Now that we’re fully ensconced in the Christmas-New Year’s holiday season, I’m struck more than usual by how far our society has to go until we reach the peace on earth and good-will towards men so generally heralded during this period. To reflect on times gone past in this week of Auld Lang Syne: since just before Thanksgiving, this nation has repeatedly faced the heritage it still holds from centuries of slavery and segregation, and the discouraging inability by some white Americans to confront that history with honesty and humility. Those discourses—brought by current events to the forefront of our dialogues this December from the peripheries where we usually relegate them to linger—have evoked all kinds of responses in our nation’s public spheres, from the intelligent to the ignorant, and the heartfelt to the heartless, on both sides of the issue. Though the last thing I want to do is preach, and feel a little guilty using the bully pulpit of Facebook to spread my thoughts, I wanted to share some of the lessons I’ve drawn from these last weeks, and the five resolutions I hope we as a society can take up for the New Year.
First, let’s resolve to acknowledge how far we have come, as a country, in the last fifty years. Hyperbole can catch headlines, but as a history teacher and small “h” historian I would stridently argue that it is irresponsible to academic inquiry and pejorative to the incredibly brave actions of a generation to claim that our nation has made no progress. A half-century ago, the bravery of black activists and some white allies convinced a formerly complacent nation to end the codified practices of prejudice and hate that plagued much of our country. The systematic and state-sponsored denigration of black life that constituted Jim Crow and the open attitudes of white supremacism that accompanied it are thankfully far in our rearview. Orville Faubus, George Wallace, and Eugene Connor are representative of a class of public officials that (again, thankfully) could not succeed in our society today.
Second, let’s simultaneously resolve to acknowledge how far we still have to go, and how unequal our society remains. There is a proper and healthy debate both in the public sphere and at the scholarly level about how, where, and exactly why that inequality begins, but I hope Americans will agree that whether they personally believe that New Deal redlining, a broken system of education, widening income inequality, or a militarized police force and culture is the root cause, the fact of the matter is that white Americans currently enjoy some degree of privilege that gives them inherent advantages over black Americans. When marijuana use can be the cause of creative genius for a class of white musicians and artists and the cause of public damnation for Michael Brown, our system is broken. Countless other examples follow, but I’m not sure it’s constructive to include them all here.
Third, let’s resolve to avoid the kind of generalizations and sweeping statements that are inimical to enabling real and true dialogues. The events of the last few weeks should not have devolved into a debate about whether one “stands by” law enforcement or whether “cops are criminals.” Jon Stewart, who admittedly has not always done the best job of fostering an honest and constructive discussion these last weeks, nonetheless said it best when he articulated that “you can truly grieve for every officer who’s been lost in the line of duty in this country, and still be troubled by cases of police overreach. Those two ideas are not mutually exclusive. You can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards.” Binaries rarely demonstrate authentic human experiences, and we should stop using them to do so; framing our current situation with any sort of “vs.” is the last practice we should be approaching.
Fourth, let’s be honest enough with ourselves to accept that we cannot view our entire nation through one overriding logic. This takes courage to do, because it involves admitting that whatever your experience of our society may be, it is not representative of the experiences of others in our nation. As a result, one cannot dictate any single solution to every single issue, or even always speak as a qualified source. What you would have done in any situation, or what I would have done, ultimately has no bearing on the situation itself. I’ve tried to post at length about this in the past, but for a quick return, I will say that I have never been stopped and frisked, I’ve never been called a thug for wearing a backwards hat and a baggy sweatshirt, I’ve never (that I know of) had people clutch their pocketbags tighter when they pass me on the street, been followed when doing my Christmas shopping in a store, or been stared at in surprise when I head up the mountain for some skiing or step on the ice for a skate. Why would I possibly claim to be able to speak for or determine the “proper” course of action for someone who has experienced all this (and often far worse) systematically throughout our society?
And that leads me to my last resolution: let’s re-discover, for all the differences fomented between us by matters of race, politics, background, and class, our common identity as citizens of this nation who are trying to process and grow from a month of tragedies which have highlighted a far-longer legacy of injustice, abuse and mistrust. In this digital age, it’s easy to de-friend, to block, or to fire back a sarcastic retort, all of which only serves to further the building of barriers. I recognize that some people are truly bigots, and that others choose to remain willfully ignorant, and I’m not suggesting that one continue to conversate civilly with those who refuse to acknowledge basic truths of American culture and society. But in a time when pundits from all perspectives steer our daily discourses toward vilifying “those people,” and claiming that “they’ve forgotten what it means to be an American,” let’s instead resolve that it’s possible all sides genuinely believe they are advocating this nation’s potential for goodness and promises of equal protection of the laws. And that if we can construct a constructive dialogue, legislate where appropriate, forgive where applicable, and keep a better life for all as a common purpose higher than our personal disagreements and dislikes, 2015 can really start better than this year has ended.