Building the America that Never Was, Yet Still Must Be

Hilary Pennington

Months ago, Rashad Robinson, president of the civil rights organization Color Of Change, wrote, “We don’t get racial justice out of a true democracy. We get a true democracy out of racial justice.”

The horror of the past week, in which a violent mob brandishing Confederate flags and nooses invaded the U.S. Capitol to overturn the results of a free and fair democratic election, drives home the wisdom of these words. If this is who we are as a nation, what do we do now? As Americans, how will we resolve our current divides on basic and urgent questions: Who are we? Whose lives matter? Who belongs? What do we want to be?

As last week makes clear, and as is true for any change of lasting consequence, the answers to these questions lie as much in culture as in policy or politics. In my view, two strands of current cultural movements hold great potential for driving genuine progress.

First are the movements of reckoning — reckoning with the truth of our country’s legacy of racism and patriarchy — brought to the fore by Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. These movements channel rage and insist on centering dignity and the principle that no group of people has the right to oppress another. Without such reckoning, we are not likely to succeed as a multi-racial democracy.

Second are the movements toward bridging divides. These movements posit that we have more in common than what separates us, regardless of our different histories, identities, and experiences. Without such ability to bridge our differences and refuse their being manipulated, we are not likely to succeed as a pluralistic democracy.

At times, these two schools of thought can feel like they’re guided by binary thinking: either demanding atonement for white supremacy and misogyny before there can be any bonding across difference OR calling for unity by emphasizing what we share in common, even if it means suppressing the pain of a history of oppression. We need to push for both atonement and unity, holding these imperatives in the same frame.

The Pop Culture Collaborative captures the necessity for working this “both/and” belief in its very definition of pluralism: “Pluralism is not primarily defined by our values, but by how we behave in relation to our values. It is both ‘the valuing of difference, and the active forging of bonds across our differences.’… A pluralist culture is a social condition in which the majority of people in a community or nation are actively engaged in the hard and delicate work of belonging together in a just society.”

Given the central role that racism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression have continuously played in shaping that sense of belonging together in the United States, what will it take to vanquish these elements and build the muscles that a truly pluralistic, multi-racial democracy requires?

Here are four ideas to consider:

1. Make room for anger in the work of love, as feminist theologian Beverly Harrison writes. This includes taking the long view as behaviors and beliefs that used to be tolerated now become unacceptable. When people — young people in particular — lash out against the status quo, they are not being disloyal to the idea of America. Reconciling our history is an act of love; it is deeply patriotic.

2. Understand that there is no substitute for relationship. Research shows over and over again that effective practice in shifting hearts and minds starts with direct human interaction. A growing number of organizations are developing and scaling these practices — groups like Civity, More in Common, Citizen University, People’s Action, OpenMind, and more. Many effective efforts are faith-based, including groups like UNDIVIDED (which grew out of the evangelical church, Crossroads) and Isaiah. These efforts directly address gender, race, and class dynamics — doing not only the work of bonding similar people, but also important bridging work between people of different races, as well as across faith and secular divides.

Even without structured assistance, people are coming together to solve shared community problems despite the country’s polarization. For example, in Ohio a small team of leaders including a local librarian, an Episcopal priest, a specialist in addiction recovery, and an evangelical pastor convened a group working to solve the challenges of daily life throughout the state, such as opioid addiction, decades of job loss, limited or no broadband access, and lack of affordable housing. The group has now grown to include about 40 hospital administrators, school superintendents, librarians from seven counties, ministers, addiction service professionals, community college deans, and many others working toward solutions to these pressing problems. We should look to stories like these for hope and inspiration.

3. Face racism and patriarchy head on. The intensity invested in our current “politics as identity” norm stems in part from fear of a world in which nothing seems secure: if they gain, do I lose? It is surely true that it’s painful for some who have clung to their status in a racial hierarchy to lose it, but let’s not equate this loss to the massive disparities — in health, net worth, and everyday quality of life — of those who have been systematically mistreated in this country for hundreds of years. While many white people in the U.S. (whether rural, working class, evangelical, or other) feel disrespected or threatened, there is no moral equivalency between their experience and that of Black Americans.

Instead of the saying that, “when a group has once held dominance, equality feels like oppression,” can we imagine a nation in which equality feels like liberation?

4. Practice vigilance. Societies whose cultural sites and education systems reflect an honest effort to face their history (like Germany and South Africa) have a leg up on the U.S. here. But they also show us that even doing this essential work is not a guarantee of sustained progress in the face of virulent forces in the human heart that construct the “other” as lesser.

In her book Caste, Isabel Wilkerson writes about the power of caste to reincarnate itself. In one passage, she describes how a lethal pathogen was released a few years ago when the frozen Siberian tundra, which had trapped the pathogen for centuries, began to thaw. This revealed “the sobering message…that rising heat in the earth’s oceans and in the human heart could revive long-buried threats, that some pathogens could never be killed, only contained,” Wilkerson writes. “What humanity learned, one would hope, was that an ancient and hardy virus required perhaps more than anything, knowledge of its ever-present danger, caution to protect against exposure, and alertness to the power of its longevity, its ability to mutate, survive and hibernate until reawakened.”

The work of building justice and equity is hard. It takes time. There will be no vaccine in 2021 that will help remedy the systemic injustice, hate, and vitriol that plagues our nation. Building what Langston Hughes called the America that never was yet still must be will take courageous, persistent people working together over time. It will require both reckoning and reaching across divides to become the nation we aspire to be.

Hilary Pennington is executive vice president of programs at Ford Foundation and a member of the CEP Board of Directors. Follow her on Twitter at @hpennington_.

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