This country was founded on two atrocities: the displacement and massacre of indigenous people and the abduction and enslavement of Africans. The arguments that Native Americans would still be living in teepees or mud houses if it wasn’t for “us” or that African Americans can “go back to where they came from,” are astonishingly racist, yes. But this isn’t about “us versus them.” This is about us versus us. And Trumpism is America’s reckoning.
Joe Biden was right. The 2020 election was about the soul of America. We’ve been in denial for too long and it’s finally caught up with us. Many Americans were dumbfounded over Trump’s popularity but I wasn’t. It was clear early on he was a vehicle for racial grievances.
As I often tell my patients, anger is a very empowering emotion; it prompts us to do things we otherwise wouldn’t. But anger is also a byproduct of other emotions. In this case, fear. It took a long time for mainstream media and the public to acknowledge what was obvious to others. Trump had tapped into something: many white Americans see their sense of identity – what it means to be “American” – threatened.
I live in a neighborhood that is at least 80% black and, yes, it can feel uncomfortable. However, I’m healthy enough to take ownership of my anxiety rather than project it onto others. This is not the neighborhood I grew up in, but it is the neighborhood I’ve chosen. A neighborhood that confronts each other’s children if they see wrongdoing. A neighborhood that distributed COVID masks to every household for free. A neighborhood that organized a parade and put together goody bags for high school seniors missing graduation. A neighborhood that sent gift cards to a family who’s house burned down. It is a neighborhood with a sense of community like no other I’ve ever lived in, including a military post.
I attended public school with only a handful of students of color. Most of them were popular and active in extracurricular activities. I don’t recall regarding them any differently but, of course, I don’t know how they felt. Fast forward to 2018, when I attended our neighborhood’s National Night Out. Standing in the community center, watching my neighbors chatting and eating, I’m not sure if I was the only white person in the room, but I certainly felt like it. I tried to strike up a conversation with a family who had a teenager my daughter’s age but it was awkward. Nevertheless, I recognized that I had only myself to blame for not being more active in the community. Plus, my daughter attends a different public school, one that is close to where she grew up and her dad still lives.
This anxiety is at the heart of our democratic reckoning. It is why millions of American’s are willing to ignore Trump’s incompetence, corruption, immorality, lies, and self-aggrandizement. The solution lies in both our past and our future.
Many Americans are now coming around to the realization that the monuments we’ve erected, museums we’ve built and speeches we make honoring our founding fathers are half the story. This identity we built about the American spirit and democracy is just part of who we are. Rather than avoiding it, schools, public officials and the media should be openly talking about the atrocities that are also the founding of this nation. And acknowledge that Native Americans and African Americans, in particular, deserve as much credit (if not more) for its founding.
As a psychotherapist, patients often ask me why, after so many years of ignoring a problem, they no longer can. They wonder what’s the point in “rehashing” the past when they can’t change it. I always share with them this analogy: imagine if a child came to you upset. Would you shoo him away? Would you tell him you, “Don’t want to deal with it?” Would you complain he’s bringing you down? If you did, do you think the child would walk away as though nothing happened? Of course not. What was bothering the child would continue to bother him and be compounded by your dismissal. More than likely, you would ask the child, “What’s wrong,” and help him problem solve. Our history is no different; it doesn’t go away because we ignore it. And what remains unresolved gets worse.
After the congressional hearings about slavery reparations in June of 2019, I wrote an article comparing our dilemma to Germany’s.1 Most Germans living today did not participate in the extermination of 6 million Jews, but they understood their country did. According to an article by Greg Rienzi in John Hopkins Magazine, Germany invests an estimated $1.1 billion in reparations every year for World War II.
Trump supporters may remain in denial, but there is a large overlooked constituency that won’t: young Americans. They have the most to lose from this existential crisis. They’re also the most receptive to Democratic messages of unity.
The next generation is more open and compassionate toward diverse thinking than any in history. As such, they are the most receptive to hearing about the atrocities of American colonialism. They are what some of us used to be in another age: full of energy, hope and ideals. They are also what most of us never were: plugged into a network of global activists determined to be heard. What they need is guidance and organization.
This is where the Democratic Party and its allies come in. Civil rights activists, historians, lawmakers and the media have an opportunity and obligation to reach out to young Americans. They don’t realize how powerful they are, and we have the know-how to show them. For its their energy and potential that will save this country.