Thanksgiving, Trump, and the roots of racism in America

donald_trump-hand-raised
By Richard Brown – Editor, EntreMundos

The US holiday Thanksgiving comes from the hospitality of the Wampanoag nation of what is now called Massachusetts. The Wompanoag helped European colonists avoid starvation through several brutal winters in the early 1600s. One day they came together and had a huge meal to celebrate the colonists’ successful 1621 harvest, which is the meal commemorated every November on Thanksgiving day.

Just 55 years later, most Wampanoag (and Narragansett and Pocumtuc and Nipmuk) had been murdered or sold into Caribbean slavery during King Philip’s War in 1675-6. Very few of us Americans1 know this; King Philip’s War is one of many forgotten wars, and the Wampanoag, Narragansett, Pocumtuc, and Nipmuk are among the hundreds of forgotten nations of US history.

“The First Thanksgiving,” a romanticized depiction of the 1621 event.

“The First Thanksgiving,” a romanticized depiction of the 1621 event.

In 2016, the colonial administration of North Dakota celebrated Thanksgiving week by firing rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and tear gas at mostly indigenous protesters of the Standing Rock conflict, injuring over 160. The protesters were trying to block the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline on land the the US government deeded to Plains Indian tribes forever in an 1851 treaty but later invaded. Oil is now flowing through the pipeline, an ever-present menace to Lakota nation water.

During the conflict, the police used water cannons on protesters at night as temperatures dropped below freezing, causing real fear of hypothermia and death. This looked familiar from Guatemala, where indigenous activism for self-determination and against “development” that may harm their communities is regularly ignored, criminalized, or brutalized. Throughout the Americas, the Conquista is still on.

(Just this month in Guatemala, one person was murdered in Alta Verapaz when private security violently evicted a community from their homes, an activist was stabbed to death outside his home in Quiché on the way to a protest, and another was run over by a truck during a protest in Izabal.)

The Obama administration had halted the pipeline’s construction, ordering authorities to look for another route that does not endanger reservation water. But the Trump administration reversed the order.

Logo of the Washington Redskins.

 

There was a brief argument, and the moderator shut it down, saying, “We’re not going to argue the history of Western civilization. Let me note for the record that if you’re looking at the ledger of Western civilization, for every flourishing democracy, you have Hitler and Stalin as well.”

Just before the conversation was cut off, Congressman King managed to reply that Hitler and Stalin were not “based in Christianity.”

It is natural for an American commentator to bring up Hitler and Stalin to debate Western cultural superiority; the US can take partial credit for defeating the ideologies of both. They do nothing to question American cultural superiority, or, from Congressman King’s perspective, Christian cultural superiority. The fact remains, though, that the US got great in the first place through ethnic cleansing, slave labor, and stolen land. (And students of 20th century history might tell Congressman King that for every flourishing democracy there are two developing world nightmares sponsored by the US.)

Trump’s slogan was “Make America Great Again,” and one of today’s major, though unspoken, intellectual fault lines in American society is the question of what made the US rich and powerful (“great”) to begin with.

American schools teach that the country became great because its European and Protestant values of democratic and economic freedoms and hard work created the first modern democracy and inspired generations of immigrants to work hard and build a great economy.

In reality, US wealth and greatness had more to do with conquering so much land, harvesting its vast resources, and forcing millions of slaves to work it to provide the cotton that fueled the US industrial and banking revolutions. And yet, most US citizens believe what they are taught: the US became great thanks to its humanitarian virtue.

This inevitably leads people to believe that nations that have adopted Western values and culture do well, and those that don’t are poor because they haven’t… not because they’ve been conquered, colonized, and ransacked by empires like the United States.

Comments made by Republican Congressman Steve King sum up this view. He responded to a panelist’s observation that 2016’s Republican national convention was overwhelmingly white.

Congressman Steve King of Iowa. His district includes Sioux City.

He said, “This ‘old white people’ business does get a little tired… I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about, where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

The moderator asked, “Than white people?”

Congressman King responded, “Than Western civilization itself. It’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the United States of America, and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world. That’s all of Western civilization.”

There was a brief argument, and the moderator shut it down, saying, “We’re not going to argue the history of Western civilization. Let me note for the record that if you’re looking at the ledger of Western civilization, for every flourishing democracy, you have Hitler and Stalin as well.”

Just before the conversation was cut off, Congressman King managed to reply that Hitler and Stalin were not “based in Christianity.”

It’s natural for an American commentator to bring up Hitler and Stalin to debate Western cultural superiority; the US can take partial credit for defeating the ideologies of both. They do nothing to question American cultural superiority, or, from Congressman King’s perspective, Christian cultural superiority. The unspoken fact remains, though, that the US got great in the first place through ethnic cleansing, slave labor, and stolen land. (And students of 20th century history might tell Congressman King that for every flourishing democracy there are two developing world nightmares sponsored by the US.)

Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) with US Secretary of State Caspar Weinberger at the Pentagon in 1983. The US was integral in wresting power from Patrice Lumumba and handing it to Mobutu, one of the twentieth century’s most notorious and longest-ruling dictators.

Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) with US Secretary of State Caspar Weinberger at the Pentagon in 1983. The US was integral in wresting power from Patrice Lumumba and handing it to Mobutu, one of the twentieth century’s most notorious and longest-ruling dictators.

But you can’t expect a country that calls its capital’s football team the “Redskins” to understand its history. The name “Redskins” shows how ignorant we are of the hundreds of individual cultures and nations that were brutalized or annihilated to make the US “great.” The team is not named after a specific nation, because once you start naming nations, you might eventually look up the wars waged against each to get them out of the way. You might even look into the cultures of a couple of these nations, their poetry, science, or spirituality, and realize that each was unique. You might realize the absurdity of equating the Apache with the Cherokee or the Inuit with the Maya.

If you use the term “Redskins” and generalize all indigenous people, it’s easier to gloss over the realities of history, and therefore to believe that disease swept aside hundreds of indigenous nations rather than centuries of purposeful ethnic cleansing. It also conceals the enormity of what’s been destroyed by last 400 years of American conquest. The word allows the conquering culture to forget that it destroyed hundreds of unique nations.

Map of Native American nations before conquest by the United States. For sale by Cherokee artist Aaron Carapella here.

In Guatemala, half the population speaks an indigenous language. American tourists are therefore surrounded by proof that the disease myth is false, that it’s a way for their society to avoid recognizing that their past and present wealth is not based on moral superiority or a superior form of government.

To recognize the historical sources of US wealth, power, and “greatness” is not just a historical exercise; it’s vitally important today. Growing up in the US means learning not only that the US is special for developing the first modern democracy, for its values of justice, social mobility, and personal freedom, and for spreading its values around the world. It also means learning that the US is therefore entitled to special privileges.

This sense of righteousness is so important to Americans because we use it – consciously or unconsciously – to justify the obvious injustice of global inequality.

Indeed, how could we imagine that it is appropriate that Americans, under 5% of the world’s population, should control over 40% of the world’s private wealth if we’re not entitled to it by virtue?

That American lifestyle should create half of the world’s solid waste, burn 25% of the oil and 23% of the coal used worldwide, and be the principal driver of the global climate crisis? (No, it’s not China. See footnote 2.) 

In short, the belief that American wealth and power results from its righteous values allows Americans to feel comfortable being so rich and consuming so much while billions of people live in extreme poverty and climate change continues its ecological and social devastation.

The kneejerk reaction of mainstream American consciousness is to sputter something about a rising tide lifting all boats. America’s successful economy is showing the way for the rest of the world. One nation’s wealth isn’t based on another’s poverty, that’s not how the economy works! Growth anywhere is eventually good for everyone!

Well, I wouldn’t want any nation to go about growing the way the US did. The US encourages former colonies underdeveloped nations to kick-start their economies as it preaches, not as it practiced: not by conquering vast swaths of land through ethnic cleansing and working it with slaves, but by lowering taxes, lowering social spending, and creating a labor market attractive to major multinationals. (In fairness, the US does preach its practice of desolating the natural world for a quick profit.)

This idea that the righteous become wealthy and the best rise to the top has consequences within US society as well. It is why the US does not have a universal health care system. It’s why people go bankrupt for getting sick and 13 million American children don’t get enough nutritious food. It’s why on any given night over 500,000 Americans are homeless. The Republican party, Donald Trump included, generally want to cut social spending and lower taxes, especially for the wealthy. They receive so many millions of votes because so many believe that those who have money deserve it, and that their money shouldn’t be taken away from them to pay for services for others, even those as basic as healthcare or nutrition.

This is partly explained by racism. Black Americans, for example, are often seen as accidental beneficiaries of a system they don’t contribute to. According to this narrative, they are a drag on America; they suck up welfare, spit out violence, and drive up taxes for those who do contribute. Views like these underlie the widespread reluctance to fund social programs.

North Carolina politician Don Yelton said in a Daily Show interview about a new voter ID law: “The law is going to kick Democrats in the butt… if it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that want the government to give them everything, so be it.”

North Carolina politician Don Yelton said in a Daily Show interview about a new voter ID law: “The law is going to kick Democrats in the butt… if it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that want the government to give them everything, so be it.”

This mentality of entitlement and superiority keeps Americans from sharing wealth with each other, much less the rest of the world. If you have trouble sharing with other Americans, imagine sharing with a foreign brown migrant who entered the country without permission.

Guatemalan migrants, for example, are often considered leeches of work and wealth that should go to Americans. History, however, teaches that those migrants are fleeing an economy maintained through decades of violent US intervention. The US overthrew Guatemala’s progressive democracy in 1954 and installed a regressive dictatorship. This led to a 36-year armed conflict that killed over 200,000 people, primarily noncombatant Maya peasants murdered by the US-backed military. It also led to today’s economy, which enriches a local oligarchy and mires most of the country in poverty and violence.

But the consequences of US foreign policy are largely ignored in American culture, just like the disappearance of hundreds of Amerindian nations. They are all casualties of our culture’s ability to confront ugly truths with comforting myths.

The Standing Rock conflict is a perfect illustration. The oil pipeline in question will contribute to climate change, which will inevitably hit the underdeveloped world harder than the consumerist countries generating the problem.

But the Trump administration, with popular support, will shoot and gas and arrest indigenous protesters and their allies out of the way. (This doesn’t mean they’ll win. 8,000 people volunteered in just 24 hours to physically stop construction of the Keystone Pipeline, which got its final approval on Monday.)

Making America Great Again means doing what the US has always done: battling and oppressing indigenous people and whoever or whatever else gets between the US and the wealth it is entitled to. Sometimes it might be facts standing in the way, like the fact of climate change.

But that fact, like the facts of history, are brushed aside with confidence by those who are certain of America’s moral imperative and certain that the economy and lifestyle of the greatest country on earth can’t possibly be creating massive extinctions, floods, water shortages, drought and desertification, refugee crises, and other climate change disasters all at once. (Why would Jesus have misled us to believe we were his favorites??)

There are also well educated executives and politicians who do understand the US role in the climate crisis and still favor the pipeline, because they value quick profit over all the consequences of climate change. They feel entitled to that profit, as their culture allows them to.

To them, the pipeline’s oil is simply another blessing justly bestowed on a righteous nation that taught democracy and justice to the modern world. Native American protests and the devastation of climate change do not threaten those beliefs.

 


  1. I use “America/American” when I write in English because to change it would disrupt flow and inhibit the communication of the ideas in this article to US citizens.

 

  1. China has surpassed the US as the world’s largest producer of the greenhouse gases that are driving climate change. Per capita US emissions, however, are well over twice as high because of US consumer culture. And in the data that produced those numbers, China’s massive exports to the US count toward China’s emissions, not US emissions. In other words, the $440 billion of goods made in China and bought by Americans every year count for China’s consumption of fossil fuels instead of America’s.

Indeed, as conservative media outlet Forbes writes, “Many of those goods were actually manufactured by American companies based in China. In those cases, both the products and most of their profits came back to the U.S. But since typical emissions counts include only the CO2 produced within a country’s borders, the carbon emissions effectively remained in China.”

When the greenhouse gas footprints of products made in China but consumed in the US are attributed to US emissions, per capita US emissions rise to almost four times those of China.