American Studies One Theme That Could Unify Thesis

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American Studies

One theme that could unify the wide variety of readings in this course would be the paradox of Equality vs. Hierarchy in American history and society, which is closely related to Inclusion and Exclusion. Black observers, activists and critics of American society like Martin Luther King, Langston Hughes, Cornell West and James Baldwin understood these themes particularly well. From the colonial period to the present, this country has always had a racial caste system, which all of its founders understood perfectly well. John Winthrop may have envisioned a Puritan Commonwealth that would be a model for the world, but this society also had slavery, genocidal wars against Native Americans, as well as harsh treatment for white religious dissenters and the lower classes in general. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were all large slave owners after all, and had to look no further than their own plantations to see that black slaves were at the bottom of this system, marginalized, excluded and lacking even basic citizenship rights. Native Americans, who were either exterminated or confined to reservations as the U.S. expanded to the west, were in a similar situation.

In the colonial period and early republic, few political and economic leaders seriously challenged this racial hierarchy, apart from reformers and abolitionists. Benjamin Franklin freed his slaves and started the first school for free blacks, but he was the exception. Jefferson assumed that free blacks would never have equal citizenship in the U.S. And that they would have to be deported back to Africa, which the Native Americans would
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be relocated to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Jefferson and Madison were the authors of the founding documents of the United States, which compromised with slavery and left it in place where it already existed. Democracy and equal citizenship would be for whites only and even Abraham Lincoln had similar views when he was first elected in 1860, no matter that he opposed any further expansion of slavery. Although the Civil War resulted in the abolition of slavery in 1865 and the extension of voting and citizenship rights to freed slaves, this proved to be very short-lived and did not really survive the end of Reconstruction in 1877.

Even 20th Century presidents who claimed to be progressives, like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, made no secret of their belief that whites were the superior race, and this was reflected in both their foreign and domestic policies. When they occupied Haiti, Hawaii, the Philippines and other 'backward' countries, they assumed that the same system of hierarchy and exclusion would be in place. In the West, Asians and Hispanics added to the complexities of a highly racist and unequal society, but they were also segregated and marginalized. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Second Reconstruction led by Martin Luther King restored voting and civil rights to blacks, but not social and economic equality. Cornell West and other contemporary writers pointed out how young, black and Hispanic men are more likely to be in prison than in college, and that the…

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Perhaps nothing sums up the paradoxes and complexities of the Equality vs. Hierarchy dichotomy in American than the election of Barack Obama in 2008. In the past, his election would have been impossible, even unthinkable, since no blacks or members of other minority groups could have aspired to the presidency. Apart from John F. Kennedy in 1961-63, all the other presidents from 1789 to 2008 were white, Protestant males. In this sense, there has indeed been progress because of the civil rights movement, although the Right-wing has also mounted constant racist attacks on Obama, even questioning whether he was born in the United States. Moreover, the problems of poverty, exclusion and inequality for blacks and other minorities remain, just as they always have. Obama's tone in "A More Perfect Union" (2008) was very cool, intellectual and rational, which seems to be quite typical of his personality.

As the first black nominee of a major party for president, he had to draw in enough white voters to stay competitive with the Republicans, and Democrats had not been very successful at that since the 1960s. Obama's tone was that of both a transformational political leader but also a pragmatic candidate running for office. For this reason, he was far less emotional, impassioned and moralistic than Martin Luther King in his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington in 1963. On the other hand, both men referred to the founding documents and principles of the United States that promised liberty and equality for all, and noted that the country had failed to fulfill these in practice, especially because blacks had suffered centuries of slavery and segregation. They expressed optimism about the nation's ability to do so and rejected the politics of violence, racism and divisiveness, whether from blacks or whites. Obama referred to economic issues far more frequently than King, however, and used the rising poverty, unemployment and inequality in America as a central issue in his campaign. He recognized that the U.S. had made progress since the 1950s and 1960s, and indeed that if it had not he would never have become the nominee of a major political party. He acknowledged the debt he owed to the entire civil rights movement, without which he would have had no opportunity to be elected president. Obama realized that this work had not yet been completed and that racism and segregation were still very real obstacles that blacks and other minorities faced in their daily lives in America. Nevertheless, he also wished to create a movement that was broader than issues of race, and that addressed social and economic justice for all people in the United States.

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