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America the beautiful rises again, but the ugly is never far behind | COMMENTARY

Supporters of Joe Biden celebrate in the street in Philadelphia, after Biden was elected the 46th president of the United States.
Supporters of Joe Biden celebrate in the street in Philadelphia, after Biden was elected the 46th president of the United States. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

In a national block party, millions celebrated the election of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States. America the beautiful is rising again. Emerging from a dark four years of chaos, Americans are breathing a sigh of relief.

But the duality of this nation persists. America, the ugly, the selfish, the hateful, the mean and the disgusting is but a few votes away. Mr. Biden garnered the largest presidential vote in the history of the country, but the incumbent received more votes than he did in 2016. The difference may have been that more of the beautiful people voted.

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From its inception, America has been both beautiful and ugly. Christopher Columbus, the ugly, shattered the world of the Native Americans initiating the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Later the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock seeking religious freedom. As the nation built a democracy, a relentless, enslavement-driven capitalism also emerged in the young country.

Abolitionists envisioned a beautiful nation not soiled by the viciousness of slavery. America’s Industrial Revolution paused as the country engaged in a deadly Civil War: the beautiful against the ugly. The Union fought the slave-holding Confederacy. On both sides, Americans died by the thousands.

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America the beautiful prevailed, energizing the Industrial Revolution and abating slavery. The struggle continued into Reconstruction. The nation saw the formerly enslaved Africans embrace freedom in the fledgling democracy. Black people briefly emerged in Congress and various state offices throughout the south.

The ugly roared back through the compromise of 1877, restoring Southern white supremacy. Jim Crow’s racist laws and practices prevailed for the next century. The ugly Americans savagely engaged in lynching and brutal violence. Countless African Americans were murdered. Americans in the North proceeded to build a mighty industrial economy, while the formerly Confederate south restored its agricultural economy.

America, the beautiful persisted with the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision and the 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott that began in 1955 and sparked 15 years of nonviolent resistance. The better angels struggled to give reality to America’s creed “that all men are created equal.” Millions engaged in peaceful protest, even as hundreds died in this struggle. It culminated in the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and the passage of civil rights legislation. By the 1970s, the nation was less segregated, and opportunities flourished.

The elections of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan brought this period to a grinding halt. Nixon’s “law and order” and Reagan’s “trickle down capitalism” revived ugly suffering. The police became the vanguard of violence against African Americans. The war on drugs gave license to ignoring civil liberties and introducing mass incarceration. Economic opportunities declined. John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society were gutted.

America the beautiful struggled back. The country’s path to a greater goodness slowly continued. The Clinton and Obama presidencies strengthened these efforts. Bill Clinton ushered in a growth economy that yielded low unemployment and high financial gains. Barack Obama expanded health care for all Americans, even as the ugliness of the only modern industrialized nation without full health care for its citizens continued.

Donald Trump set out to roll back this progress. The dog whistles to white supremacy effectively employed by Nixon and Reagan became the modus operandi of his presidency. The ugliness of white nationalism festered.

Hostility toward non-white immigrants built a wall and separated thousands of children from their parents as they sought opportunity in America. This ugliness ignored the history of opportunity afforded earlier white immigrants. It encouraged many working-class white people to embrace the notion that their well-being rested on the oppression of Black and brown people. The freedom to worship became a pretense for white evangelicals to embrace inhumanity in the name of a right to life that ended with birth.

Mr. Trump’s ugliness fueled tax breaks for the wealthy while denying a family wage for the working poor. His callousness allowed a deadly virus to invade the country resulting in almost 250,000 deaths and millions infected by the coronavirus. Millions are unemployed, their savings gutted and fearing they will become homeless in the New Year.

The 2020 election outcome renews the hope that America the beautiful will again prevail. The “sweet America” Ray Charles sang about, where “God done shed his grace on thee” and “crowned thy good, yes he did, with brotherhood” will be America’s theme song and indeed, America’s destiny.

John L. Hudgins (jhudgins@coppin.edu) is an associate professor of sociology at Coppin State University and co-director of its Human Services Administration.

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