Category Archives: “Race” and Class

Make American Great Again. Political Discourse and the principle of difference

Nimen Hao,

today we going to talk about Donald Trump’s political discourse, the ideologies it is based on and the effects of some of that discourse in society.

First a few loose/broad definitions

  • Discourse: a way of talking about things (political discourse, a way of talking about politics)
  • Counter-discourse: an oppositional way of talking about something.
  • Ideology: a social belief system
  • hegemony: dominance by consent. A discourse is hegemonic when most people believe in it/agree with it. A politics is hegemonic when it rules by majority consent/with majority support. An ideology is hegemonic when most people believe in it.
  • Myth: imagined form of reality.

For example, The American Dream is a myth, containing the idea that anyone can make it in America if they really try (we talked about this last semester).

  • A myth is not necessarily false, in fact it isn’t really accurate to talk about a myth being true or false. The American Dream true or false? is a nonsensical question precisely because myths are imagined;  the myth itself is not trading in empirical facts subject to truth claims and their measurement.
  • The valency of a myth, the degree to which it is live and meaningful for people, however, does bear a relationship to facts.

Q: Is the American Dream really meaningful for American citizens in general?

A1: Well, yes, if you mean its an aspiration that many American believe in. Studies suggest many Americans continue to believe in the idea of the American Dream (I can have my own rags to riches success).

A2: But no, if you measure it in terms of the degree to which people doing realize their American dream. Why? Because since the 1980s American has become increasingly inequitable.

The chances of people progressing from rags to riches have got smaller and smaller.

The chances of a small minority of very wealthy people dominating society by virtue of the power gained through their wealth, of arranging society to maintain their power (keeping thins radically inequitable) has increased and become entrenched.

How do they do that?

Well, they use their money to influence politics. Wealthy individuals like the Koch Brothers make massive donations to political parties or individual politicians and those politicians support their interests. They pay consultants to lobby politicians to vote in accordance with their interests.

So for example, the wealth behind the gas and oil industry has a massive effect on American politics and society.

Q: Should America recognize the dangers of global warming and enact a radical green revolution right now?

A: Yes, if we want a chance of avoiding climate catastrophe.

Q: Do the politicians know this?

A: Yes.

Q: Do they say that they know this?

A: No. Politicians like Donald Trump claim global warming is ‘fake news’.

Q: So will they enact a Green Revolution, changing power and transport to renewables?

A: Well, not Donald Trump and the Republican party, no.

Q: Why not?

A: Not because they don’t believe in the reality of global warming (Trump previously admitted he did, before running for President). But because they owe a lot of their political power to the wealth and influence of the gas and oil lobby.

How do citizens read/understand political discourse.

Citizens access the discourse of politicians through the media (including, for example, tv news, newspapers in print and online, social media like Twitter).

The mainstream media is dominant in America, and is owned by just a few very wealthy individuals (like Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner). They way the media asks its questions/tells its stories of or about politicians is dominated by their views. Often, in recent times, that has meant that the questions are asked or the stories told in a way that supports Donald Trump and his discourse claim the he is “Making America Great Again”.

There are also many media outlets not owned by these wealthy Trump supporting individuals. We could say they are representing a counter discourse: something like, “Trump is Making America Worse Again”. Donald Trump counters this counter-discourse in a variety of ways. One of those is the claim that the counter-discourse is ‘fake news’.

Q: How does this work in practice?

A:Let’s take the example of the Paris Climate Agreement. Barack Obama signed it in 2016, thus requiring America to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, along with many other countries. Donald Trump withdrew Americas signature, thus allowing America to continue with high greenhouse gas emissions. When he was criticized for damaging the environment by un-signing, he argued that global warming is ‘fake news’.

Making American Great Again: some strands of Trump’s political discourse


  • “When Mexico sends it people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people” (Trump, 2016).
  • Trump blames undocumented (Mexican) immigrants for “the American family that loses their jobs, their income, or their loved one”.
  • At rallies and in TV interviews, Trump charged that Gonzalo Curiel, the Indiana-born federal judge presiding over the Trump University fraud case, was incorrigibly biased against him because “we’re building a wall. He’s a Mexican.”

Trump, Muslims


Black people

I think it’s a terrible thing, and you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him, let him try, it’s not gonna happen.”

  • Barack Obama

Trump repeatedly suggested that Obama was not American (not one of us), but African.

He has held Barack Obama responsible for black crime, explicitly because Obama is black. “President Obama has absolutely no control (or respect) over the African American community” Trump wrote in 2014 during the riots in Ferguson, Missouri. A year later, Trump jeered, “Our great African American President hasn’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore!”

  • Black people from other countries

Trump complained that Haitians coming to the United States “all have AIDS.”

He also warned that people from Nigeria, if they were allowed into our country, would never “go back to their huts.”

Trevor Noah responds to the President

During a discussion about migrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa, Trump fumed: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” He specifically asked, “Why do we need more Haitians?” He demanded that Congress “take them out” of a list of immigrant populations temporarily allowed to stay in the United States. Instead, he said the United States should accept more people from countries such as Norway.

USA would be forced to take large numbers of people from high crime countries which are doing badly,” he wrote. “I want a merit based system of immigration”. What Trump is proposing, as sketched in his own tweets, is not a merit-based system. Trump is saying that applicants should be accepted or rejected based on country of origin. He’s saying that the individual should be judged by the group.

  • Trump on White Supremacists
  • David Duke (former leader of the Ku Kux Klan)

When asked to criticize the KKK leader for his racism Trump refused to comment

  • People joining with the Charlottesville white supremacist rioters

‘Some very fine people”

Discussion 1. Characterize Trump’s political discourse

  1. Using these examples, how would you characterize these examples of Trump’s political discourse.

2. If these statements indicate ways of making America Great again, what kind of America is trump trying to make?

Discussion 2. Discussing American terrorism

1. What kind of terrorist threats do you think America suffers from? Which kind of terrorist threats are most dangerous? How dangerous are they compared to other forms of violent death and injury in America?

2. What do you think of Trump’s discourse in relation to the threat of terrorism?

3. Now read the articles I will send you on Wechat. Consider your answers to q1. and q2. Is your opinion the same, or has it changed?

Discussion 3: find a topic for your podcasts discussions on the theme of representation.

Time permitting today you should work in your small groups and begin to choose a topic for your end of year assessment piece.

You are going to provide an informative and critically reflective (not just descriptive) discussion of the way something is represented. Your range of choices for a topic are unlimited, but I will give you guidance on whether an idea seems workable or not once you’ve developed your idea (or ideas).

Three themes that we’ve talked about so far in the semester are race, gender and class. You might want to use them for discussing your specific text/object/event of discussion. For example, you could discuss how women are represented in games, or how class is represented in Chinese romance movies, or how race/class is represented in American movies about Chinese/Asian people. You don’t have to use these categories of analysis, but they might be good to work with as tey provide a lot to talk about.

Each speaker should contribute between 3-6 minutes (no longer than 6 minutes please) to your discussion.

You can send me the recordings and the transcript on wechat, by or before June 14.

Lesson 7. The American Dream

Nimen Hao,

today we will begin to think critically about “the American Dream,” one expression of which is the song I want to live in America from the 1960s musical, West Side Story.


We’ll discuss some of the contests and conflicts of American’s own dreams of what their country means to them, and Chinese ideas (or dreams) of America.

Class Discussion one: What is America to you?

First though, let’s have a quick discussion. What do you think when you think of America? What does America represent to you? How would you describe America and American people/s?

Founding myths: the American Dream

In American mythology, the U.S. is, as the national anthem puts it, “the land of the free / And the home of the brave!””

It’s a land in which in which all citizens are thought of as being equal and free. As Thomas Jefferson wrote

We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  (Declaration of Independence, 1776).

The American dream is encapsulated in the idea that every individual American should have an equal right right to become her or his best self. Citizen’s have the right to try to realize their hopes.

In a common sense (or everyday) kind of understanding, the American dream involves the idea that if an individual puts in the effort then they should be able to achieve the success they deserve. Individual responsibility is a key idea: if someone suceeds, it is attributed to their individual efforts, they are regarded as having made the best of their talents (whatever their talents are). Conversely, if someone fails, then it is their fault (they didn’t work hard enough to realise their dream).

This idea is sometimes referred to as meritocracy (society is ruled by the principle that people get what they deserve). The idea of meritocracy is sometimes applied to whole groups, such as racial and ethnic groups.

Meritocracy goes along with the United States long-held and exceptional tolerance of income inequality, explained by its high levels of social mobility. This combination underpins the American dream – … conceived of by Thomas Jefferson as each citizen’s right to the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Jefferson believed an “aristocracy of talent and virtue” was replacing the aristocracy of birth, the old world order where aristocrats inherited power and wealth.

This dream is not about guaranteed outcomes, … but the pursuit of opportunities.

The dream [was popularized] in the fictional characters of the 19th-century writer Horatio Alger Jr – like the New York shoeshine “Ragged Dick [1867/8]” [who went] from rags to riches … in part due to entrepreneurial spirit and hard work (Carol Graham, “Is the American Dream Really Dead?” The Guardian, 2017/06/20).

Give Me Your Weak Quote Give Me Your Tired Your Poor Your Hudd Emma Lazarus Like

Historically, a key element of the American myth of a land of hope and freedom is the idea that America gave welcome to the world’s migrants. For many foreigners, the idea of American freedom has been a magnet attracting them to migrate to the United States.

One expression of the immigrants’ dream is the song I want to live in America from the 1960s musical, West Side Story. [ see above video]

New York’s Statue of Liberty is a famous icon that represented welcome to the 19th century immigrants who later became American citizens.


For generations, America has served as a beacon of hope and freedom for those outside her borders, and as a land of limitless opportunity for those risking everything to seek a better life. (U.S. Congressman Spencer Bachus).

Some would argue that the Congressman’s story of American welcome is a myth.

Myth and history are not always the best of friends. for example, just as America was welcoming masses of European migrants in the 19th century, it designed measures to exclude Chinese migrants, including most famously the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). So the idea that all men were created equal didn’t include Chinese people (until 1943).

Just as the Statue of Liberty is an icon of the myth of welcome to the land of the free, San Fransisco’s Angel island immigration prison is a historical symbol of one of the gaps in American equality.

Chines women in an immigration holding cage, Angel island.

The American Dream in sport and advertising

Let’s move into the present. We’ll use some contemporary sports advertising and film as discussion texts to think about the American dream in some of its current forms.

We’ll start by watching a little of American football.




OK, so that’s Colin Kaepernick doing what he did so well as Quarterback for the San Fransisco 49ers.

Good quarterbacks have to be strong, fast, brave and smart. Kaepernick has all of those attributes, and is also articulate and charming. Those qualities are some of the reasons that Nike have chosen him as the face of their Just Do It advertising campaign.


Have a look at this recent Nike commercial starring the footballer.




Class discussion two

Let’s talk about what the commercial, part of Nike’s Just Do It campaign represents in relation to the American dream.

  • Describe the representations in the commercial: what happens?
  • Who are the actors? What do they do?
  • What are the messages being communicated? How do they relate to the American dream?

The Hate U Give and the American Dream

Actually, Nike’s commerical is deliberately controversial in its choice of Colin Kaepernick, as he is famous not just for being a great footballer, but for the being one of the leaders of the bend the knee campaign in American football, which is strongly linked to the Black Lives Matter campaign. We;re going to talk about how these three things, the American Dream, bend the knee and black lives matter are related by looking at some representations of the latter in the film The Hate U Give.

First a quick movie synopsis: Starr Carter, a teenage girl living with her parents and two brothers in the tough (fictional) neighbourhood of Garden Heights. Her father Maverick is a former gang member turned community leader keen to impress on his children both the importance of black pride and the dangers of being a person of colour in an institutionally racist nation. Starr is a high-performing student at an elite and mostly white high school [one of her friends is the blonde girl Hailey]. When she becomes involved in a police shooting she learns how difficult it is to negotitate her way through the different worlds of Garden Heights and the elite school.

Let’s watch some scenes from the movie, pausing for a brief discussion after each of them.

Scene 1: Maverick gives his children “the talk” (to be played in class)




Class discussion three.

Scene 2: Starr and Khalil get stopped by a policeman.




Class discussion four.

Scene 3: Starr’s uncle (a policeman) explains how police think when stopping black and white suspects.




 Class discussion five.

Scene 4: Starr and her friend Hailey fall out.




Class discussion six.

Black Lives Matter and the Bend the Knee Campaign: confronting racial inequality and police brutality

Let’s watch a short video giving a little about social context. . What is “bending a knee”? Why are Colin Kaepernick (and many others) doing it?




What are the links between bend the knee and black lives matter?

Well the black lives matter campaign is all about police brutality (including shootings) of black people in the US, as shown in the second scene from the movie The Hate U Give.

  • Black Lives Matters = campaign against police brutality (against Black Americans)
  • Bend the Knee = sporting protest; sportswomen and spectators stand for the national anthem at sports events; the campaigners kneel down instead to protest against discrimination against Black Americans (especially police brutality).

Kaepernick, in the interview above, goes on to say that ‘cops are getting paid leave for killing people… that’s not right by anyone’s standards’.

Let’s watch one more video to help us think about the relationships between the American dream, Nike’s Just Do It advertising campaign and the two anti-racist campaigns. This one discusses some of the reaction to Nike’s decision to use the spokesman of the Bend the Knee campaign as the face of its Just Do It campaign.





Fact check: meritocracy, racial inequality and discrimination?

  • Black Americans are far more likely than white people to be stopped, frisked, arrested, jailed, shot and executed by the state, while the racial gaps in unemployment are the same as 40 years ago, the racial disparity in wealth and income is worse than 50 years ago. They have the right to eat in any restaurant they wish; the trouble is, many can’t afford what’s on the menu

(Gary Younge, “Remember this about Donald Trump. He knows the depths of American bigotry”, The Guardian, 2017/09/26).

Class Discussion seven (in your small groups then together)

  • What do you think?
  • Is Colin Kaepernick right to bend the knee? Or, is his protest unpatriotic?
  • Is the character Hailey (the schoolgirl in The Hate U Give) right to argue that “Police Lives Matter” just as much as “Black Lives Matter”?
  • Is the meritocratic American Dream (of equal opportunity for all) damaged by racism, or are criminalized Black Americans responsible for their own situation? Could they succeed through hard work and talent?
  • Do you have any other critical reflections on the American Dream, race/racism and protest in America?



Green Book’s Oscar shows Hollywood still doesn’t get race

Viggo Mortensen, left, and Mahershala Ali in Green Book

It’s now four years since the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag put Hollywood movie-making in the dock over its failure to acknowledge black achievement. A lot has happened since: Moonlight memorably won the best picture Oscar two years ago; Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis have won supporting actor prizes; and Jordan Peele has a best original screenplay gong. Alongside them, several other black artists have been nominated.

But the OscarsSoWhite campaign was not meant merely as a tick-box exercise in counting the number of nominations. It was meant to make Hollywood rethink how it tells black people’s stories, and to reward black artists in the best possible way – by giving them the chance to have their voices heard.

So it feels like a major step backwards that this year Hollywood gave its most prestigious Oscar – best picture – to a nostalgic tale of a racist white driver somehow “saved” by his black passenger. Though the driver (Tony Vallelonga, played by Viggo Mortensen) is a former bouncer, and the passenger (Don Shirley, played by Ali) a concert pianist, it’s Mortensen who is centre-stage, and received a nomination for best actor. Though Ali did win an Oscar, it was in the supporting actor category. The movie is written by Vallelonga’s real-life son and the award was accepted on stage by its white-dominated producers.

The movie, set in the early 1960s, much of it in the racially segregated southern states, fits almost perfectly into the Hollywood template. That is, black movies should be set a long time in the past, when things were really bad for black folk, so the audience can leave with a nice warm feeling: “Haven’t we come a long way? Aren’t we doing so well today?”

Their enduring message is that racism is all about bigots who beat up black people and shout “nigger”. Everyone who doesn’t do that is some kind of woke hero. There’s never any lesson for modern audiences on how they may be perpetuating racism, or be blind to its subtleties. For Green Book read: Selma, Fences, Loving. Even the more enlightened movies (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk) can leave the audience feeling, “Gee, it must be miserable being black!”

That’s why it was so great to see Peele’s Get Out break the mould in 2017 (the white girlfriend’s creepy white friends all told the central black character, “You know, I voted for Obama”). Building on this, last year’s standout movie was Black Panther. Its celebration of black culture, and African-ness, has catapulted the spirit of Wakanda through the black diaspora.

Above all, what makes Green Book such a bad choice is that it’s a full 30 years since its road trip predecessor, Driving Miss Daisy, scooped the best picture Oscar. That similarly saccharine take on racism – this time using a white passenger and black driver – at least had the excuse that the world was far more ignorant then. Does Hollywood really consider a crude re-run the best it can do? It sends a message that, three decades on, it has learned nothing.

Joseph Harker is a deputy Opinion editor