I’ve been reading a lot about how many of the people who ushered in the Trump era were driven by a longing for a white Christian America of the past. They harken back to a heyday when white men were the power brokers in all situations, women stayed home, and America was a stratified society where everyone knew their place.
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These folks hope the new president will bring us back to this romanticized vision: the U.S. as Mayberry, the small town from the The Andy Griffith Show that has become synonymous with an idealized, folksy life.
The problem is, that America never actually existed.
At least not for my family, living in segregated Chicago in the 1940s—around the time when The Andy Griffith Show was set. My grandparents lived in public housing. Other housing options weren’t available to them because back then, black people couldn’t just move into any home or neighborhood they wanted.
Their parents—my great-grandparents—had come north to the promised land of Chicago to escape racial violence in the South, only to find that black folks couldn’t escape America’s racist purgatory. My grandmother was born a month after the 1919 race riots in Chicago, which started when a black swimmer crossed the “invisible” color line at the 31st Street beach. My great-grandmother, eight months pregnant at the time, had to run home to escape the angry white mob—tripping and falling on her stomach heavy with my grandma inside.
Such were the experiences of oppression, violence, segregation, and opportunities denied that were passed down to my grandparents.
My grandmother and grandfather were janitors. In fact, three of my four grandparents were janitors. When they first started working, jobs didn’t have benefits like pensions and health care. But there was a key development in their lives that would impact my family for generations to come–they joined a union. My janitor grandparents were members of the Janitors’ Union, SEIU Local 1, at a time when racial exclusion from the labor movement was too often the norm.
Those good-paying union jobs helped my grandparents save money and buy a home on the South Side. When they bought their house in 1954, they were the third black family on a block made up of working-class Irish and Italian families. By 1960, the entire block was black.
White flight was in full swing, because white families thought the presence of black families would cause property values to plummet. The result, almost 60 years later, is segregation that still isolates my community from good jobs, good schools, and the hope for something better.
Still, those good union jobs helped my grandparents send the first person in our family to college–my mother. In 1950s America, a smart black woman had only two options: nursing school or teacher’s college. My mom chose to become a teacher, and taught in public school for more than 40 years.
It was that union job as a teacher that allowed my mother—a single parent, in a working-class neighborhood, on the South Side of Chicago—to raise two boys and have economic opportunities not available to other black men and women of her generation.
Yet as any measure will show, the opportunities for most black Americans were—and still are—much more limited compared to opportunities for whites.
If you doubt that, consider my family today. My grandparents passed down the house they bought in 1954. My mother raised my brother and me there, and my brother and his wife are now raising my 20-month-old nephew there. This past fall, they had to temporarily move out of the house because my nephew had dangerously high levels of lead from the paint and windows in the house. I imagine white families with the income to remediate the lead in aging homes never have to worry about this.
The neighborhood remains segregated, and suffers from the toxic inequality that plagues many black communities today.
That’s the kind of inequality, racial segregation, and seclusion that so many of our fellow Americans want to remain steeped in. So far, the new president has tried to ban immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.; is now trying to take away health care away from millions of Americans; and is preparing to shred the safety net that protects working people and their families when work doesn’t pay enough or they fall on hard times. Trump and Congressional Republicans are also set on destroying the very union jobs that gave families like mine a chance.
We’ve made so much progress, and still have so far to go. It’s time we see our history for what it is, and leave those romanticized notions of Mayberry where they belong—in the past.