ShamWow leaves me speechless. With nothing but an abundance of hair gel and unabashed bombasity, Scarborough bulldozes conversations with vainglorious rants as unending and fantastic as any Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem or Zack Snyder cut. But most of all, I stand in awe at the whiteness of his imagination. For, in his mind, he has constructed a beautiful, three-dimensional life-size version of American politics that no one has ever seen.
Although he only served three terms as a congressman (that’s six years, if you’re counting), from listening to one of his jaw-dropping soliloquies, you would think the former “small government conservative” was the bizarro Strom Thurmond of a make-believe political scene where legislative compromise and bipartisanship ruled the politics of the day. Scarborough waxes poetic about his elevated sense of patriotic politics as if today’s Republicans are a different breed of white man from those with whom he huddled to try to eliminate the Department of Education and HUD. As if he didn’t vote against affirmative action and raising the minimum wage.
To be fair, Scarborough is not alone. He is just one of many Lincoln Project-esque former throat-slitters who have come together like Voltron to revise the history of politics. This apocryphal America, crowdsourced from the collective white imagination, is not a Republican thing; it is a white thing. It is part of the Caucasian canon, replete with a non-racist Ronald Reagan, principled conservatives and judicious leadership.
They have bamboozled themselves, whether by selective memory or really good cocaine, into believing in an America that never existed. They pretend as if today’s politics are not as divisive. As if Trump-era conservatives have concocted a new-improved form of racism that’s different from the original recipe Republicans of yore. As if Liz Cheney would not stuff a Black baby in a sack and throw it into the sea of white supremacy to watch it drown—just for laughs. They are all throat slitters. Today, they just don’t bother to wipe off the knife. They are the same. They are the same. They are the same.
There is no once-great America to which we can return.
There is only the delusion of whiteness.
Joe Scarborough is a lot like Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.), and I agree with them on most of the issues. In fact, I agree with a lot of white people.
Like Manchin, I like the filibuster. It’s like a gun. Politicians are afraid to get rid of it; Republicans love it and, when used properly, it can prevent the majority from violating the rights of a smaller minority. But mostly it just kills things. Just like many progressives, I desperately want to return to the time when there were not alternative versions of facts, science and reality. I want an objective press, good schools and politicians who serve the people. Perhaps the only difference between me and those white people, liberal or conservative, is the color of our skin.
As a Black person in America, I am acutely aware that this fan-fictionalized Whitekanda never existed.
I just can’t seem to remember this era of bipartisanship where political parties agreed to disagree. Was it when they were beating each other with canes on the Senate floor? Was it when Southern white conservatives (it was the Democratic Party back then) killed Black people and white Republicans to preserve white power after the Civil War? The fistfights in the Senate? The “nigger nigger nigger” of the GOP’s Southern Strategy? Was it when Ronald Reagan went to gin up his base’s white supremacist “economic anxiety” by giving a dog whistle-laden speech at the Neshoba County Fair? Or was it Newt Gingrich’s right-wing, divisive power grab called the “Contract With America”? How about when Tea Party protesters spit on Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) and hurled racist insults at John Lewis?
Also, Black people also have a question:
What is this Democracy thing y’all keep talking about?
While Black America generally agrees with liberals who warn about the “big lie,” we largely fought the 1964 battle against “ballot security” alone. When the GOP’s National Ballot Security Task Force sent armed guards to polls in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in 1981, there was very little fear about the “end of democracy.” Democracy didn’t go extinct when Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) signed a consent decree in 1990 for intimidating Black voters. Why didn’t anyone say something about the myth of widespread voter fraud?
Oh yeah; we did.
Thousands of votes disappeared in Georgia’s 2018 election and, to this day, no one has done a goddamned thing, perhaps because it only happened in Black neighborhoods. We knew the state’s voting machines were faulty, but mostly in Black precincts. Now that their candidate has lost, frustrated white people are recounting votes and inspecting voting machines.
And this is not to say white people have never cared about voter suppression. But we know the only reason the din is this loud is that the all-American tradition of voter disenfranchisement is starting to affect white voters. It’s difficult for Black people to match the righteous indignation on the left and the right when the formerly apathetic whites are condemning an America that they created.
To be confounded or angered by Joe Manchin’s willingness to ignore Black people’s voting rights requires that we forget he began his Senate career by replacing Robert Byrd, a literal Klansman who filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for 14 hours and 13 minutes. Manchin serves the same constituency that elected Byrd to the Senate more times than anyone in American history. But Byrd was from a bygone era of politics...
And where is the small-government America that white people want to return to? Did it happen in the same country that built the middle class with the largest social welfare program in history? Oh wait, that was only for white people. When did Republican tax cuts help the economy grow? Never. Remember when Black leaders weren’t vehemently protesting police brutality? Me either. How about the 1950s and 1960s, when it was safe to walk the streets without worrying about being killed? The crime rate is virtually the same.
There is some truth to the white delusion of a country that never existed. It’s not that white people have never been poor, disenfranchised or marginalized. But historically, they’ve had the opportunity to escape the gravitational pull of inequality, poverty or injustice through education, hard work or the social capital that whiteness affords. They even created a name for it:
“The American Dream.”
It was always just a fantasy, though. The “land of opportunity” has always scored poorly on its measure of economic mobility. Our education system has always been unequal (and not that educational). If America is broken, it has always been that way. From the March on Washington to the Million Man March; from Emmett Till to Yusef Hawkins to Rodney King to George Floyd, every generation has its own moment of “racial reckoning.” There has always been a problem with wealth inequality and voter suppression. Perhaps, for the first time in history, white America can see that this mythical Narnia of equality was just a fairy tale.
It was all a dream.
Donald Trump’s “big lie” won’t be the death of democracy because it never existed for many Americans. A country where everyone doesn’t have equal access to the political process is almost a democracy, and living in an almost democracy is like being almost pregnant.
In its present form, the filibuster’s only purpose is to halt progress. In its past form, it also halted progress. It is also dumb. It is a tool of white supremacy. And that is why we should alter or abolish it, not because politics is too divisive. Politics is no more contentious than it was when Ronald Reagan vilified “welfare queens” or when the Senate was blocking Obama’s judicial nominees, because there was no bipartisanship then, either.
Creating a more perfect union requires acknowledging that the past and present versions of America were terribly flawed. Disabusing ourselves of the notion of American exceptionalism must be the first step. The conservative right’s goal is to make white people believe that they are under attack. But the strategy of centrists like Kyrsten Sinema, Joe Manchin and a certain filibustering morning show host, is to convince white progressives that it’s the other white people who are fucking things up, not them. In their minds, they are better than their conservative counterparts. Therefore, they don’t have to reckon with the fact that “the system” that needs dismantling is whiteness, itself.
Lyndon Johnson, once said: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket.” But we always leave out the part when Johnson talked about the rest of the white people, explaining: “Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
No one stole your exceptionalism, America, you traded it for whiteness. So fear not, your country isn’t broken. You designed it this way.
The only thing wrong with democracy is white people’s memory.