A lot of ink has been spilled on Michelle Obama’s comment that “for the first time in my life, I am really proud of my country.” I’m a McCain man myself, but the criticism seems dumb to me. She isn’t running for office, and she’s entitled to feel what she feels and express it as she chooses, as long as she doesn’t insult anyone else along the way – as she manifestly didn’t. Her comments are part of (and an exceptionally mild instance of) a long tradition of moral self-criticism that may be Americans’ greatest attribute. In the mid-1850s, at the height of Know-Nothingism, Abraham Lincoln wrote more caustically about his country’s history and character than any candidate or candidate’s spouse would dream of writing or speaking today:
"Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it, ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read, ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."
Instead of attacking Michelle Obama’s offhand comment, it might be both healthier and more interesting to ask what lies behind it: not what’s wrong with her (the answer may be: nothing – just as nothing was wrong with Lincoln) but what’s wrong with us, such that a famously talented and successful black professional whose spouse has nearly reached the peak of American politics should feel so alienated from her native land.
I have a guess about the answer, though it’s only a guess. The last generation, the generation that saw the rise of legally protected civil rights for African Americans, also saw the rise of mass imprisonment of African Americans. Today, of every 100,000 white men, 471 sleep in prison beds – a record-high number, many times the comparable figure elsewhere in the Western world. Among black men, the analogous number is 3,145. (For the numbers, click here). Mass imprisonment is the defining fact of life in many black neighborhoods in the United States. It would hardly surprise if that fact shaped the attitudes black men and women have toward a country that imprisons so many of their fathers and sons, brothers and friends.
I’m a middle-aged white guy and a Republican to boot; I have no special insight here. But would it really be that surprising if a large fraction of black professionals look at our legal and political systems with a jaundiced eye, given the truly mind-boggling levels of black incarceration we’ve seen over the last twenty years? Something tells me there are an awful lot of people who, when they read or heard Michelle Obama’s words, thought: she read my mind.