On this Independence Day, let’s go ahead and admit that 2018 has not been the most uplifting year.
Since January, there have been at least 23 shootings that left someone injured or killed at a school in the United States. As of last week, at least 2,000 minors separated from their parents were in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services, with no clear path to reunification. The past several months have seen high-profile instances of outright racial harassment and a much-bemoaned downturn in “civility.”
Income levels are stagnating, and inequality is soaring. A growing number of Americans despair of ever achieving the American Dream. The United Nations has reported on the United States’ rates of youth poverty, infant mortality and incarceration — the highest in the developed world.
And each time a fresh outrage emerges or a disappointing piece of news breaks, a chorus rises up from politicians and everyday citizens alike: “This is not who we are.” Americans don’t keep children in cages. Americans don’t ask travelers for their citizenship papers. Americans don’t turn away the huddled masses. Americans don’t elect white nationalists to political office.
Except: We do.
Of course this is who we are. The truthful response is obvious and tautological: If this weren’t who we are, then it wouldn’t be happening. We Americans are doing these things or, at the very least, seeing them done in our names.
And those who say that this isn’t who we are are forgetting who we’ve always been. To say that this it not the real America is to forget our country’s past. The United States has been a country of land grabs, of slavery, of forced migration and the separation of families as a matter of public policy. We are the country of the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment, of Jim Crow and segregation. It is to the United States of America that abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass declared, in an 1852 speech: “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”
He went on: “Your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; . . . your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to [the American slave], mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”
But there is some hope, too, on this 242nd Fourth of July.
Our founding principles — of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — remain, and we have expanded their reach over time. “Who we are” is ever-changing: morally, socially and demographically. If who we are today is not quite who we want to be, we citizens can work to close the distance. Many Americans have already begun.
Today, America is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old upstart candidate for Congress who won a Democratic nomination in New York with the radical suggestion that racial and economic issues are intertwined and that in a wealthy nation no citizen should go hungry.
America is also the 575 protesters, most of whom were white, middle-aged women, who were arrested in the Hart Senate Office Building last week after coming from 47 states to protest President Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy. It’s the tens of thousands who marched in wilting heat last weekend in cities across the country to make the statement that families belong together.
America is the delegation of Catholic bishops who celebrated Mass at the Mexico-U.S. border this week, and the individual religious leaders and congregants in middle America who have crossed their traditional denominational and political lines to show true Christian support to the strangers among them.
“This isn’t who we are” may not be quite correct. But it does highlight a particularly American quality — that of self-definition. It may yet be possible to close the gap between the America that exists and the one we imagine. Acknowledging the hard truth about our current state is the first step toward doing so.
Yes, this is who we are. But we can still decide who we want to be.