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AMERICA DISRUPTED: Troubles cleave a nation, and a city

SAGINAW, Mich. — It was difficult to celebrate America in Saginaw this year. The deadly coronavirus had torn through the county. Unemployment had surged five-fold. Weeks of protest over racial inequality left many debating what should be hallowed and what must be changed.

But Tom Roy had given it his best. As the head of the July Fourth fireworks board, he struggled to save the display of red-rocketed flares and bursting peonies, fruitlessly seeking a venue that felt safe from the sickness.

He couldn’t do it. So Saginaw canceled its festivities, upsetting many of Roy’s neighbors who lost an opportunity to unify a bitterly divided community for one night.

The dark skies over this mid-Michigan city were a plaintive marker of a nation utterly disrupted in a matter of months.

This period of national crisis has not inspired unity. Americans are aiming their anger at each other, talking past each other, invoking race, class, and culture. They cannot even agree on the need to wear a mask to protect against a virus that has killed more than 130,000 Americans.

These forces are converging as the country hurtles toward a convulsive presidential election. President Donald Trump continues to portray himself as a disrupter, with a wrecking-ball agenda that is rooted in nationalism and roils racial divisions — taking the stage over the July Fourth weekend to warn of “new far-left fascism” that would tear down “our national heritage.” His Democratic rival, Joe Biden, meanwhile, calls for a national reset to something resembling normal for a “suffering” nation.

“It’s never been this divided,” says Roy, vice-chair of Saginaw’s Republicans.
It is in places like Saginaw County, Michigan, which narrowly flipped from voting for President Barack Obama to voting for Trump, where clarity about America’s future is likely to come.

The traditional battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida, and emerging ones such as North Carolina and Arizona, have all been hit with the triple shock of a pandemic, recession, and an uprising against police abuse. The political fallout is unfolding, leaving a striking degree of uncertainty just four months from Election Day.

Will younger voters, whose generation is the first since World War II to be faring worse than their parents, turn out? Will older voters, those most vulnerable to the coronavirus, seek change? Will the growing political power of Black women manifest themselves in ways that swing key states? Will the suburbs once again provide the pivot points in the country’s partisan divide?

The election will provide answers to all these questions, but not necessarily to the central issue of American life in the year 2020: Can the United States pull itself together?

The country is beset by “parties who see each other as ‘the other’ instead of collaborators in a democracy,” says historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

“A crisis allows you if you’ve got the leadership, to unite the nation. What’s needed — and we’ve seen this for a while — is a national direction,” she said.

In 2010, out of love for his ailing hometown, a Saginaw artist spray-painted some familiar lyrics on the husks of buildings and stumps of concrete steps: “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.”

But in 1968, when Simon & Garfunkel released “America” — starting their hitchhiking narrator’s cross-country odyssey in Saginaw — the city was a very different place.

The population then was nearly twice as large as the 48,115 people who now call it home. General Motors alone operated at least eight plants in the city and surrounding county, providing middle-class jobs that drew African Americans from the Deep South. The Great Migration gave Saginaw its most famous native son: Stevland Hardaway Judkins, better known as Stevie Wonder.

The Saginaw River slashes a diagonal line through the city and became a dividing line between Black residents on the east side and white residents on the west.

GM stumbled and there were layoffs and closures — manufacturing jobs dropped by 50% in the last 30 years. White people fled to the suburbs, the population declined, and the question arose: How to save Saginaw?

The answers have been disjointed — and none erased the economic inequality or racial segregation. The city of Saginaw, 45% Black, has a median income of $29,800, while the majority-white county has a median income of $47,000.

In 2016, the area ended a Democratic voting streak. By just 1,073 votes, voters in the county entrusted Trump to revive its fading industrial hub.

Yet the people of Saginaw are now coping with a 20.7% jobless rate, more than four times the rate on Election Day 2016. There have been 123 confirmed deaths so far from COVID-19, among the top 10th of counties per capita nationwide. Trump’s promise of a renaissance in manufacturing remains unmet. – (AP)

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