This past May, the talk around American University should have of graduation, internships and students’ plans for the summer. Instead, it was about nooses and bananas. As CNN and other news outlets have reported, administrators at the Washington, D.C. school have been meeting with students and addressing a litany of demands after someone earlier this month sneaked around campus in the middle of the night hanging bananas from nooses.
If the banana hanger’s intent wasn’t clear — and to most students, it was, considering later that day a black woman took the student government’s helm for the first time ever — the dangling fruits carried ominous and frightening messages.
One said, “AKA Free” a shot at Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s oldest African-American sorority of which the new student government president, Taylor Dumpson, is a member; another said “Harambe Bait,” a reference to the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla killed last year after dragging a child through its enclosure.
“We … urge American University to strengthen the security measures on campus to keep its SGA President, who also is an Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority member, other Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority members and African Americans on campus safe,” the sorority said in a statement.
The United States likes to think of itself as a nation of hope and idealism, a still-young, proud republic that is ever reaching for great goals. America’s first settlers believed this and on the eve of his election to the presidency in 1980, Ronald Reagan spoke of his commitment to the vision of the nation as a “shining city on a hill.” America had survived its original sin of slavery and lived through the civil war. The eras of legal racial segregation and public lynchings described in my World War One historical novel, A Place near the Front, were over, or so we thought. We were confident we would never return to those dark days. Certainly, the election of the nation’s first black president proved that we were now in a post-racial era. When President Obama stated in his farewell to the nation that “we’re not where we need to be,” he also said, “The long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.”
But within the civil rights movement, for every disadvantaged group that enjoys new rights and privileges, there is another group that perceives itself to have lost privilege and status in society. With that loss comes push-back. Just as the civil war resulted in the freeing of slaves and voting rights for black citizens, the inevitable pushback quickly reversed the trend to elect black public officials and ushered in the era of Jim Crow and lynching. Voting rights gains of the 1960s resulted in a “get-tough-on-crime” era during which blacks were disproportionately incarcerated. Most recently, the election of the country’s first black president was followed by the election of a president that has expressed anti-group feelings about multiple groups of people: Mexicans, Muslims, Disabled, Women, and who has begun to implement new policies that disadvantage these groups.
As noted in the recent New York Times opinion piece: Racial Progress Is Real. But So Is Racist Progress, The new president and his supporters, acting to reverse some of the gains of the above groups “…succeeded in putting new racial barriers in place, new discriminatory policies in our institutions. And they succeeded in developing a new round of racist ideas to justify those policies, to redirect the blame for racial disparities away from their new policies and onto supposed black pathology. They embraced the post-racial idea and stamped it onto Mr. Obama’s forehead. They persuaded the Supreme Court to overturn federal preclearance of new voting laws, since the nation was post-racial. They instituted new voter restrictions aimed at African-Americans ‘with almost surgical precision,’ to quote the appeals court that struck down North Carolina’s voter identification law last summer. Voting restrictors justified their new laws by claiming corruption in the voting process, deftly redeploying the old racist idea of the corrupt black politician. And all of this forward motion of racism yielded the presidency of Donald Trump and a Republican Congress, just as all of the forward motion of racial progress since the 1960s yielded President Obama and the diverse congress of protesters.”
In America’s increasingly diverse ethnic landscape, amid new kinds of conflicts between groups brought about by social media and the 24-hour news cycle, many Americans are nervous about their daily lives and feel increasingly insecure as other groups push for and secure new rights and privileges. An increasingly politicized public is divided not so much on political differences as on group ethnic and nationalistic differences.