By Gary Earl Ross
The 20th century is called the American century because it saw the rise of the United States to economic, military and technological greatness unmatched in history. Standing tall after two world wars separated by a devastating Depression, America eased into the latter half of the 20th century with seeds sown for the largest middle class ever.
When America was great, employers rewarded employees for long service with benefits and a modest pension. Mother didn’t work because Father made enough to feed the family and put pearls around Mother’s neck as she ran the Electrolux. There was a car in every garage and worshippers in every pew.
When a candidate promises to make America great again, that’s the country his followers remember, even if they weren’t alive then. As Archie Bunker sang, “Guys like us, we had it made.”
That America is fueled by nostalgia and television photoshopped into an apple-pie reality that ignores the hard-fought union battles that expanded the middle class, how many women had to work and the harsh realities of war, Depression, class and race.
For many, America’s greatness was an unbearable whitewash of being.
During World War II, my now-deceased father joined the Navy. Most black recruits were assigned to galley duty or sanitation. Armed with a 100-word-per-minute typing speed, Dad defied expectations and became one the first blacks to work in a Navy office.
After the war, my grandmother visited a friend in the South Carolina she’d fled three decades earlier, with my uncle in hand and my father in utero in the wake of her husband’s murder, possibly by lynching (she refused to talk about it). At a restaurant stop below the Mason-Dixon Line, she was unable to get off the bus. The apologetic driver bought her a meal and brought it back to the bus so she wouldn’t go hungry.
When America was great, redlining reinforced neighborhood segregation.
Jews were denied access to jobs and clubs. Migrant farm workers – Puerto Rican, Mexican, black and poor white – lived in substandard work camps that lacked sound housing, running water and sanitation.
Japanese-Americans were placed in concentration camps – sorry, relocation centers – and Native Americans continued living on reservations.
Today employers shred the social compact by using part-timers, independent contractors, relocation and automation while top managers make obscene salaries. That inequity must be addressed.
As for other aspects of making America great again, those of us whose parents and grandparents chipped away at class, race, religious and gender barriers have one thing to say: Over our dead bodies.
Playwright and novelist Gary Earl Ross is a retired University at Buffalo professor.