When I was composing my talk on “The Cultural Foundation of American Economics” for Slovenian university students, I finally understood what African American intellectuals like Ta Nehisi Coates have been saying for some time. Rightwing politicians can always play the race card because every white immigrant group in America has “non-black” as part of its foundational identity.
I also realized that Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” describes the phenomenon.
Let me explain. Often one hears immigrant descendants claim that they can’t be held responsible for America’s slave past because their ancestors came to America after the Civil War. Others point out that, even if they arrived during slave times—say, the Irish during the 1848 potato famine—they were treated as badly as slaves. In truth, they were treated horrendously.
But every immigrant group, whether during slave times or after, had a valuable piece of cultural capital that it could draw on: no matter how poor or badly treated, its members could say, “At least I am above them.” White racism gave these immigrants a way to salvage their dignity, and many became dependent on that distinction.
I have been struck, for instance, that some cheering Trump’s attacks on immigrants from “shithole countries” have names like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. Ireland when their ancestors immigrated to the States met all the criteria for such a country.
I add that Hispanics served a similar function in the American southwest, as did, in certain locales, Native Americans and Asians.
This helps explain why poor whites joined wealthy slave owners in the Civil War, even though they had nothing to gain and everything to lose. It helps explain why poor whites will sometimes vote for white millionaires that don’t have their best interests at heart while President Obama had difficulty selling Obamacare to communities that sorely need it (and who accept it, as Appalachian Kentucky did, under another name). Trump supporters may not benefit economically from his presidency but that doesn’t seem as important as his nativist appeals. Racism runs so deep in white America’s DNA that even the most populist Democratic proposals fail to sway voters.
In her fictional thought experiment, Le Guin asks us to imagine a happy society. We could think of it as a country that has achieved the American Dream since every dreamer is allowed to fill in the blanks:
Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all. For instance, how about technology? I think that there would be no cars or helicopters in and above the streets; this follows from the fact that the people of Omelas are happy people. Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive. In the middle category, however–that of the unnecessary but undestructive, that of comfort, luxury, exuberance, etc.–they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of that: it doesn’t matter. As you like it.
The one necessary ingredient to making this society work, however, is not so pleasant. At the heart of the country is an imprisoned child:
It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops….The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes–the child has no understanding of time or interval–sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes.
Young people, when they first see the child, are horrified. Eventually, however, they learn to accept it because their happiness is dependent upon the child’s misery:
[T]here is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement
Now do you believe in my society, LeGuin asks those skeptics who think that utopians are unattainable. And while America may not be a utopia, if it seemed to be a gleaming beacon of endless opportunity to immigrants, it was partly because it offered them a country where they would not start off at the bottom of the heap. If you’ve made that one step, who knows what you might not accomplish?
Le Guin then delivers her masterstroke, however. If you want to imagine a truly unbelievable society, she says, think of one composed of people who refuse to base their happiness on the subjugation of another. Instead, to quote Lucille Clifton, they sail out “beyond the face of fear”:
[T]here is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible.
At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or a woman much older falls silent for a day or two, then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman.
Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow- lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.
If you want a true description of the American Dream, this is it.