By: Rubén Martinez, Ph.D.


Humans are capable of both humanizing and dehumanizing behaviors. Guided either by morals and compassion or by greed and hatred, they can build humanizing or dehumanizing societies. Most Americans would agree that the trajectory of humanity has been for the better in the quality of material and social life. That trajectory, however, has been uneven and inconsistent; there have been backward steps characterized by harassment, discrimination, hatred and violence against those peoples defined as inferior by those who feel superior and destined to rule or simply feel threatened in the quality of their lives. One of the enduring systems of dehumanization is racism.
America, like all social orders, has been fraught with contradictions from its very beginnings. Its founders espoused the ideal of the Enlightenment that people can more fully develop their human potential through the types of societies they build. And they embarked upon building a democratic society in which all people were regarded as equal and had the opportunity to improve their lot in life. They called it forming “a better Union.” At the same time, many of the founders were slave owners, and the Constitution, despite its progressive features, institutionalized inequality in voting and political representation. It celebrated “free persons” and diminished the count of “Other persons,” denying inclusion of Indians not taxed, which was the overwhelming majority of them. They opposed taxation without representation, and used taxation as an instrument to deny representation to Others.
As America gained control over more land, namely the West and islands in the Caribbean, it brought more and more people culturally different from White Americans. Taken over by force, these peoples brought into America’s orbit were quickly incorporated into the racial structures and dynamics of the nation. These included the racial division of labor, institutionalized segregation, and political domination; in short, colonialism. Threaded throughout America’s expansion is a belief of racial superiority grounded in the ideology of White Supremacy. That is, that White Americans are morally, intellectually, and emotionally superior to all other peoples whom they view as inferior to them through racial categories.
Robert Park, a sociologist at the University of Chicago in the first part of the 20th Century, hypothesized that there are cycles in human relations that move from contact to competition, accommodation, and assimilation. Park recognized that the different aspects of the cycle could occur simultaneously and that periods of conflict would temporarily halt the general process toward integration and stability. While the process he presented does not unfold as he hypothesized, his model, with its emphasis on social conflict, is useful in that it focuses critical attention on racism. The nation today is characterized by widespread political conflict that recently revealed nativism as a core feature. Nativism, which is grounded in social conservatism, occurs when the dominant group in society, in this case White Americans, feels that its culture, traditions, and dominant status are threatened and its members mobilize to protect them. That protection usually targets immigrants, who are seen as the threat to the social order.
Social conservatism is one of the many threads of American conservatism. Others are Christian conservatism, Constitutional conservatism, fiscal conservatism, libertarianism, traditionalist conservatism, and neoconservatism, to name a few. These threads exist simultaneously with differing degrees of influence among them and in the larger social order.  In any historical moment, they overlap and generate different configurations of political influence in society. With the election of President Trump we saw the rise of neoliberal nationalism. This configuration of political power and influence consists of the blending of the neoliberal influences of fiscal conservatism and libertarianism with social conservatism.
Among other things, the configuration of influence mixes anti-government sentiments and deregulation of the economy with anti-immigrant sentiments. More recently, hitherto barely visible racist elements have erupted in the open with President Trump’s attacks on Third World immigrants and leaders of color while speaking publicly in coded terms that affirm the views of White supremacists. The “America, love or leave it” slogan reflected both nativism and the racism inherent in the neoliberal nationalist movement that President Trump has promoted across the country. Further, by seeking to crush public discussions of ways to improve our government to better promote a more Perfect Union, he has reshaped the dynamics of public discourse in the direction of authoritarianism, which demands compliance with authority at the expense of the personal freedom of the individual. If people do not behave as they are expected to by neoliberal nationalists, they become targets of hostility and violence.
This context is shaped by numerous contradictions. Indeed, the concept neoliberal nationalism combines the contradictory elements of globalization, a core feature of neoliberalism, and nationalism, which puts “America” first. There are also the contradictions between the values of equality and racism and nativism, and those between authoritarianism and personal freedom and the values embodied in the Constitution. And, there are certainly more contradictions in the current political order.
The current nativist elements of today’s governing regime are openly denying refugees and immigrants their civil and human rights, and detaining migrants, adults and children in squalid living conditions. There are innumerable violations of laws occurring that are being addressed through the judicial system, which is slowly being turned into a political instrument that supports authoritarianism. With the existence of a historical repository of racial sentiments among Americans, and given the social frustration generated by the downward economic experiences of a major segment of America’s middle class, it has been easy for President Trump to meld the two to promote White Supremacy. Thereby giving rise to another historical moment in which the ideology of White Supremacy is openly promoted. This time, however, by the President of the United States.
Consequently, the nation is experiencing social and political upheaval. Generalizing from Park’s model, this historical moment can be seen as a step back in the pursuit of a more Perfect Union, but the optimism remains that Americans can rise above the “long night” that constitutes today’s political period. In the middle of the 19th Century, Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister and abolitionist, wrote about the moral universe and its long arc toward justice. This idea was quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1958 in the Gospel Messenger, published by the Church of the Brethren, where he promoted the idea of nonviolent resistance, which is passive physically but active spiritually. There, he wrote that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” (107, 6: 14).
The optimism of the Enlightenment, Theodore Parker, Robert Park, and Martin Luther King, Jr., is based on the view that humanity is on a trajectory that leads toward higher and higher levels of civilization. The pursuit of justice is the spiritual dimension upon which higher levels of social orders are achieved. Through the struggles of the oppressed and those who believe in and pursue social justice the United States has traveled along the arc of the universe toward justice. But that journey has stalled as a result of the powerful elements in society that have imposed free market fundamentalist policies that have had a negative effect on the lives of most Americans.
For example, we have the greatest degree of social inequality in the United States since the years before the Great Depression. But it is not immigrants who have created the material conditions of economic and social suffering found throughout the country. The policies of conservatism have produced those conditions, including the runaway plants that decimated manufacturing, the continuous reduction of corporate taxes, and the gerrymandering of voting districts, to mention just a few.
Will the current setbacks to human progress and the nation continue to be sustained by the propaganda of neoliberals and by the lies of President Trump, or will Americans awaken from the “long night” to the values of the Enlightenment and the Constitution? Perhaps the words of Langston Hughes, the poet, social activist, and writer, can revive the promise of tomorrow:
    True anyhow no matter how many
    Liars use those words