Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Apartheid in the USA

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No, it's not Pretoria, South Africa, 1968. It's McAllen, Texas, yesterday.

Yes, our president has fascist dreams. Yes, he panders to the far right, up to and including torch-bearing Nazi-saluting white nationalists. Yes, his foreign policy is a rejection of seven decades of global interdependence, choosing instead to cozy up to autocrats of both the right and left. And yes, his public declarations and tweets are designed to fire up and consolidate the most extreme elements of his base, a strategy that both renders the opposition impotently incoherent and cows the more moderate members of the GOP with fears of being primaried by more rabid Trumpists. It's a cult of personality worthy of Hitler.

But no, we're not turning into Nazi Germany, c. 1936. Not yet, anyway.

A more appropriate comparison is to South Africa. Like the United States, South Africa was a civilized place long before white colonists invaded, using their superior technology to force their will on the native population. As in the United States, expansionist wars were fought against those natives, and as in the US, the defeated people were crowded into reservations ("bantustans"), giving the colonists the room they desired to plant their farms and build their cities free of pesky native interference. South Africa codified its racist, exploitative treatment of these people with a system called Apartheid, adding a parallel with American Jim Crow laws. And while native resistance to Apartheid had a militant edge, the transition away from that system was largely peaceful, as was American rejection of Jim Crow.

The chief historical difference between South Africa and the United States has to do entirely with demographics: South Africa's white minority was so much smaller than its oppressed black majority that, once that majority was finally granted the vote, white South Africans would never again rule the nation. In the United States, persons of color remain a minority, though if current population trends continue, that will change in the near future.

Which is why, as in South Africa of the 1960s and '70s, the people who stand to lose the most power when that shift takes place are struggling franticly to cling to their privilege, even if it means resorting to the tactics that turned Apartheid-era South Africa into an international pariah. Thus we have border enforcement officers becoming increasingly aggressive in their pursuit of undocumented immigrants, and inflicting ever more inhumane treatment on those they capture. Add the Trump regime's predilection for pandering to racists, sprinkle with craven legislators who will do anything to keep their jobs, and overnight, Washington becomes Pretoria, McAllen becomes Soweto, the United Nations condemns American immigration practices as crimes against humanity, and Americans with consciences contemplate self-exile.

Progressives wonder how long Trump and his base can keep it up. After all, while they do represent a majority of active Republicans (the one demographic that approves the policy of child-snatching as a deterrent to refugees presenting themselves at the border), that is still just a fraction of Americans--perhaps slightly over a quarter--nowhere near enough to win in any general election unless the rest of the party falls into step, and convinces independents and Democrats to stay home. But that was the situation in 2016, and somehow Trump managed to defeat a candidate who had all the minorities, not to mention the Democratic party, on her side. Unfortunately, she didn't have them in the right places, and the rural-voter-favoring electoral college pushed Trump over the top.

I'm not sanguine, then, about our chances of turning back the tide of American Apartheid. It will take a concerted effort in purple states that went for Trump in 2016 to wrest control of either house of Congress away from the racist-pandering Republican party.

Barring a genuinely fascist takeover of American elections, that switch of control is inevitable, if not this fall, then certainly in 2020. Once it's accomplished, it will be powerfully tempting to punish the right with investigations, prosecutions, and impeachment. And here I'd like to hold up the example of post-Apartheid South Africa, as President Nelson Mandela chose not to crack down on the white criminals who had been his predecessors, but rather to gather their stories through truth an reconciliation commissions. The goal was to uncover the atrocities that had been committed to maintain the systemic inequalities, to record them and hold them up for all to see. In exchange, many who had committed these crimes were exonerated. That doesn't mean they transformed into good people--I expect some of them remain unrepentant--but it does mean clemency for those whose obedience to orders led them to act abominably.

The United States has needed a truth and reconciliation process for over a century. We've never come to grips with the horrors committed in our name against Native Americans, African slaves, Asian laborers, Mexican farm workers, generation upon generation of people who either came to this country to escape oppression only to find it here, were brought here against their will, or were found already here and subjected to genocidal colonial practices that decimated their numbers and forced them into permanent exile from their traditional lands.

We need it, but we're not going to get it anytime soon. No white president--certainly not this one, but not, either, a white Democrat--can afford to initiate any policy that admits this nation was built on the blood of oppressed minorities, and seeks to reconcile with that history. It can't be a president of color, either, unless the demographic shift has finally arrived and the non-white majority can finally insist on it.

That's where we're headed, and the sooner we get there, the better. It would be best if, like South Africa, we of fair skin can peacefully surrender our power to the diverse majority of people who don't look like us. It would be best, but I'm increasingly fearful that we will not get to it without experiencing something akin to the race riots of the 1960s. The Trump regime seems hellbent on remaking the shining city on a hill into a burning city in hell. Unfortunately, at least for now, it remains up to members of his own party to pull us back from our descent into Apartheid. Here's hoping they do it before it's too late.

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