With preemptive apologies to grammarians everywhere, today we ponder the following question:
Who is “we?”
That syntactic atrocity is prompted by a recent colloquy between Laura Ingraham of Fox “News” and former GOP operative Patrick Buchanan. They were talking on Ingraham’s podcast about what they see as the impossibility of America absorbing more newcomers from what Buchanan called “the second or the third world.” Then he dropped this gem:
“African Americans have been here since 1619. They’ve helped build and create the nation. They’re part of its culture and history, and yet we haven’t fully assimilated African-American citizens.”
Presumably, he means the country, which raises an obvious question. What does it say about America that black people have been here 400 years, “helped build and create it,” are integral to “its culture and history,” yet are still considered outsiders?
Here’s something equally obvious. When Buchanan says “we,” he does mean America. But when he says “America,” he means white people. Not that he’s the only one to rhetorically ostracize people of color.
Journalists do it all the time when they use terms like “evangelicals” to refer to religious white people, “southerners,” to denote white people in Dixie or “working class” to designate white people with blue collar jobs — as if people of color did not go to church, live below the Mason-Dixon Line or punch time clocks.
Donald Trump did it when he recently tweeted that politicians in storm-torn Puerto Rico “only take from USA.” As if Puerto Ricans, who gained citizenship in 1917, were somehow separate from “USA.”
Too often, then, people of color live in other people’s blind spots, unseen in the shadow of their assumptions. Some of us have a default image of what constitutes “American,” and it rules out Spanish surnames, dark skin and prayers to Allah.
Which stands in stark contrast to the values America claims to hold dear. For 243 years, the country has balanced in the tension between what we claim and what we are. In 2019, though, that tension is ramped up by a sense of the demographic clock ticking down on white primacy. It’s not too much to say that in some quarters, a kind of panic has set in over the notion that some day soon, white people will no longer hold numerical superiority.
It’s that panic that made a woman cry, “I want my country back,” that sent people hunting for Barack Obama’s “real” birth certificate, that inspired ponderous think pieces on the demise of the WASP establishment, that elected Trump president, that made white evangelicals betray their stated convictions. It’s that panic that has Buchanan and Ingraham fearing the future.
He sees the country becoming “a giant Mall of America.” She thinks the English language might disappear.
The irony is that if the country is, indeed, doomed, it is not because immigrants flock here, drawn by its ideals. When have they not done that?
No, if America fails, it will be because people like Buchanan and Ingraham lacked the courage to live up to those ideals. It will be because it was still possible, as late as 2019, for a white man to regard African Americans, progenitors of America’s music, fighters of its wars, tillers of its fields and redeemers of its sacred values, as somehow alien to America. And it will be because he and people like him still arrogantly arrogate unto themselves, as if handed down from the very hand of God, the right to determine who “we” is.
And, more important, who “we” is not.