The US needs to re-examine its identity from scratch.
“This is America,” said the vernacular intellectual Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) in 2018, uncovering the facade of the American dream in the form in which only black protest-music culture can.
Modern America successfully branded itself as a cosmopolitan melting pot, a land of opportunity, where the American dream was the ideal and reality.
Modern America is indeed a brand and American modernity had us believe it was a beacon of progress. However, American modernity is also corrosive, violent and racist.
James Baldwin declared the American dream was at the expense of black Americans, with Malcolm X calling it the American nightmare.
We assume to know of racism but there is an exception in American racism that is unique to its identity.
Witnessing George Floyd begging for his basic right to breath uncovered how the state took his life and dignity just like many before him, creating a spectacle that resonated with the oppressed including victims of US foreign policy.
The pandemic has exposed the US Empire to be fractured and the superpower is dealing with a political crisis of its own making. As the world mistakenly expected global leadership, instead it got ineptness in dealing with the pandemic of Covid-19 while shockingly exposing the world to American racism and institutional brutality.
Brand America is seriously hurt and this struggle is as much about who controls the brand as it is about matters on the ground.
A closer examination of US history suggests that the state has always distinguished black lives as secondary.
US racism and the violence related to it is in the DNA of the idea of what it means to be America.
The birth of a nation
When America emerged as a young nation, just like any new nation it needed to fashion an identity. White Christian European colonial settlers violently eliminated the indigenous peoples, emerged as the most powerful slave nation, and created fault lines based on race.
Free Africans from their various backgrounds, cultures and linguistic groups were dehumanised into the slave trade, many then became Christians and finally Africans became identified simply as Black.
Writer and journalist on race, Barret Homes Pitner recently termed this ethnocide, meaning the “destruction of a culture while keeping a people.”
Africans were forced to lose any semblance of their past, forcibly abandoning religion, culture and language. The reconstruction of Black identity also facilitated and institutionalised white identity, and by doing so, engrained a culture of power that excluded black people.
Professor of Religion, American Studies and Ethnicity, Sherman Jackson has noted America built its identity on constructing the idea of whiteness and by doing so facilitating the idea of blackness in opposition.
A binary of inequality was born and institutionalised.
From that moment, power in the US was white, it was violent and differential. Black America was never to be permitted access to power, in fact Black Americans may only think of power once the rules of White America are adhered.
But it wasn’t only black Americans who met this fate, as the US expanded to resemble a colonial empire. Its methods evolved, but stemmed from the roots of violent treatment of black people. America was progressing but at the expense of others.
Daniel Immerwahr in his book How to Hide an Empire argued that “at various times, the inhabitants of the U.S Empire [colonies] have been shot, shelled, starved, interned, dispossessed, tortured and experimented on. What they haven’t been, by and large is seen.”
Civil rights and rebranding
The Civil Rights movement in the 1960s would end Jim Crow and Black Americans were supposedly permitted equality with the right to vote and freedom of movement.
From within the environment of white-fascism, Black dissent emerged with movements such as the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam and a pluralistic intellectual atmosphere of cerebral and emotional activism.
To name just a few, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. Audre Lorde, Huey P. Newton and James Baldwin fought and galvanised ordinary Black Americans, gave them a voice of power and inspired the downtrodden both in the US and around the world.
Visions of an alternative were being imagined. Black Americans had an intellectual leadership. This was a moment.
Malcolm, King, Baldwin varied in positions and ability but for American philosopher and public intellectual Cornel West, represented the Black tradition of being speakers of truth.
They criticised white supremacy in both fascist and liberal forms. They attacked structural racism and power structures, and were anti-empire, anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism. They were intellectuals; they were brave activists with moral conviction.
Malcolm X and King would be killed for their convictions. The pursuit for equality unleashes threats. Black lives are never to be equal.
If neo-fascism was a stick to strike fear into Black Americans, equally violent was neo-liberalism as the carrot to coerce and manipulate the struggle by incentivising Black Americans, and co-opting them, within the political structures and material benefits awaiting those abandoning the cause of political change.
The fear is that the actual memories of these thinkers would be replaced as commoditised symbols. The icons of the past need protecting. Not only from fascism, but American liberalism’s universalising culture that is designed to regulate and commoditise black culture, identity and expressions of protest.
An empire of violence
In order to understand White American power one must understand the language it deploys. The American creed is secular, racist, fascist, liberal, empire, colonial and violent. America is a language.
It wasn’t only at home that we saw how both neo-fascism and neo-liberalism were used to violent effect.
US foreign policy was able to adjust violent polices used in its colonies and export these around the world. But Brand America had now become adept in fashioning itself as a saviour, a culture, a civiliser and an ideology as a universal hegemonic brand.
President Ronald Reagan had declared in biblical terms that the US was a ‘City upon a Hill’. The US took it upon itself to lead the world, some may say even rule it.
With military bases all over the world, American foreign policy has devastated Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan as well as South America and Africa either with military force or sanctions.
The American project has sought to establish a language that would enable the world to be comprehended in totality with the US at the top. Opposition will not be tolerated whether home or abroad, especially intellectual.
With the elections looming, currently American politics, its media both mainstream and social, are caught up in a propaganda war of manipulation with the protests and truth as its main victims.
There is no doubt the Trump administration has co-opted neo-fascism, but police violence, social inequality and the militarisation of the US is part of the discursive American identity.
In an election year, the battle lines are to shape values, opinions and identities, that may have far reaching consequences not only on US soil, but globally which are both approved and owned by those who control the state.
America is a state and a worldview, and American power is white in creed, language and ideology irrespective if it is fascist or liberal.
Outside of America people assumed the USA as despotic abroad and democratic at home; on closer inspection it is just as violent within its own borders. It hasn’t changed from its origins, simply evolved. It may not be sufficient to simply demand justice for black lives or criticise US foreign policy.
A more comprehensive examination and discussion of American identity and its ideology is needed. Whether a simple adjustment or something more radical needs imagining, either way, the current status quo cannot continue.
While the protests are challenging American injustice at home and attaining a global dimension, we must equally call out American injustice abroad.
The movement against injustice must be united and global but it will have to equally critique American mistreatment, universally.
We will have to wait and see whether something more radical can emerge from the current crisis, there is no doubting this is a unique moment, but this war of attrition may come down to who backs down first, the protestors or the state.
The grass roots have been underestimated; many around the world are unaware of their activity and emotions. They do not require celebrity and liberal elites to talk for them, instead what they need is for their voices to be heard, be permitted to articulate their ideas, and facilitate a new intellectual leadership that represents their interests and needs regarding power and agency. They have maintained the intellectual legacy of protest as forces attempt to sabotage their call and credibility.
While black people may not be slaves, they continue to be enslaved by White America and its language and frameworks. So far we are aware of what the protesters don’t want, over time there is a need to fashion intellectually what is needed and whether this is indeed a moment of change or appeasement.
No doubt, this could transform the US, and the world forever. There is no doubt there is a need for change, the question on everyone’s mind: will this be the moment?
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