What “America was Never Great” Means

White children cheer outside an African-American residence that they set on fire in September, 1919. Bettman Archive/Getty Images

I know people far prefer the “actually, we’re a good country and here’s why” take that shows up on Facebook around the 4th, but this feels like the right year to unapologetically say “America was never great.” (thanks for stopping by, I assume nobody will read the rest of this.)

To be clear: I believe both of those things. It’s possible, as it turns out. It’s basically what I’ve been saying in these annual essays the whole time. We weren’t ever as great as we tend to believe today; but we are a good country; but we must be better. All of these things, in my opinion, are true.

For white Americans especially, the phrase “America was never great” hits like a brick. It makes a lot of people angry. “Back-to-back world war champs NOT GREAT?? I doubt it, commie.” And sure, there are plenty of opportunities to see reflections of the military strength, political philosophy, and engineering brilliance that led some to label this country great. I’ve celebrated many of those things. They still make me proud.

There’s a beautiful view of the Ben Franklin Bridge from my favorite park in Philadelphia, for example, and I always think “Man, America was really great back then. We built these massive public works and expanded opportunity everywhere you looked.”

But they started drafting plans for that bridge in 1919, the same year that James Weldon Johnson coined the term “Red Summer” to describe the white supremacist terrorism waged in over 36 cities around this country. In short, the 380,000 Black veterans returning from winning the Great War for the Allies expected their share of the opportunity and freedom in this country. Fighting alongside other Americans and foreign soldiers, they saw something that White America didn’t want them to see: equality and the world outside of the racist American lens. As one federal official wrote, “As far back as the first movement of the American troops to France the negro publicists began to avail themselves of the argument that since the negro was fit to wear the uniform he was, therefore, fit for everything else.” Returning Black veterans were met with lynching, church burnings, and wholesale assaults on black towns and neighborhoods. The burning of Black Wall Street in Tulsa would happen just two years later. “The Lost Cause” movement was also busy erecting statues of Confederate generals and leaders around this time.

1919 was also at or near the peak of the Great Migration, in which millions of Black families moved North, fleeing the resurgent KKK and the racial terror of the South. The Black population of Philadelphia grew 500% between 1910 and 1920. Housing became scarce. The competition for low-wage jobs became intense, which spurred anger and violence, especially among low-wage white Catholic immigrant workers like the Irish, Poles, and Italians. In Fishtown, where I currently live, white Catholic immigrants ensured that their neighborhood would stay white by terrorizing new Black residents. The same thing happened in Wilmington, Chicago — most places, really.

And that’s not “Greatness.” It can’t be.

Exporting a lot of cotton isn’t great when it’s done using slavery. Building vast railroad networks isn’t great when it comes at the cost of innumerable immigrant lives. Massive fortunes aren’t great when they come at the expense of exploited miners, factory workers, and child labor.

If you let the phrase “America was never great” drive you to read history and put our many great achievements in context, you begin to see what that statement means. It was a Black classmate who said it to me many years ago. I’m glad they did. They were right. And it doesn’t weaken my sense of patriotism to admit that.

Real patriotism is more than just pledging allegiance to a flag and voting from time to time. I finally started reading James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” recently, and few people had more clarity on this issue. As he said, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

So criticize away! Even on the 4th of July, if you feel so moved. It is not wrong. You should not feel ashamed. It will do more for the country you love than the obsequious flag-waving Americans embraced when I was a child (the Iraq War birthed probably the worst kind of patriotism we’ve ever seen). Those who are going out to protest today know all about what Martin Luther King Jr. once referenced as “the right to protest for rights.” Those who sit at home and yell at the images of protestors on the tv — not so much.

And since the cry of “my country, right or wrong” seems to be on its way back, right alongside Make America Great Again, I’ll end with a quote from the great Carl Schurz — A German-American immigrant who went on to become a Union Army general and serve many years in government, including the U.S. Senate. His response, on the Senate floor on February 29, 1872 was this:

“The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming, ‘My country, right or wrong.’ In one sense I say so too. My country — and my country is the great American Republic — My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

In later speeches, he expanded the idea, including at an 1899 anti-imperialistic conference in Chicago:

“I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country — when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.’”

There is a lot of wrong in this country, now and in our past. We should not be afraid to address it directly. We should not be afraid to teach it to our children. Only by looking at it clearly — whether it is the burning of Black Wall Street or the murder of George Floyd — can we set this country right.

The greatness of this nation, its laws, and its people are at the forefront of our national dialogue at the moment. It is the one reason I still believe we have a future more hopeful than our past.

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