Ever since the 2016 election, pundits have been saying our country has never been more divided—that if progressives want to reclaim power, we need to be “pragmatic,” reach across the aisle, and look past identity politics.
But what if we’re getting the story all wrong?
In The Marginalized Majority, Onnesha Roychoudhuri makes the galvanizing case that our voices are already the majority—and that our plurality of identities is not only our greatest strength, but is also at the indisputable core of successful progressive change throughout history.
From the Civil Rights Movement to the Women’s March, Saturday Night Live to the mainstream media, Roychoudhuri holds the myths about our disenfranchisement up to the light, illuminating narratives from history that reveal we have far more power than we’re often led to believe. With both clear-eyed hope and electrifying power, she examines our ideas about what’s possible, and what’s necessary—opening up space for action, new realities, and, ultimately, survival.
Now, Roychoudhuri urges us, is the time to fight like the majority we already are.
|Publisher:||Melville House Publishing|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Marginalized Majority
We have frequently printed the word Democracy.
Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken’d…It is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.
—WALT WHITMAN, DEMOCRATIC VISTAS1The Marginalized Majority
E PLURIBUS PLURIBUS
DURING A RECENT VISIT WITH my mother, I sat flipping through an old photo album I’d never seen before. Inside were images of our extended family on my mother’s side, stretching back to the time I was about four years old. My mother sat close to me, leaning in to offer captions as I turned the pages. I was laughing at the way I could chart the march of adolescence by my increasingly less amused facial expressions. As my cheeks began to grow more slender, the open smile transformed, offering up a paltry, tight-lipped semblance instead.
Toward the end of the album was an image that startled me: my mother and I sitting around a large table at a restaurant, most of her side of the family arranged in seats, beaming at the camera. My face, the only brown one at the table, stands out for another reason: I’m not even attempting a smile. In fact, I look furious. I noticed that my mother, who had been eagerly narrating the who, what, and where of each image, had gone silent. When I turned to look at her, she said simply, “Oh.” “What?” I asked. My mother looked uncomfortable. “Well,” she said, “if you don’t remember, maybe it’s better that way.” This, of course, only piqued my curiosity. “Tell me,” I said. My mother sighed. The dinner was to celebrate her parents’ wedding anniversary; my uncle had just finished going around the table with his video camera in hand, naming everyone at the table. Except he had skipped over us.
Here was a historical moment I had forgotten until it resurfaced.
Uncle Bill didn’t “believe in mixed marriage.” Growing up, if I ever found myself in the same room or around the same dinner table as him, I could rely on one thing: He would not acknowledge my existence. He did not look at me and he did not speak to me. My general response was to simply ignore Bill the way he ignored me, though it would take me years before I could articulate how there was a power differential at play: He ignored me because my existence challenged his sensibilities. I ignored him because his sensibilities challenged my existence.
In retrospect, I’m grateful for the experience of growing up around my uncle Bill. Encountering racism and its tolerance in my own family gave me a model for what it means to grow up in America.
Of course, I did not have this outlook when I was a child. The situation felt like a private matter. I didn’t tell my friends about the uncle who did not speak to me. I did not ask my mother questions about what it meant. Before I found my way to placing this experience in a broader framework of the institutional racism at the heart of this country’s founding, it was a personal, even shameful, story to hold. I didn’t want to look at it any more closely because I feared that if I scratched the surface, what I would come away with were concrete reasons why I was less worthy of acknowledgment, of acceptance—even of existence—in this country.
THESE QUESTIONS OF WHO belongs and who doesn’t, who is a person worth counting and who isn’t, have always preoccupied us in America. There’s the early stuff of our country’s founding—the “handful” of “uncivilized” and “intractable” natives who populated the country before Europeans landed on its shores, offering the gifts of these preposterously off-base adjectives along with smallpox and influenza plagues. When those indigenous people died en masse from those plagues, as well as deliberate slaughter, the African slave trade filled the gap—men, women, and children shackled and shipped over to the New World to provide a new form of free labor to sustain the country’s economy. Then there were the waves of willing immigrants who arrived seeking a better life. With so many cultures and languages colliding on America’s shores, there has always been tension, and the attendant question of whether being American means to scrub yourself of your particularities, or to celebrate them.
We learn about the fractioning of human beings in a section of our high school history textbooks: each slave counting as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of getting slave owners more representation in Congress. We’re encouraged to read these historical narratives as static, safely ensconced in the container of the past, where they ostensibly remain without leaking. We’re encouraged to think of ourselves as outside of that history, too—here to study it rather than participate in the making of it. The narrative, say, of our country overturning Jim Crow, comes to us framed in a tone of inevitability. Of course we had to do away with these unfair laws, the logic of these few glossy pages in our history books implies, it was just a matter of time.
There’s something tricky in the definition of “history” as we commonly use it—the study of past events. Viewed in this way, history ruptures continuity, severing itself from the present and future. Maybe there is a kind of American-hued wish at the heart of this understanding of history—to not be lashed to the past, to invent ourselves anew. But, of course, this severance is impossible.
The word “history” comes from the Greek historia, meaning “knowledge acquired by investigation.” There’s more promise in this etymology—room for engagement and continuity. We are accustomed to thinking of the future as containing unknowns. But the past, too, is full of hidden and lesser-known narratives. What might these narratives tell us about who we are and what’s possible?
How does it change our understanding of the United States, for instance, to acknowledge that contemporary estimates of indigenous peoples in the Americas put the population at roughly 50–100 million people in the late 1400s before they were decimated by European diseases—ten times that of earlier estimates?2 Or that many of these indigenous civilizations were far more advanced in agriculture, architecture, and mathematics than the early British and Spanish empires?3 How does it change our understanding of our country to learn that the US Constitution was modeled on the Iroquois Confederacy? Or that, by 1860, the United States counted 4 million slaves among its population, valued at a worth of $3.5 billion—making them, as historian David Blight points out, the largest financial asset in the US economy, worth more than all railroads and manufacturing combined?4
What do these narratives tell us about whose country this is?
WE ARE MANY. WE ARE ONE. The copper two-cent coin was first issued in 1864, and it was conspicuously missing the usual motto: E pluribus unum—“out of many, one.” The Civil War was in its third year, and it seemed impossible to agree on who were the many, and who were the one. Fast forward to 1938, when the House Un-American Activities Committee was created to investigate whether any Americans had communist ties, which, according to the committee’s calculus, would make them un-American. Fast forward even further to 2008, when, just days before the presidential election, Minnesota Republican representative Michele Bachmann accused Barack Obama and other congressional Democrats of harboring “anti-American views,” and suggested that the media investigate possible “un-American” activities.5
During the 2008 campaign, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin referred repeatedly to “real America,” which was apparently located only in small, rural areas of the country. Shows like Saturday Night Live, The Colbert Report, and The Daily Show all parodied the rise of public figures like Palin and Bachmann. We laughed along with a fringe-wigged Tina Fey as she repeated lines from Palin’s media appearances almost verbatim, raising the question of what purpose satire serves in our contemporary political era. What we understood was that when Tina Fey repeated what Palin said, Fey didn’t mean what she was saying. This restored a sense of sanity to those of us who could not, or did not want to believe that people like Palin and Bachmann could represent America. We laughed along knowingly, cynically, but above all, dismissively. These people were ridiculous—what was happening in the country was ridiculous—and we sought solace by feeling somehow separate from and unsullied by it all.
Thankfully, we were granted a reprieve. This appeal to the narrative of division—separating the “real” from the “fake,” the “American” from the “un-American” didn’t take. Barack Obama won the election in a landslide victory, insisting on an America of inclusion. As cynical and detached as many of us had grown after eight years of the Bush administration and the launch of a seemingly endless global “war on terror,” Obama appealed to us on remarkably earnest grounds with rallying cries of “Yes we can” and “Hope” throughout his campaign.
At his victory rally, facing a throng of hundreds of thousands of supporters at Grant Park in Chicago, Obama reiterated his message of inclusion, noting that his election was “the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled. Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and always will be, the United States of America.”6
What to make of a man whose Americanness had been called into question now suddenly holding the highest office of the land? In his concession speech, John McCain told his supporters: “America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the presidency of the United States.”
Only this widely circulated quote comes from a high-gloss transcript, doing away with the intriguing trips and stumbles found in public speeches. What McCain actually said was: “There is no better evidence of this than the election of an Ameri…an African American to the presidency.” For a moment, these two terms, “American” and “African American,” charged with static, vied for prominence.7
What might have happened if McCain and Palin had won the election? It was a question I did not think about. Democracy had proven itself. America had proven itself. I suddenly, proudly, stood behind both of those tricky and malleable terms as though they had finally delivered on their promises. I, like the other 69.5 million Americans who had voted for Obama (the highest number of votes ever won by a president,8 43 percent of which came from white voters),9 was in shock that the election had so swiftly been won. And by a black man no less.
I was living in San Francisco at the time, working as a journalist. I had hunkered down in a friend’s apartment to watch the returns roll in. We were prepared for a long night, so when Obama was declared the winner at 8 p.m., we didn’t know quite what to do with ourselves. We heard cheering nearby and walked outside the apartment building to see a few other folks doing the same. We all looked up Valencia Street, where the ruckus was coming from, and went toward it.
I have yet to experience another spontaneous public celebration like the one that occurred on the evening of November 4, 2008, in San Francisco. Thousands of people gathered in the streets, popping champagne and malt liquor bottles, passing them to strangers and friends alike. A man shimmied to the top of a traffic light while police looked on, unamused yet untroubled. People came pouring out of cars onto side streets, where they had pulled over once they realized they couldn’t go any farther. They, too, seemed untroubled as members of the crowd continued to pass bottles and kiss cheeks with the relish of elderly aunts. I drank deep—of the moment and of the booze.
After years of covering the George W. Bush administration as a journalist, I was exhausted. Every day had felt like a game of catch-up to whatever the latest administration run-around was—watching a slow and steady erosion of civil liberties in the wake of 9/11, the mire of the Iraq War and the administration’s lies that led us into it, the burgeoning “war on terror” that followed. It was a full-time job simply keeping up with whatever new gap in reality—between what the administration was purporting and what reporters were unearthing—emerged on any given day.
Throughout the Bush administration, I watched as White House spokespeople denied facts published on the front pages of every major paper. It felt like a clear refusal to acknowledge reality—a strategy I was deeply troubled to see confirmed when journalist Ron Suskind published a story citing what a Bush aide (later revealed to be Karl Rove) had told him in 2004:
[W]hen we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judicially as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study, too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.10
If those in power were banking on our complacency, if they were so cynically disdainful of reality itself, what hope was there for the rest of us?
I no longer believed my reporting would change anything. Instead, I merely hoped that when it was all over, it might serve as a trail of bread crumbs—a way to find our way back to a shared reality, to the privileges and liberties we used to enjoy, the aspirational principles of equality and inclusivity our leadership used to at least pay lip service to.
Obama’s election—his earnest appeal to those values of equality, inclusivity, and his respect for facts and a shared reality—was the first time I and so many others had felt genuine hope in years. It felt like a collective sigh of relief. Marching up Valencia Street that night, I was celebrating what felt like a collective moment in which we on the Left were flirting with becoming true believers of some kind, and maybe even that rare beast among those of us well acquainted with the darker side of our history—proud Americans.