If you are somehow still in doubt as to the degree of division in America around matters of politics, ideology, and especially race and identity, you needn’t look further than a question that popped up yesterday on Quora.
Quora (for those who don’t know) is a social media platform dedicated to crowdsourcing answers to participants’ questions. Questions like: “How do I write the perfect college essay?” Or: “What matters more, professional accomplishment or close friends?”
And of course, questions about all matters political.
Sometimes the queries are absurd, like: “Is it true Donald Trump has accomplished more than any president in history?” Or, “How will my life be worth living if I don’t get into an Ivy League school?” But occasionally they reveal a genuine interest in substantive explanation, as was the case yesterday, when I received an e-mail blast from the system, alerting me to a new question in search of a reply. To wit:
“Why does the MAGA hat offend so many people?”
It’s a question to which an awful lot of folks appear in need of an answer.
In January, when the boys from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School were caught on video doing tomahawk chops in the presence of an indigenous elder on the mall in Washington, all anyone seemed interested in was whether they had shouted “build the wall,” as some claimed. Or whether the infamous smirk of student Nick Sandmann had been one of belligerent bro-worthy arrogance and contempt for the native man in question, or the awkward expression of a kid who was in over his head. Was Sandmann a cocky, entitled punk or merely trying to defuse the tension between his white classmates, the elder, and the Black Hebrew Israelites who had been verbally abusing the students for several minutes by that point?
According to the pundits weighing in (and ignoring for a moment the supreme insensitivity if not outright racism of the tomahawk chops themselves), in the absence of calls for the wall, there had been no racism. The boys, on this account, had been unfairly smeared by a liberal media out for blood.
But amid the claims of a media hit job and the developing lawsuits since filed on behalf of the boys against those who dared suggest anything untoward in their behavior, one thing has gone largely unexamined.
Namely, the hats.
They are, of course, the same hats worn by Trump supporters at his orgies of self-congratulatory, fist-pumping bravado ever since he announced his campaign for the presidency. They sit atop the heads of the faithful at these rallies no less than yarmulkes on the heads of Orthodox Jews, and for those donning them likely provide no less a sense of piety. They nestle the skulls of Trump’s most devoted, announcing a desire to Make America Great Again, as their would-be-Emperor promises to pay the legal fees of those who beat up protesters, mocks the disabled, advocates the separation of families at the border and calls for the banning of Muslims from entering the country.
And there they were, on the heads of Covington Catholic’s finest. A bunch of white boys unreflectively donning MAGA hats in the middle of a black city, most of whose principal residents not only oppose President Trump but likely would have a hard time agreeing with any of the Covington kids as to a time when America was great for them, such that they might like to return to it.
To brandish such slogans in such a place is to act either with deliberate malice towards those persons of color — which would be inherently racist — or at the very least to show such blatant disregard for their history and experiences, as to render the difference between them and Klan supporters, though real, far less obvious than they might wish.
Imagine how these Kentucky boys would feel were someone to saunter into their neighborhoods, or their lily-white school, with a hat that said “Fuck Trump,” or “America Was Never Great.” Though the former would be merely a political opinion and the latter a statement of fact for millions (persons of color, and LGBTQ folks, among others), is there any doubt how they would respond? They would view it as a provocation, a middle finger to their very existence, an act of hatred and malice, and one for which few would have forbearance.
But why would those slogans be any worse than — or even the equal of — the MAGA slogan? As for “Fuck Trump,” if one is more offended by the word fuck than by the erasure of black people’s lived experiences, then such a person as that should get their moral compass recalibrated. MAGA hats say “Fuck you” as well, but not merely to a political candidate one despises; instead, they announce such a thing to millions with whom the wearers of such attire share a nation.
It’s not that every wearer of a MAGA cap is a committed white supremacist. But they are, at the very least, utterly indifferent to the history of the country they claim to love, and the way that history sought to destroy the bodies of black and brown peoples from the beginning. Wearing such gear and repping such a slogan says that the experiences of people of color do not matter. Their feelings don’t matter. The history of their families doesn’t matter. Their pain is not real. To wear such a hat, especially in racially-mixed spaces or mostly black ones (like DC, as with the Covington altar boys) is to perform an act of grotesque racial bonding. It is a sign of gang affiliation, in which everyone knows the meaning of the colors, the words and the smirk so often accompanying both.
No, America was never greater in some faraway time of yore. And anyone who thinks it was can only think so by disregarding the lives of millions of their fellow countrymen and women.
It was surely not better in the days of enslavement, although right-wing Senate candidate and lover of very young girls, Roy Moore, suggested otherwise during his failed campaign a couple of years ago.
It surely was not better during the post-emancipation days chronicled by Douglas Blackmon in his classic work Slavery by Another Name, in which he describes the hellish conditions to which supposedly “free” blacks were consigned in the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th century.
It was not better during the days of Jim Crow when towns shut down their schools altogether rather than integrate them, or when bigoted whites spat upon black children for daring to seek education and murdered folks of color for trying to vote and register others to do the same.
And for those who claim the MAGA slogan was never intended to harken back to those bygone eras, but was merely a call for a return to the glory of the Reagan years, perhaps it should be recalled that these were some of the headiest days of the war on drugs, which has targeted black peoples for incarceration. These were the days of trickle-down tax cuts which never managed to trickle down to the poor, the working class or people of color more broadly.
The 1980s were not great for people of color. They were not great for the poor of any color, whose poverty only deepened in those years. They were not great for the LGBTQ community, still so often closeted, and so many of whose members perished due to the malignant neglect of an administration that dragged its heels on the HIV/AIDS epidemic because those doing the dying were deemed unworthy of their concern.
No matter the ongoing injustices that make a mockery of our greatness even now, there is simply no way to conclude that this nation was once upon a time any greater than at present. At least not for people of color. Not for queer folk. Not for religious minorities. Not even for women as women — after all, it was only after the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in the early 1970s that many women could even get loans in their own names without a husband or father vouching for them.
In other words, the only people for whom America was ever truly “great,” and for whom it might seem necessary to restore said greatness — especially in the face of cultural and demographic change, and given the intrinsic fragility that so often attaches to those who have never had to share before — are white people. Specifically straight, white, Christian men. Everyone else is better off today than ever before thanks to the committed efforts of the marginalized to gain freedom and to create a more perfect — or hell, even a halfway acceptable — union. And those are efforts that most straight, white, Christian men have opposed for 400 years.
No wonder they’re nervous.
The things they took for granted, precisely because they had the privilege of doing so, seem threatened now. If you’re used to hegemony, after all, pluralism feels like oppression, the end of the world. It feels like replacement, or even (for the especially paranoid) white genocide. But for the rest of the country, it feels like progress. You don’t have to agree I guess, but you should at least seek to understand that the rarefied world you inhabit is yours alone. It is not the reality of most — just you. You are the outlier. You are the other. You are the abnormal one. You are the one whose privilege — that thing you deny even as you demand its perpetuation — has blinded you to the world as it is for most everyone else.
Or you are the one who, even having read these words will retreat to the argument of those unwilling to examine or understand history. You know the argument because it is your default whenever these matters arise and you have run out of — or never possessed — the intellectual ammunition needed to fight your way out: namely, the one that says, “But I have a right to wear that hat! It’s a free country, and you can’t tell me what I can say or believe!”
Quite right Justice Brandeis, and thanks for sharing.
There is no question that people have a right to wear MAGA hats, just as they have a right to wave Confederate flags from the backs of their trucks. But this is not a question about one’s rights. It is a question about one’s humanity and how much of it one must first suppress so as to allow one to think that doing either was acceptable.
It’s a question of why some people think their right to offend — to make a statement, to troll, to seek to own the libs — is more important than the way acting in such a manner makes others feel. It’s a question about why this kind of sociopathy, this purely anti-social behavior is not merely allowed as a matter of Constitutional right but applauded as brave, and righteous, and worthy of praise, rather than being included in the next iteration of the diagnostic manual of psychological and personality disorders.
You have a right, after all, to stand in the middle of Central Park and yell racial slurs at passersby. But when you do so, don’t be surprised when the rest of us call you an asshole. And not just an asshole of the generic type, but a racist one at that.
Because if the hat fits, you really should just go ahead and wear it.