“This is not who we are.” That’s the comforting exculpatory catchphrase mouthed by leaders whenever there’s a turn to violence and our fault lines are exposed. That’s the soothing balm that assures us the destroyers are aberrations, outliers. They do what they do but are “not who we are.”
President Obama has voiced those words of absolution throughout his years in office. But the construction is not his alone.
“This is not who we are,” then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after the massacre of 16 Afghan villagers by a U.S. soldier. “This is not who we are,” Oklahoma University President David Boren said about a video showing white fraternity members chanting racist epithets on a bus. “This is not who we are,” Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) said in an op-ed last Saturday after the Minnesota, Baton Rouge and Dallas shootings. “This is not who we are,” said an editorial about the Orlando massacre on Florida’s TCPalm news website.
But if the immigrant-bashers, the bigoted frat boys, the shooters in Orlando, Minnesota, Baton Rouge, Dallas — and don’t forget Charleston, S.C. — aren’t who we are, then to whom do they belong?
They are part of our makeup.
As are, of course, the slain Dallas police officers, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., and the victims of the massacres in Orlando, Charleston, San Bernardino, Calif., and so many other places.
This national disorder is who we are.
At the Dallas memorial service this week, Obama movingly declared that we are a people of goodness and decency — one American family all deserving of equal treatment, all deserving of equal respect, all children of God.
He proclaimed us to be a people who won’t be driven apart, who believe in coming together and making our country reflect the good inside us.
No, Mr. President, we are not.
Air Force One had hardly cleared Dallas airspace before the attacks began. “7 Disgusting Things Obama Said While Hijacking Memorial for Slain Dallas Police” read a headline for a piece by the Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro. “Opportunistic,” “despicable,” “a moral turd sandwich,” slimed Shapiro.
Where’s the “kumbaya”?
Deal with each other with an open heart, Obama instructed.
It never crossed my mind that I might have been involved in Dallas’s Thursday night massacre. That is, until an email appeared in my inbox Friday morning from “Leslie Francis” informing me that I had a hand in the shooting deaths of the five Dallas police officers.
Francis (to the best of my knowledge, we have never met) gave me permission to share his message (written in caps).
“You must also take some responsibility for the slaugher [sic] of the white police officers who were killed in Dallas,” he charged.
“You are,” said Francis, “part of the race-baiting element in this country who get personal benefit by pitting blacks against white people.” He continued, “The shooter in Dallas said ‘He wanted to kill white people.’ ”
“You are calling for a ‘Race War’ in this country,” Francis concluded, “and it looks like you are going to get it.”
Another writer, who also had no problem being quoted, said he feared being put at risk by some “Black Lives Matter individual” and asked not to be identified. I’ll refer to him by his first initial, “D.”
In Dallas, our healer in chief urged that we stand in each other’s shoes, look at the world through each other’s eyes and abandon the “overheated rhetoric and oversimplification that reduces the whole categories of our fellow Americans not just to opponents, but to enemies.”
Not happening today.
“D” accused African Americans of blaming everyone else for problems that exist “in their community.” Citing high birthrates among black single mothers, “D” demanded that blacks start “telling young Black girls to keep their legs together and young man [sic] to keep the zipper up on their pants.” A reduction in births by black single parents, “D” declared, “would make one hell of a difference in their community and our nation.”
Francis and “D” are among who we are. I’ve heard from hundreds like them over the years.
They represent an uncomfortable truth: There are hordes of Americans who aren’t about to guard against the prejudice in their heads and hearts or teach their children better. They don’t much care what people who don’t look, speak or pray like them think.
And in a matter of days, a dangerous demagogue who preys on ignorance and racial fears will probably become the Republican nominee for president. Exploiting resentments and stirring up hate, he won more votes in a GOP nominating contest than were won by anyone before. More voters, those who make up who we are, will join his side in November.
This is not being written out of despair but rather with grim acceptance of reality.
Tensions between police and black communities capture the headlines.
But all the back and forth about responding if stopped by the police with “yes, sir,” “no, sir” is unadulterated, beside-the-point foolishness. The racial divide story — the source of deep anger and resentment — is found elsewhere.
Peek into boardrooms and newsrooms. Examine the ranks of upper management in industry and government. Look at household wealth, educational attainment, good-paying jobs, safe neighborhoods.
Protests and pursuit of reconciliation have their place.
But the challenge is greater: to take on and deal with who and what we, as a nation, really are.
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.