Author’s Note: In light of the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, I’ve chosen to republish my essay dated March 29, 2015, originally entitled “What Do Conservatives Mean When They Say “I Want My Country Back?” Minor revisions have been made to the original text.
How often have I heard or seen this phrase, “I want my country back,” used over the years since I was born in 1956, in Raleigh, North Carolina? I can’t give you a precise number, but I can tell you that, though I’ve seen liberals employ these words on occasion over the nearly six decades of my life, most of the time it has been the mantra of white male, and, on occasion female, conservatives. Indeed, many self-identified “Tea Party” members have repeatedly used this term as their personal call to arms. Indeed, this statement is implicit in then Candidate Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, Make America Great Again.
What do they mean when they say that? To which supposed golden age of America do they want to return? Who can say what is in the hearts of such people? But I have some ideas based on my experiences over the years.
As a child born in the middle of the Fifties in the South, I knew at an early age that some people were considered inferior to me. The signs were all around – literally. I remember once, when I was three or four, a white woman stopped me as I approached a drinking fountain, thirsty after being dragged around on a hot summer day by my mother on one of her shopping trips to Raleigh’s downtown. The woman, politely, but sternly, took hold of my arm, and told me I couldn’t use that fountain because it was for “colored people.” A fountain not much different than this one:
My memory is a little vague after that, but I do recall talking with my mother about it later. She must have been embarrassed, for she had a hard time explaining why there were different water fountains for people based on the color of their skin. It didn’t make much sense to me as a child, and I imagine she had difficulty understanding how to explain the concept of racism to her incessantly curious little boy.
Born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Mom grew up in a place where such things did not exist, probably because there were so few black people living in the Northern Plains states, both then and now. She and my father moved to Raleigh the year of my birth because of his acceptance into North Carolina State University’s graduate program in statistics. To them, Raleigh, NC, was not only the biggest city in which either of them had ever lived, but it, and the entire state, were also, for all intents and purposes, a foreign country.
People spoke differently, their manners were different, and most significantly, there were far more African-American people living there than either of them had ever seen before. Of course, no one used the term African-American back then. They were either called “coloreds” or “Negroes” in proper speech, or more informally (as one the neighbor kids I played with explained) simply “niggers.” ( I learned how to sing eeny, meeny, miney, moe, catch a nigger by his toe …” from the same children, no doubt because it was the version their parents had taught them).
What was most disorienting to my mother and father were the vast number of unwritten rules regarding how the two races were supposed to relate to one another, and the assumption that everyone, black and white, implicitly understood these rules, rules of which my parents were ignorant. For example, thanks to the poverty of so many “colored” folks, even my parents could afford to hire a maid to help clean our house twice a week after we moved to Cary, NC when I was three. Our maid, Annie, was about as light skinned as one could get and still be recognized as not white enough to pass. My mother had trouble from the get go with her, because while Annie knew the boundaries of what constituted acceptable behavior between a black maid and her white employer, my mother did not.
My mom was constantly wrong-footing herself with Annie, trying to do things like eat lunch with her or help Annie do her work, things Annie understood would be taken the wrong way had they been observed by other whites. She did her best to explain to Mom that such things just weren’t done, but my mother was stubborn, and didn’t see why she should treat Annie any differently than she would treat anyone else. To Annie, my mother was her white boss, a somewhat clueless if well-meaning one, but her boss nonetheless. To my mother, Annie was her friend, one to whom she felt closer to than many of the native white Carolinian housewives that lived all around us. Yet, even my mother had to face the reality of Annie’s situation at times.
Usually, after Annie finished her work for us, my mother would drive her to the closest bus stop where she could catch a ride home. Occasionally, Mom even drove Annie home, though my mother only learned to drive a car after she came to North Carolina (her father didn’t believe in women learning how to drive) and always felt a little anxious when she did so. What I remember most vividly from those visits was the difference between Annie’s home and mine.
I lived in a nice three-bedroom, one story brick home with a carport located in a new subdivision surrounded by similar homes where none of the mothers worked. Annie and her family lived in a hovel, a shack really, where every adult that could work did work, man or woman. We had a nice big yard with lots of grass, a pond out back and a gorgeous pine forest that backed up against the homes across the street from us. The yard Annie’s kids played in was bare dirt with a few weeds and a small flower garden near the front stoop. I have no pictures to show you what Annie’s home looked like, but I did find this image of one from that era, a home a little nicer than the one in which Annie resided, but it will do to give you a general idea:
Annie didn’t like having us stay very long when we dropped her off, but my mother usually insisted, believing it the courteous and friendly thing to do, and so I would play with Annie’s kids out in the dirt while my mother talked to Annie about her garden (they both had a passion for flowers) or sit on Annie’s stoop and drink a glass of water or iced tea, chatting away, oblivious to Annie’s own anxieties about our presence there.
One day, Annie missed her bus and she walked the two miles or so back to our home and asked if my mother could drive her instead. By this time the sun had set, and my mother, always fearful of driving in the dark – “It’s so easy to get lost out here,” she would say – suggested that Annie call her husband when he got off work to pick her up, as my father was working late at one of his part-time research jobs, and therefore unavailable. Annie did her best to explain why that wasn’t such a good idea, but my mother insisted she call him anyway. When she did, Annie’s husband asked to speak to my mother. He finally got the message through to Mom that a black man driving in a white neighborhood after dark was, shall we say, verboten. It was simply too dangerous. He was very nice about it, because by this time I’m sure Annie had explained my mother was a Yankee lady who didn’t know any better, but he made it clear that he would be risking arrest or worse if he came to pick up his wife from her job. So, my mother called my father, and he came and drove Annie home, instead. That day my mother learned a lesson about the life of her friend and other African-Americans in North Carolina – that segregation and racism were not merely minor annoyances for black people, that they could literally be matters of life or death.
Since that time, over the course of my life I watched as the Civil Rights movement worked hard to end discrimination and enshrine equal treatment under the law for all races in voting, employment, housing and so forth, but that came only after years of arrests and brutal mistreatment of non-violent protestors and a major arm twisting effort on Congress by LBJ (one that he was not all that keen about). And despite court orders and the myriad laws on the books, and the acceptance by most whites that black people have the right to eat at the same restaurants and work at the same jobs as whites, de facto discrimination against African-Americans still exists. It’s in our schools, which are more segregated than ever, in our neighborhoods, in lending and banking practices, in employment, and most cruelly in the way the criminal justice system disproportionately treats black defendants vs. white defendants. So while some things have “changed” for the better, that improvement does not run very deep. Certainly, its been far less significant or ground-breaking than many people like to think. We are not a colorblind society, despite the fact that signs, like the ones marked “colored” or “white only,” are no longer on display in North Carolina or in any other state.
We see the same situation played out in the other major civil rights struggles of our times, such as those for women and for LGBT people. A great deal of change in societal attitudes and in the law, but not as much real change as as we like to believe in how people are treated. In fact, if anything, I have consistently seen a backlash year in and year out, over the course of my lifetime, regarding each advance in human rights for any group regardless of who they are, what color their skin is, what religion they practice or who they chose to love.
Laws in a number of states have been passed by Republican controlled legislatures over the past several years that expressly attempt to reinstate the right of individuals and businesses to discriminate against anyone they choose, if any law requiring fair and equal treatment “substantially burdens” the exercise of the business owner’s religion. It’s a blatant attempt to grant legal immunity to bigots, and though the purpose of these laws may have been aimed primarily at allowing discrimination against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people, its clear to me that the supporters do not intend to stop at trying to stuff gays back in the closet. Their efforts encompass attempts to limit the rights of a far wider range of people, from the poor, young people and students, women, Latinos, immigrants, the disabled and, of course, African-Americans. Anyone who thinks otherwise is frankly delusional.
The Supreme Court’s rulings gutting the Voting Rights Act and allowing onerous voting fraud laws to stand, along with decisions such as Citizens United and Hobby Lobby, make it abundantly clear that freedom is a term limited to the corporations and those who practice the right form of Christianity. These rulings and aforementioned state laws are directly intended to limit the freedom of people by allowing one small group, under the guise of “religious freedom,” to impose their own bigoted and hateful beliefs upon everyone else. Beliefs that, when acted upon, negatively impact the freedom of our brothers and sisters, and literally sanction the right to harm individuals they do not like for whatever reason.
You see, conservatives may be big on reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, with its declaration of “one nation … with liberty and justice for all,” but when they say those words they don’t really mean them, not for all people in any event. No, they don’t see anyone other than themselves as entitled to freedom, equality and justice. And when they say they want their country back, they really mean they want to turn back the clock to the way it used to be before civil rights laws were passed to protect, however ineffectively, the rights of those who do not fit within the narrow definition of straight, white Christians. And they are deadly serious about that agenda.
The recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, while representing the actions of the most extreme individuals who long for the return of white supremacy, should be a wake up call to all of us. Today’s society, with its mass incarcerations and frequent instances of violence by individuals and by law enforcement against minority populations is bad enough. Imagine just how deadly a return to an era where minorities of all kinds were persecuted using both legal and quasi-legal actions, often imposed with the use or threat of violence, to keep them in their place, would be.
Many of you have grown up in an era where equal rights is assumed to be the norm, but let me assure you that for most of the history of our country, and I would argue, this includes the present time, that has not been the case. Feminism as a movement did not exist until the late 60s and early 70s. The movement for “Gay Rights” originated in the seventies, but really only began to see significant progress over the last 15 years or so. And the right to vote for all intents and purposes did not exist for black people when I was born, and schools all over the South were still legally segregated despite the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Now they are merely de facto segregated in many parts of the country.
One year, before our family moved away from North Carolina forever, the NAACP and other civil rights groups circulated a petition in our neighborhood. It contained a simple statement asking the state to dismantle the numerous legal barriers that prevented most blacks in the state from exercising their right to vote. My parents signed the petition. What my parents failed anticipate was that their neighbors would see my parents’ names on that list when the volunteers seeking signatures for the petition knocked on their doors, and what our neighbors’ reaction would be.
Within a day, my parents were shunned by all their so-called friends in our little development in Cary, and their children were prohibited from coming to our home to play with my siblings and I, and we were not allowed to visit our friends in the neighborhood at their homes. Eventually this “shunning” subsided so that once again we could play with the other kids, but the my parents’ relationships with our neighbors never really recovered from the incident. My folks broke the single most important unwritten rule in southern society back in then – never, ever do anything to show support for the rights of colored people. In other words, never do anything to oppose the doctrine of white supremacy.
So, when I hear someone say that they want to take their country back, I cannot help but look at the person making that statement and wonder, which country do they want? The one that used police and Pinkerton agents to bust up unions? The one that made lynchings a celebratory outing? The one that preached a woman should be happy staying home, raising the kids and catering to her husband’s every whim? The one where homosexuals hid their sexual orientation from all but their closest confidantes out of fear their careers and lives would be destroyed, and that they would be disowned by their families? The one where black people could not eat in the same restaurants at which white people ate, or drink from the same water fountains, or attend the same schools or live in the same neighborhoods or …
I don’t want my country back. I want a better country. One that truly provides liberty and justice for all people. And I certainly don’t want a country where anyone can discriminate against anyone else of whom they do disapprove and escape liability for that immoral and otherwise unlawful act under any pretext, be it freedom of religion, racial superiority or traditional values.
I never want to go back to the country that existed when I was born. The one that exists now needs far too much improvement as it is.
Very important MEANINGFUL anecdotal evidence of what “our” country has been, and where we are headed (if the trajectory that has been established keeps its momentum). thank you for this article. I also do not want “our” country back.
Thanks Malisha. I find that people connect better to stories that are personal and as you say, anecdotal, than to those that merely include statistical or dry historical information. This is not to say that the latter isn’t important, just that many people understand an issue better if they have an emotional reaction to a personal story that provides context and explains how the problem or issue that the story speaks about affects people on a personal level. I cannot speak to the experiences of African Americans in America, but I can relate to others my own life experiences where racism and prejudice in our country impacted me.
I also believe that it is important for those who were born after the “Civil Rights” era to understand what it was really like to see the effects racial prejudice, bigotry, discrimination had on poc, rather than merely assimilate what they were taught in history classes. It’s especially important for white people who lived through those times and witnessed the violence of that struggle and the harm caused by white society, which was for the most part largely opposed to granting basic civil rights to minorities, to tell their stories. I feel far too often that many younger people ignore the stories of African-Americans who lived through that time, because they cannot identify with a black person, and find it difficult amid all the conflicting narratives out there to truly empathize with the plight of poc, both in the past and in the present day.
I am older than Steve, so had longer to experience some of the things he did. I was already out of college by the time the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed.
At one time, when we lived in Louisiana, the only kids my age who lived near us were black. We wrestled, played tag, and generally acted like kids. I was in about the fourth grade. One day, I went with one of my friends to stop by his house for something. His home was only the next street over, but his small neighborhood was light years away in culture and custom. His mother got me aside in the kitchen and told me that it “wasn’t right” that I played with her son, and should not come up to their house again. My feelings were hurt. I told my parents, and their reaction was that the kid’s mom had done exactly the right thing by telling me that.
I took a job in Memphis in August 1968. One of the things I did was engage in community organizing. Look at that date: August 1968. What happened in Memphis only four months before?
Looking back, I don’t think I was completely aware of exactly how dangerous it was for me to be doing that, at that time and in that place. On the other hand, I don’t scare easily, and must have taken the attitude that I was completely out of fucks to give.
Ed Peters, former District Attorney for Hinds County, MS told me he could not believe that I walked around without carrying a pistol. Incidentally, Ed Peters was played by Craig T. Nelson in the movie, Ghosts of Mississippi.
Thank you Steven – excellent essay, but I have to take issue with this:
“Feminism as a movement did not exist until the late 60s and early 70s.”
You are referring to the “SECOND Wave” of Feminism – the “FIRST Wave” was launched during the early 19th Century Abolitionist movement (also the Civil Rights movement’s early days) – it got officially organized in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention. Women got laws changed that had made them de facto chattels of their fathers and husbands, fought for and won property rights and parental rights, and spent decades working to get the right to vote, which finally happened in 1920. But the First Wave never really stopped, it just shrank down to a determined few. Alice Paul wrote the E.R.A. before the ink was dry on the 19th Amendment, and it was introduced in every session of Congress after that, and sadly, it still is, because it’s never been ratified.
There has always been bigotry in this country, but there have also always been people fighting against it. The vast majority of Americans live in “the great middle” between the bigots and the reformers, and that’s where things only change with agonizing slowness. It takes something cataclysmic like a World War to make We The People unite and act quickly.
Mea culpa. My historical blinders are showing.
It is so shocking to me how little attention is paid in American history texts to any of the movements to improve the lives of the “ordinary” Americans. The Abolition, Suffragist and Labor Movements are critical parts of U.S. history, but most textbooks give very little space to them. You get a single representational figure, like Susan B. Anthony or Frederick Douglass, and all the rest of the events and people are ignored. It’s the Cliff’s Notes for Dummies version!
Thanks for this … I don’t want the US of my youth back but I would say that some things have actually not changed all that much, just that adulthood made me realize that I could find or recognize safer places. The numbers of such spaces may have, alas remained relatively constant.