Column: The issue with American exceptionalism

The concept of American exceptionalism is archaic and non-inclusive

Elizabeth Okosun is a sophomore journalism student at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about social issues.

From the creation of the U.S. until now, this nation’s citizens have been prideful of their country: from almost everything imaginable being sold with an American flag design to a whole song dedicated to one’s pride in their nationality.

As much as there is nothing wrong with patriotism for one’s country, the concept of American exceptionalism is taking things a bit too far, and can even be damaging.

In simple terms, American exceptionalism is the belief that the United States is one of the best countries in the world. This ideology goes a step further than patriotism to argue that the U.S. is, in fact, superior to the rest of the world.

Although no one can really agree on how the term came to fruition, one thing is true: it represents a time in our country’s past that shouldn’t be celebrated.

When French historian Alexis de Tocqueville called America “exceptional” in 1830, the country was far from that term. At this time, married women had no autonomy or choice and black people were barely considered human beings. Not even all white men could vote at this point in time.

This blatant imbalance of power proves that America’s past was nowhere near exceptional; but what about the current state of America?

It’s easy to say that the U.S. has been taking strides to undo the discrimination of the past through laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but honestly, these are the things they should have been doing in the first place. Even then, there is still a long way to go in terms of equality for all marginalized individuals. Women are still not paid the same amount for equal work and voter suppression continues to exist across the U.S.

However, the idea of American exceptionalism lives on. It’s prominent in the Make America Great Again movement propelled by Donald Trump and the general refusal of confronting past issues by the U.S. education system. How can America be the greatest country in the world when it can’t reckon with its past and ignores the problems of the present?

Racism is still a prevalent issue in the U.S. that “exceptionalism” seems to ignore. People of color have existed in this country for several centuries, yet they are still disproportionately facing poverty compared to their white counterparts. Young black people pursue higher education at much lower rates than white people. Even when they do have the opportunity to go to college, they are faced with harassment and the threat of hate crimes, which has steadily been rising at an exceptional rate. Across the country, and even here at MU, students of color are made to feel threatened on their own campuses.

The discrimination black people face in this country is rooted in slavery. Some historians agree that reparations for the descendants of enslaved people are important in order to ensure that Black people are on a level of equity with white people, yet certain white politicians such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell don’t seem to think that righting the wrongs of the past that still guide the present state of Black America is a relevant issue. Politicians’ refusal to understand the plight of their ethnic constituents is only a glimpse of the U.S.’s penchant for racism.

Selective exceptionalism doesn’t just harm people of color; it targets women as well. The U.S. is the only developed nation to not require paid maternity leave for new mothers. First world nations and even some undeveloped nations require workplaces to provide paid maternity leave. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa, which this nation’s leader has insulted in the past, have some form of required paid maternity leave. The U.S. does not.

In the Columbia Daily Tribune, the president of the Women’s Foundation, Wendy Doyle, argued that Missouri legislators should make paid maternity leave the defining issue of 2019. However, the Missouri state government still does not have a law requiring employers to provide paid leave for their employees.

When it comes to exceptionalism, Americans typically hail our military as an example of how great our nation is. Yet, when it comes to actual veterans, the problem of veteran homelessness is still a prevalent issue.

Here in Columbia, Welcome Home: A Community for Veterans is a nonprofit focused on fighting the battle of veteran homelessness in Columbia, which has increased in the past few years. But what is the federal government doing to fight nationwide vet homelessness?

About 40,000 veterans are still experiencing homelessness. What kind of exceptional country has not eliminated a problem that plagues the very people who put their lives on the line to defend their freedoms?

Clearly, this ideology of exceptionalism benefits only those who do not experience the racial, gendered and socioeconomic discrimination of society. The concept of exceptionalism is an outdated one; a number of marginalized groups are not given the same opportunity to rise up and lead exceptional lives. Rather, this idea of American exceptionalism is still being used to uphold the idea that only privileged people contribute to making this country what it is.

If we really want to move towards a more progressive country, we must leave behind the belief of exceptionalism that is a thinly veiled erasure of the sins of the past.

Edited by Bryce Kolk |

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