Bill Clinton’s recent outburst at Black Lives Matter protesters reminds us that America’s history of racism—in the form of policy and official political discourse—is not exactly a partisan affair.
Protesters repeatedly challenged him on the negative effects his 1994 crime bill had on urban communities of color, and his response came loud and clear in his unmistakable drawl: “You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter.”
Even if Clinton were correct—which is highly unlikely—that the bill successfully protected children from “gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children,” it would be cold comfort to the families of children like Tamir Rice.
Police murdered the twelve-year old Rice in 2014 while he was playing with a toy gun in an open-carry state, and the officers were never brought to trial.
Party-line Democrats often distinguish themselves from Republicans by denouncing the outright xenophobia that dominates GOP rhetoric and policy.
It is easy to critique Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the Mexican border and Cruz’s suggestion that police should aggressively patrol Muslim neighborhoods. Democratic partisans are correct, too, about the pernicious effects of Governor Kasich’s dismantling of women’s healthcare in Ohio. And GOP-led initiatives in North Carolina and Mississippi, which have harnessed a perverse interpretation of the freedom of religion to eviscerate the scant protections afforded by law to LGBTQ people, often fuel the partisan fire.
But we would do well to reexamine the Democratic Party’s own condescending attitude toward black, brown and poor people. These attitudes drive policy—such as the 1994 crime bill, the 1996 welfare reform bill, and more recent roll-backs of public assistance programs, and Obama’s deportation record—that perpetuate longstanding racial and class inequality.
Today’s America looks uncomfortably similar to the one that African American poet Langston Hughes invoked in his poem “Let America be America again.” First published during the dog days of the 1936 summer, the poem offers a grim vision of America’s hypocrisy as well as a potent reflection on the interracial, intercultural solidarity that might emerge in response to the Great Depression. The opening lines are strangely prescient of the white-centric American idealism that continues to dominate contemporary party politics: “Let America be America again/ Let it be the dream it used to be.”
As the poem moves along, though, it counters these rose-tinted proclamations with the voices of the downtrodden. At first, parentheses set these dissenting voices off from the words of those who believe that “equality is in the air we breathe.” The pithy response: “(There’s never been equality for me,/ Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’)”
These statements grow in the poem into potent, extended testimony from working-class whites, Native Americans, African Americans and immigrants. An intercultural coalition emerges, motivated by a shared sense that what is best for America’s disenfranchised people is the lowest common denominator for an America worth its salt. It is the toil of this group that “Must bring back our mighty dream again.”
We have a lot to learn from Hughes, who was adamant not only that a better America was somehow within reach, but also that “America never was America to me.”
The racial and economic disparities that Hughes observed have shifted, but they have not dissipated in our age of mass incarceration, police brutality and increasing class inequality.
And so as the Colorado GOP Convention descends on Colorado Springs this weekend, may we act on the powerful demands of the disenfranchised, who strive to create another America. It’s the America that never was for Hughes and so many others. It’s an America that still has never been.
Alex Corey is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Colorado, Boulder.