Mary Ellen is an adjunct professor of sociology and anthropology at Palomar College, San Marcos, CA.
Imagine that you are a white man whose family has lived in the Deep South for generations, and you grew up being told and believing that as a white person, you were/are innately superior to people of color— that you represent a more highly evolved form of Homo sapiens, whereas dark-skinned people are more closely akin to great apes. (This belief is still common in the Deep South.)
Now imagine that in your lifetime, you haven’t progressed up the economic ladder (as you expected you would). To the contrary, year after year, your income has not kept pace with annual increases in the cost of living, and as a result, you are not living the American dream, a dream you grew up believing was yours for the taking— provided that you upheld the Protestant work ethic and worked hard enough to achieve prosperity.
Next, imagine that even as you see you own life doddering on the brink of economic ruin, you have had to witness a Black man living in the White House for eight years— a Black man enjoying the power and prosperity that you thought would be yours for the taking.
Finally imagine that while you are poorly educated— as a result of decades of underfunding of public schools, your only source of information is Fox News. You are therefore misinformed, and you lack the critical thinking skills to challenge all that you have been told about “race” and white superiority. You believe what you hear on Fox News, because it fits your own narrative. You hear the dog whistles. You hide your feelings of being pathetic with a convincing mask of angry indignation.
When divisions run long and deep— as is true with longstanding race and class conflicts in the US, genuine reconciliations and resolutions are not easily achieved. Divisions deeply rooted in our histories are like tall border walls that not only bar passage from one side to the other but also block perception of life on the other side.
That said, I can think of two ways in which these painful divisions might be weakened and removed. The first would involve a formidable threat from the outside, an attack from Mars, so to speak; the second would bring into play an equally powerful force operating inside the social system.
As for the first path to unification, it may seem unlikely that space aliens will attack, thereby compelling us to stand united in defense of the species. A more likely external threat might come from the environment and take the form of environmental disaster, as evidenced in the hurricanes, the floods, the wildfires, the tornadoes, and the droughts that have been occurring with increasing frequency and severity as a result of climate change. Threats from the environment, regardless of why we believe they are happening, could have a unifying effect on otherwise divided communities of people. Again and again, natural disasters have inspired people to set aside their differences and offer assistance and compassion to others, irrespective of their skin color or socioeconomic status. Mother Nature may step in to help settle the incessant fighting between siblings in the human race.