Inauguration Day is the first day of the Donald Trump presidency, when the celebrity-billionaire-turned-president begins his long promised journey to “make America great again.”
During the campaign, there was a lot of debate about Trump’s slogan. At the Republican convention, Trump and his ilk pushed the idea — with the obvious suggestion that the country was great before. At the Democratic convention, Hillary Clinton, the Obamas, and others argued that America is already great — and Trump could screw it all up.
But all of this, from the moment Trump uttered his slogan to the retorts by Democrats that followed, overlooked another possibility: America was never great.
Yes, this all hinges on how one defines “great.” But however you do that, it’s hard to parse America’s complicated history — particularly with systemic racism, exclusion of and violence against women, and its treatment of Native Americans — with almost any definition of greatness.
Think of it this way: When was America great — for all of its inhabitants?
It’s nearly impossible to give a good answer. No matter what period you think of, there is almost always something absolutely terrible happening. At the time of the country’s founding? There was slavery, the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, and the fact that women couldn’t own property or vote. After the Civil War? Lynchings, race riots, and segregation. After World War II? Segregation, then the creation of a punitive justice system that disproportionately punishes minorities. The 1980s to today? The gap between white and black communities is still enormous — essentially the story of two worlds.
These periods may have been great for white, native-born men. But for everyone else? Not really.
Even Trump, who says he wants to make America great again, can’t give a very good answer for when America was great: When the New York Times asked him when the US had a proper balance in terms of its defense footprint and trade, he said, “If you look back, it really was, there was a period of time when we were developing at the turn of the century which was a pretty wild time for this country and pretty wild in terms of building that machine, that machine was really based on entrepreneurship.” He later cited the ’40s and ’50s more broadly as times in which America was in a great place.
Again, these are periods in which America felt great to white, US-born men. But think of it from the perspective of a black man in the South — forced into violent, impoverished neighborhoods, unable to vote due to discriminatory laws, scared of a sudden death sentence carried out by a mob if he has just one bad interaction with a white person. How could America have possibly been great back then, when so many of its people lived like this?
America’s history is plagued by racism and ethnic cleansing
Imagine a country that has engaged in the enslavement of a large group of its people, and freed them only after a bloody civil war, only to oppress them in other ways — through mob killings, withholding their right to vote, segregation into impoverished communities, and a punitive criminal justice system. These big problems have persisted from this country’s founding to its modern days. Even if this nation does a lot of other good, can it really make up for any of these crimes to be called “great”?
Just try describing a country that knowingly allowed this chain of events, taken from a report by the Equal Justice Initiative, to happen as “great”:
In 1904, after Luther Holbert allegedly killed a local white landowner, he and a black woman believed to be his wife were captured by a mob and taken to Doddsville, Mississippi, to be lynched before hundreds of white spectators. Both victims were tied to a tree and forced to hold out their hands while members of the mob methodically chopped off their fingers and distributed them as souvenirs. Next, their ears were cut off. Mr. Holbert was then beaten so severely that his skull was fractured and one of his eyes was left hanging from its socket. Members of the mob used a large corkscrew to bore holes into the victims’ bodies and pull out large chunks of “quivering flesh,” after which both victims were thrown onto a raging fire and burned. The white men, women, and children present watched the horrific murders while enjoying deviled eggs, lemonade, and whiskey in a picnic-like atmosphere.
In 1889, in Aberdeen, Mississippi, Keith Bowen allegedly tried to enter a room where three white women were sitting; though no further allegation was made against him, Mr. Bowen was lynched by the “entire (white) neighborhood” for his “offense.” General Lee, a black man, was lynched by a white mob in 1904 for merely knocking on the door of a white woman’s house in Reevesville, South Carolina; and in 1912, Thomas Miles was lynched for allegedly inviting a white woman to have a cold drink with him.
In 1940, Jesse Thornton was lynched in Luverne, Alabama, for referring to a white police officer by his name without the title of “mister.” In 1919, a white mob in Blakely, Georgia, lynched William Little, a soldier returning from World War I, for refusing to take off his Army uniform. White men lynched Jeff Brown in 1916 in Cedarbluff, Mississippi, for accidentally bumping into a white girl as he ran to catch a train.
What’s described in these accounts is not merely a few white people getting out of control. It’s white vigilante mobs working with their government — which either turned a blind eye or actually helped the mobs — to terrorize black people and rob them of their hopes for safe, free lives. And it happened many, many times: The EJI report found lynchings of black Americans by white mobs in the South claimed nearly 4,000 lives between 1877 and 1950 — and that's only the lynchings we know of in the South. To put that in context, that’s close to twice the number of black Americans who were murdered during all of 2014.
If this happened in any other country, would you be able to consider that nation great, even if it did some good? If you found out that local, state, and national governments in Canada were allowing and aiding lawless mobs in murdering the people of a certain race, would you ever consider Canada a great country?
Even these atrocities are only a small sampling of the systemic racism and sexism that’s plagued America for its existence. There was the massive ethnic cleansing of Native Americans — such as the Trail of Tears — from the country’s founding through the 19th century. White women couldn’t vote across the US until 1920 — and black women, along with black Americans in the South more broadly, didn’t really have a guarantee to the right to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
During World War II, America forcibly put Japanese Americans into internment camps out of racist fears that they were all traitors in the war against Japan. Rape and domestic abuse — crimes in which women are the common victims — weren’t treated as serious crimes on a national scale until the 1990s. Consensual gay sex was criminalized in at least some parts of the country until the early 2000s.
The list could really go on, but you should get the idea.
These weren’t small acts. These were horrific acts of oppression, abuse, and murder. And they happened time and time again in the US. This isn’t about a single bad period in American history — it’s about the recurring theme of America’s story.
Emblematic of this is the “city upon a hill” speech that so many Americans first heard of through Ronald Reagan’s farewell address, which set up a hopeful vision of the future of America. But as Reagan said, the phrase traces its American origins to John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” sermon. As Rebecca Traister explained for New York magazine, this is the man who set the ideal image for America, and yet:
Winthrop was one of our earliest elected leaders, serving 12 years as the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A wealthy Englishman, he held Native American slaves, and both of his sons held black slaves; he even helped write the first law in America sanctioning the practice. In 1648, Winthrop also presided over the trial and conviction of the first American woman to be hanged for witchcraft, Margaret Jones, a Puritan midwife.
As Traister noted, “This is America, before America was even America.”
America has gotten better, but it’s still deeply flawed
It is true that America has vastly improved over time. Slavery is gone. Government-sanctioned segregation is (at least in theory) banned. Black Americans and women have the right to vote. Many Americans now look at Japanese internment and the country’s treatment of Native Americans with total horror. LGBTQ people are more welcome in America today than just 10 years ago.
The country has also exerted its economic and military dominance for a global good, establishing a world order that has led to the most peaceful time in human history.
But for all this, America is still plagued by some very big problems. For one, it doesn’t seem like the country has even fully repented for some of its racist crimes. Some still deny that those were truly horrific crimes at all, or downplay how bad they were. For example, after Michelle Obama pointed out at the 2016 Democratic convention that slaves built the White House, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly said that the slaves “were well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.” (For more on this sort of thing, read a plantation tour guide’s account.)
How can a country that can’t even repent for its past crimes ever rise out of them into greatness?
As a result, systemic racism is still very much a reality in the US. Black Americans are much more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts, and black people get locked up longer than white people for the same crimes. Black Americans are also still effectively forced into neighborhoods that destroy their chances of a life equal to their white peers. Native Americans suffer from similar disparities.
One statistic that speaks to this: For every 100 black women not in prison, there are only 83 black men, according to a New York Times analysis. This amounts to 1.5 million black men missing from society under the shadow of mass incarceration. They’re men who could be workers, fathers, artists, and so on — but are disproportionately locked up by a system that does little, according to research, to effectively fight crime and has made America the world’s leader in incarceration.
But it’s not just mass incarceration; the criminal justice system also under and overpolices black neighborhoods. Here is how journalist Jill Leovy described the criminal justice system’s treatment of black Americans in her insightful book Ghettoside:
Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.
Some statistics to this end: In New York City, for instance, 86 percent of 2013 homicides involving a white victim were solved, compared to 45 percent of those involving a black victim, according to an analysis by the New York Daily News. And David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Mother Jones that in minority communities, clearance rates for murders and nonfatal shootings can get “pathetically low. They can easily fall down to single digits.”
So on the one hand, you have a criminal justice system that tasks police officers with harassing and brutalizing black people for small crimes — drugs, untaxed cigarettes, failing to signal when changing lanes, and so on. On the other hand, the system turns a blind eye to serious crimes that warrant serious policing attention in black communities. It’s a system that at once incriminates black people and fails to keep them and their communities safe.
All across the country, states are also passing new voting restrictions that appear to target black Americans’ ability to vote. A federal court recently ruled against one of these laws, from North Carolina, finding that the law intentionally discriminated after North Carolina’s lawyers suggested that the state had to cut some early voting days because black voters benefited too much from them. (This really happened.)
The systemic disparities go as far as people’s personal health. In a recent conversation, David Williams, a public health researcher at Harvard, put the racial gap between white and black life expectancy to me in stark, telling terms:
One of the ways to think of the racial gap in health is to think of how many black people die prematurely every year who wouldn't die if there were no racial differences in health. The answer to that from a carefully done  scientific study is 96,800 black people die prematurely every year. Divide it by 365 [days], that's 265 people dying prematurely every day. Imagine a jumbo jet — with 265 passengers and crew — crashing at Reagan Washington Airport today, and the same thing happening tomorrow and every day next week and every day next month. That's what we're talking about when we say there are racial disparities in health.
One catch is the white and black life expectancy has closed since the study Williams cited. Still, a big gap remains, leading to tens of thousands more deaths each year in the US. In America, you are doomed to die younger just because you’re black.
This is only the beginning of the many disparities black people face. There are also many enormous economic gaps between people of different races: According to 2014 data, while white Americans have a median household income of $60,250, black Americans have a median household income nearly half of that — at $35,400.
Is a country that allows significant segments of its population to languish like this — and even sets policies that create these circumstances — really great?
Then there are the disparities between men and women. On average, women make 79 cents for every dollar men make for full-time work. Women still are not proportionally represented in any state or national legislatures. Rape on college campuses is only now beginning to get the serious attention it deserves. Women politicians still get regularly questioned and criticized over how they speak and what they wear. America is the only developed country without paid parental leave, making it exceptionally hard for moms — especially low-wage, single mothers — to raise children and keep a job at the same time.
Again, is this great?
Much of this depends on how you define great. For some Americans, particularly white men, America certainly feels great — it’s made them generally prosperous and able to live luxurious lives. I would say America has also been great for me — as a Latino immigrant from a relatively wealthy family, it’s offered me opportunities that I wouldn’t have had in my birth country, Venezuela.
But America isn’t like this for many — this is a country in which people live in poverty, fearful of police, mass incarceration, and gun violence. Trying to leave this out to apply a label like “great” to America whitewashes the abhorrent conditions faced by so many of its people. (One question you might have: Is any country great under this definition? I’m honestly not sure, but I don’t think so.)
What’s more, there appears to be a huge segment of the population that in fact wants such disparities to persist.
Consider Donald Trump. This is a man who has said very clearly racist and sexist things — both in the past and on the campaign trail. And yet he won the election. As much as the Clintons and Obamas would like to suggest that Trump’s hateful vision isn’t the America they know, it’s apparently the America that enough Americans were willing to embrace to send Trump to the White House.
Obama himself acknowledged this in an interview with Marc Maron: “The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives — you know, that casts a long shadow. And that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on. We’re not cured of it.”
This doesn’t mean America can’t eventually become great
None of this is to say that America is bad. There is a large gap between bad and great — and America surely falls in between once you add up all its positives and negatives.
Crucially, the country is also bound to get better. As Bill Clinton said in 1993, “There's nothing wrong with America that can't be fixed by what's right with America.”
The US has many historical advantages going for it — its embrace of democracy, its ideal to be a melting pot for the world’s races and cultures, its economic and military power, and a world order it helped establish that’s led to the most peaceful time in world history. In the future, as the country becomes more diverse, it will likely move in a better direction. It may even become great.
But to claim the mantle of greatness now, when the US’s recent history and current status are plagued by horrific acts of racism, is a step too far. America may be great someday, but it has never been there and is not there just yet.