Last Saturday, my city’s heart stopped for a little while. It stood still as we pieced together the early news that two of our police officers had been shot, as we learned they had lost their lives, and as we watched the chilling video of police officers turning their backs to the leader they felt so betrayed by. It stood still as we learned more about the suspect, an allegedly disturbed man who used social media outlets to announce his horrifying plans. And then, New York took a deep breath, uniting its millions of people for just one moment of solidarity, one moment of communal grief, and then got itself back to work.
Like my city, my heart stood still that evening too. I kept my television on all night, anxiously awaiting to hear the calming, reassuring voice of a leader, any leader, who could help us make sense of such a tragedy. A mayor, a governor, a president, a religious leader, a trusted news anchor, anyone. I waited hours, days, weeks. And it never happened. But in that void, that empty space, something else happened. Other voices began to fill it quickly and furiously. Fingers were pointed in every direction, blame was tossed around without care or attention, and the little space left for grief was quickly taken up by politics, fear, and more violence.
When I discussed the tragedy with friends and family, they were surprised at the way I waited, optimistically, for the voice of a great leader. They reminded me that issue of race and policing is complex and controversial, and no great leader could talk about it publicly and still maintain their political popularity and financial backing.
This, I suppose, is where we are right now.
I, however, am not ready to accept that. If no one else is going to make a great speech that attempts to unite a nation, then I am going to try it myself. I will start by reminding you that I am grossly under-qualified, my only qualifications being that I am a teacher who once had a course or two on conflict negotiation, and who uses these skills daily to help negotiate conflicts such as “you can’t come to my birthday party” and “she told me Santa is dead,” but sometimes as important as “he doesn’t like me because I’m brown.” But, like many of us, I have friends and family on both sides of this conflict, I care deeply about the direction our nation is heading in, and I still believe in the goodness of the human spirit. So here goes. A not-so-great speech, in the void of a great one:
Hundreds of years ago, a dream was a born. A dream of a place where every man and woman would be free to learn, to think, and to act. A place where our tired, our poor would be welcomed and cared for. A place of opportunity, where just being American meant that you deserved an education, a voice in your democracy, the respect of your neighbor, and the protection of your government. A union that would strive every day to be more perfect. This is my understanding of the American dream, the dream that fueled the development of a great nation.
It was, of course, never perfect. We have faced great challenges and great setbacks, some of which made us stronger and some of which continue to challenge us today.
Today, we are at a crossroads. We are facing a multitude of challenges that are threatening the very dream that holds us together as Americans. Challenges that have already resulted in tragic loss of life and the division of our people. And we have a choice to make, today.
Do we still believe in our dream? Do we believe that we have a duty to care for the tired, the poor? Do we believe that it is still every American’s right to be free, to have a voice in our democracy? Do we believe that all fellow Americans deserve to be treated with respect and dignity? Do we believe, like so many before us, that we can do better? That with progress, we can be more perfect?
If so, then let’s start by listening. Let’s honor the voices of fellow Americans who are affected by these recent tragedies. Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. Let’s practice restraint for a moment to hold back our own opinions and experiences, and provide space to hear others. In the last few months, I have tried to do this as best I could, acknowledging my own privileges and biases. And what I am learning is this: we are not as divided as we think we are.
In the long and imperfect history of race relations in our country, even the most well-intentioned whites have enjoyed a set of unearned privileges, some obvious and some subtle. People of color have been denied these privileges, and often face bias and discrimination every day, some obvious and subtle. It has not been easy for us to talk about as a nation, and we have a habit of closing the lid and avoiding any discussion of race because it feels more comfortable and polite to ignore it altogether. But so many years of privilege, bias, discrimination, and closing the lid have had tragic consequences. The voices crying out that Black Lives Matter are begging our nation to understand that somewhere along the way, we have developed a subtle but pervasive belief that black lives are not as sacred as white lives, that black Americans do not deserve the same inalienable rights and opportunities as white Americans, and that millions of people are being excluded from the very dream that is supposed to hold our nation together.
And then, there’s another voice. The voice of public servants. The people who choose careers that put themselves and their families at risk every day, but are dedicated to ensuring that their communities are safe and their neighbors are protected. Like teachers, they have survived waves of politics that have insulted their professionalism, ignored their voices, and swayed public opinion in and out of their favor. Like teachers, their work continues to be more and more difficult as people and communities in most need have been ignored, segregated, and left behind (but no one really talks about that anymore, because it’s more comfortable and polite to ignore it). As in education, the police officers that should never have entered the profession, the ones that have demonstrated racism or committed crimes, have broken the last threads of trust between police and the communities they want to serve. They are not battling people; they are battling systematic failures, our failures to address racism, poverty, homelessness, mental health, and violence, to name a few.
Once we hear these voices, we can hear some common threads. No American needs to turn on another, especially when we are actually asking for the same things: the restoration of basic human rights, an equal shot at the American dream, the acknowledgement that our life matters.
So let’s try. Let’s acknowledge that our nation has big problems that won’t go away if we continue to put the lid back on. Let’s take the lid off, and keep it off, no matter how uncomfortable and impolite. Here goes.
Racism is real and has plagued our country even before our independence. The American experience continues to be different for you depending on the shade of your skin color. Poverty is real, and the gap between rich and poor is rising at an alarming rate. We have turned our backs on people and communities that are in the most need. Agencies that are charged with protecting and caring for the poor, hungry, homeless, and mentally ill are not provided with the time and resources they need to do their jobs. Special interests that protect the most wealthy have limited the abilities of public servants and tied the hands of politicians. We are losing our ability to listen to each other, honor each other’s voices, and come together in times of need. For many people, the American dream feels harder than ever to realize.
And most frightening of all, we seem to have forgotten that such an idealistic dream takes uncomfortable, impolite work, and it doesn’t make you any less American if you believe that we can do better.
Your life matters to me, because you an American and you are a human. And because you are American and human, I will not turn my back on you. I will take care of you when you are tired, or poor. I will listen to you and value your insight. I will acknowledge that we have grave problems and I will honor your voice as we work together solve them. Your life matters to me, and together we can begin to repair. To heal. To come together bound by the same dream that we’ve always shared. A more perfect union…uncomfortable, impolite, and perfectly American.