“I will build a wall!”
It is almost impossible to not know this popular political sloganeering mustered during the previous U.S. election. In the age of social media, campaigns and political narratives are being performed in a much fluid and interactive platform. Intriguingly, together with this technological advance is the raucous intensification of racial smears thrown left and right. Positioned at the center of the controversies is the current President of the United States, Donald John Trump. “I will build a wall!”, stated with a semblance of authority by the feisty unorthodox Republican. For Trump, this infrastructure will supposedly solve the persisting problems of illegal immigration, illicit drug trade, proliferation of resource smuggling, and the likes. The public is greatly divided on Trump’s plans. Many citizens and political leaders (ranging from Democrats to Republicans) are unsurprisingly critical about his visions and policies. Time and time again, people are raising their eyebrows when he delivers a statement.
His portrayal of African-American communities as spaces of depression, violence, and social carnage, for instance, needs problematization. The increasing association (even branding) of Muslims as terrorists was also exacerbated during the heat of his campaign. Despite strong criticisms on his social-cultural perspectives, Trump successfully clawed his way into the White House’s Oval Office. His success resonates the popular dictum, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” For many citizens, however, Trump is actually a refreshing alternative among traditional double-speaking politicians. But him winning was not simply a fluke in statistics but a product of well-situated structural conditions. It is interesting to note, nonetheless, that his success opened up a contested thesis during the presidency of Barack Obama – that we’ve reached a post-racial America.
Racism and Cultural Relativism
The question of race has been controversial not only in the Western world but across the globe. Racism, ethnocentrism, and cultural relativism are just some of the basic sociological concepts that people need to understand to contextualize the existence of social violence (in both symbolic and physical form).
Race is often understood as an ethnic/social group with assumed distinct biological basis. It is both a biological category and a cultural category. As opposed to majority groups, minor racial groups have less access to political and economic resources. Thus, they are more vulnerable to violence and unequal societal opportunities. In general, the discrimination against inferior and smaller racial groups (also called ‘minority groups’ or ‘minority’) is called racism. Discrimination may assume different forms. Other than physical abuse, it may also manifest into prejudice (devaluing a group because of assumed behavior, values, and capabilities) and policies/practices that can harm a smaller social group. For instance, the harsher treatment that American minorities such as African-Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos tend to receive from the police and the judicial system. We should keep in mind that racial categorization is a political issue that involves the discourse of access to resources, like jobs, voting districts, and federal funding of programs aimed at minorities.
But why do people discriminate? The answer can be traced back on our inability to understand other cultures and world views. This can be explained by a popular concept in anthropology called ‘ethnocentrism’. It refers to the tendency of viewing one’s own culture and society as superior to others (and to use such cultural values in judging the behavior of other people coming from different culture). By seeing other people as culturally-different, human beings tend to conclude that they are lesser (e.g. strange, uncivilized, immoral, barbaric). On the other hand, many social scientists today champion the idea of “cultural relativism”. It is the exact opposite of ethnocentrism, that practices in one culture should not be measured by the precepts of other culture. But taken to the extreme, cultural relativism hints that there are no universal rights, values, and morality (which is also dangerous).
Through bridging cultural gaps, people can avoid unnecessary social tensions and discrimination. Still, this is easier said than done. After all, we have a long history of racism (of ‘Pro-American’ values that can be translated as ‘White Supremacy’) that led to brutal episodes of social segregations (e.g. slavery, lynching, public display of violence).
Contradictions of the Obama Administration
After my election, there was a talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society. – Former President of the United States, Barack Obama
Like all us, Obama is a man of contradictions. That note can be extended to his presidential reign. When he won the presidency in November 4, 2008, a strong message was sent across the globe. Many claimed that we are currently living a post-racial America (a realization of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream). It was a definitely a milestone – the election of America’s first African-American president. Unfortunately, America without racism is simply a utopian fiction.
Despite the alluring façade of Obama administration, his term was hounded with issues on racism and social segregation. According to Ibram Kendi, Obama’s election did not suddenly alleviate levels of poverty experienced by African-American communities and disproportionate number racist policies and ideas. It did not mend the effects of Great Recession among Latino families (wealth declined by over 40%), black families (declined by 31%), and white families (declined by 11%). Surely, it did not stop the murder of already cuffed Oscar Grant on January 2009. And it is actually upsetting that we still plead ‘Black Lives Matter’ for the public to engage the issue of racism.
During the Obama administration, post-racial America never made sense.
“I will build a wall!”
The election of Trump again reminds us that racism is far from over. It was never eradicated to begin with. The problem is not Donald Trump per se, but the re-emergence of an antagonistic social attitude against the less powerful groups and ethnicity. The U.S. election of 2016 produced a deeply polarized public that discusses cultures and colors as petty aspects of national interest. And we are faced with the idea that White Supremacy is still part of our societal fabric.
“I will build a wall!”, stated with a semblance of authority by the feisty unorthodox Republican. We really do not know if this vision will push through. But we can only imagine that this wall is not simply a physical separation but also another cultural apartheid.