Seeing Red, White, Black and Blue: The Changing Face of the United States in the Twenty-First Century (blog post for the John Morton Center for North American Studies, 2015)

In a rather intriguing political cartoon, several Native Americans are standing along the shoreline watching a boatload of Europeans approach them, marveling that the immigrants probably do not even have proper documentation. It might be added that they probably would have had no idea about the significance of such a moment in light of future debates on multiculturalism, equality, and belonging, The ninth JMC Current Issues Seminar, “USA Today, USA Tomorrow,” featured three international scholars brought together to discuss illegal immigration, racial violence, and President Obama’s recurring message of “Hope.” The first two speakers, Dr. Jørn Brøndal on “The Immigration Issue and the Future of the Republican Party” and Dr. Jennifer Chernega on “Race and Policing in the United States,” had remarkable historical data and visual images documenting the long history of racism and violence in the United States, while the third speaker, Dr. Albion Butters, focused on “The Last Days of Obama” as a way to explore the tensions surrounding the central themes of hope, division, and disillusionment in the wake of ongoing reports of racial violence and economic disparity.

Brøndal, an associate professor in American Studies at the University of Southern Denmark, highlighted the fact that in the United States, in contrast to Europe, the immigration debate largely has to do with illegal immigration. Since Native Americans watched the first “illegal” immigrants arrive in the early 1600s, approximately 81 million people have immigrated to the country. Between 2000 and 2009, 10.3 million people immigrated to the United States, 48% of whom are listed as Hispanic and Latin Americans, a somewhat ambiguous category since it includes people who may describe themselves as “white.” Professor Brøndal’s images illustrated in a very powerful way how the debate really revolves around the millions of unauthorized immigrants who have crossed the Mexico–United States border. Since the 1980s, the U.S. government has employed a double immigration legislative strategy: 1) border security and demands for toughness as well as 2) amnesty for undocumented immigrants. The Republican base tends to be more skeptical of amnesty. Whereas Republicans say “let’s get tougher and then legislate,” Democrats argue, “but we have been tough and it hasn’t been working.” These differences in approach have recently come to a head. Top Republicans in Congress and 25 states have challenged the legality of President Obama’s decision to ease deportations for children and their families. But, as Professor Brøndal made clear, there have been more deportations (over 2 million) under Obama than prior presidents. So the issue is by no means clear-cut for either party. No major piece of legislation has been passed in decades. The Republicans more than the Democrats, though, need more minority voters to remain viable as a party. Beneath the rhetoric, corporate interests in maintaining the status quo cut across both parties: businesses have lots of cheap labor at their disposal (profit motive). Amnesty would beg the question of paying illegals a minimum wage, whereas deportation would equal the loss of cheap labor.

The issue of race and policing in the United States further demonstrates that targeting minorities is a way to make money. Professor Chernega from Winona State University in Minnesota gave a fascinating talk on the recent media attention surrounding police violence against black men in particular. The reason that the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO ultimately received so much attention is that the body lay in the middle of the street for four and a half hours. Commuters drove past it during rush hour, heightening community awareness. Members of the community organized a candlelight vigil that evening, prompting a police order to disperse. Only then did the media take notice and only then did reporters, too, suffer mistreatment at the hands of the police. Now that the predominantly white media has finally taken notice, stories of police violence against blacks appear regularly throughout the country. In the case of Ferguson, we learn that 86% of all police stops involve black suspects. A town of 21,000 people, Ferguson police have currently issued approximately 33,000 arrest warrants for non-violent offences. Of 16,000 outstanding arrest warrants, 92% of them are against blacks. Though whites are more likely to carry contraband, police target blacks because they have less political power to fight back. Professor Chernega used maps for a number of U.S. cities to show how segregated the country is at this point. The maps clearly identified the relationship between black neighborhoods and low housing prices. Blacks, unable to accrue wealth through housing values, also have limited educational opportunities (since school funding is linked to a neighborhood’s tax base) and less access to good jobs and quality food. Outstanding arrest warrants and resulting jail time, essentially criminalizing poverty, make it even more difficult for blacks to find decent jobs. Sadly, the American public suffers from a vast “perception disconnect” (to use Chernega’s term): whereas only 37% of whites think blacks are treated less fairly, 70% of blacks think they are treated less fairly, and, whereas only 44% of whites think more needs to be done to achieve racial equality, 79% of blacks think more needs to be done. Dr. Martin Luther King (in perhaps one of his less popular quotes among many whites) said that “riot is the language of the unheard.” He knew the truth of the fact that the media pays attention to violence. Professor Chernega ended her talk by speculating on the impact of citizen journalism (taking control of what the story looks like) and the extent to which blacks might also have raised expectations for receiving justice with Barack Obama as president.

Dr. Albion Butters addressed President Obama’s message of hope as a conscious use of metaphor, a carefully crafted visual narrative. For him, “The Last Days of Obama” constitute the third act of a film, a message of change and renewal. Why has the message resonated so deeply? To answer this question, Dr. Butters focused on the religious scholar Mircea Eliade’s notion of the eternal return to a mythical time. Obama has offered a recasting of Dr. Martin Luther King, saying from the outset of his presidency that he is standing on King’s shoulders. Inevitably, though, a sense of disillusionment has set in for many people. But disillusionment with what? For many, the hope was just for Obama to get elected: “Yes We Can” became “Yes We Did.” For others, he never represented hope at all or else just never delivered on it. A racial, economic, and bi-partisan divide has opened up between those who see the hope and those who do not. In terms of race, do we look at Obama as the first African American president or the first African American president to fail blacks? In the face of President Obama’s silence during many instances of reported police brutality against blacks, many are now questioning the transformative nature of his presidency in matters of race and social justice. From an economic standpoint, the shrinking net worth of families, the 6% growth in the number of those on welfare, and fact that the top 1% are only increasing their control (40%) of all wealth has only served to dampen down the message of hope for many workers. During President Obama’s last days, a bi-partisan divide has been hindering government as never before. This has forced his hand. Rather than slipping quietly into lame duck status, President Obama has made a number of unilateral moves — on immigration, on seeking a nuclear deal with Iran, through increased use of his veto power, and through fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) by leaving Congress out, a partnership that many fear will promote corporate interests over those of average workers. Such bold moves will help ensure his legacy. But at what cost? How will his actions shape the immigration debate in the future or questions about the shrinking middle class, the disappearing American dream, and whether or not blacks and other minorities will ever have more of a stake in the dream? Nonetheless, even if his hope for a united country (campaigning on the idea that there are no red or blue states, just purple states) has not come to pass, his message of hope and change will continue to resonate long after he has left the White House. All three speakers gave fascinating presentations and it will be an exciting in the next year and a half to see how the presidential candidates address, or try to dodge, each of these important issues.