By Sikivu Hutchinson
In 1963, Malcolm X declared that John F. Kennedy’s assassination was an example of “chickens coming home to roost”. He argued that the U.S.’ climate of bigotry and state violence was to blame for his death. Taken out of context, his comments were misconstrued by some as endorsing Kennedy’s murder. In an interview with journalist Louis Lomax he maintained, “I meant that the death of Kennedy was the result of a long line of violent acts, the culmination of hate and suspicion and doubt in this country.”
Malcolm X’s critique resonates in an environment of in-your-face white supremacist vitriol stoked by nearly eight years of hating on Obama and social justice. Exhibit A is Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and the nativist feeding frenzy it’s elicited in white Middle America.
Yet, one of my pet peeves is those who self-righteously claim that these fascist displays are “un-American”, when they are merely chickens coming home to roost. In his criticism of Trump’s rhetoric, President Obama claimed that this “is not who we are as Americans”. Continuing in this vein, CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria wrote recently about being “appalled” by Trump’s bigotry as a naturalized American citizen (the essay is entitled “I am a Muslim. But Trump’s views appall me because I’m an American”). Zakaria said he’s “proud of that identity because as an immigrant, it came to me through deep conviction and hard work, not the accident of birth.”
Zakaria’s statements are problematic on a few levels. First, there is the specter of model minority bootstraps meritocracy implied by the characterization “hardworking immigrant”. While some are “simply” granted the so-called rights and privileges of American citizenship due to the accident of birth, others like Zakaria, have worked damn hard to earn it. Zakaria’s evocation of American exceptionalism discounts the realities of people of color in a nation where “hardworking” has practically become an antonym for being black.
Secondly, Zakaria laments being forced to claim his Muslim otherness despite identifying as a secular agnostic. Perhaps privileged brown folk like him can turn a blind eye to the pervasive invisibility and bigotry that non-white non-Christian Americans experience, but the majority don’t have the luxury.
After each terror attack allegedly perpetrated in the name of Islam, the U.S. launches into a predictable cycle of heightened anti-Muslim Islamophobic attacks and hate incidents. Muslim communities become more visible to the mainstream as a reviled other, while public officials decry these explicit acts of profiling as an anomaly—not reflective of the “true” spirit of American values.
But the true spirit of American values has always been demonization of the other in the name of “democracy”. Homilies about the U.S.’ moral uprightness and vaunted democratic freedoms are belied by the staggering reality of epic racial wealth gaps, deepening racial segregation and state violence. Exceptionalists like Obama and Zakaria cling to the notion that the U.S. has the highest standard of living and greatest economic mobility among “developed” nations. They peddle the illusion of American religious freedom and tolerance, despite the overwhelmingly Christian face of elected officials and the anti-Muslim, anti-secular bigotry that this dominance fuels. And they bandy the myth of civil education despite the apartheid structure of American public schools, their Eurocentric curricula, destructive zero tolerance policies and policing of children of color.
What the “I’m appalled because I’m an American” flag-wrapping posture really implies is that those others—in backward non-enlightened, non-Western societies that are supposedly so radically different from ours—don’t have the same high regard for principles of equality and justice.
Tell that to the descendants of Japanese Americans displaced from their homes, jobs and livelihoods during the World War II-era internment. Tell that to the hundreds of activists of color discredited and slaughtered under the U.S.’ COINTELPRO regime. Tell that to black children systematically brutalized in the Obama administration’s police state schools while they pledge “one nation under God”. Flag wrapping and patriotism in the face of fascism, overt and covert, are the last refuge of ahistorical scoundrels.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of the novel White Nights, Black Paradise on Peoples Temple and the Jonestown massacre.