Let America Be America Again

The book How to be an antiracist on a desk next to a notebook

“America is broken,” a Canadian visitor observed four years ago on a trip to California, and I bristled. Wasn’t that an overreaction? In spite of everything – homelessness, school shootings, racism, and all our other problems – the comment seemed harsh to me. We had come through the great recession, we had a black president, I felt hopeful.

Then 46% of my fellow voting citizens chose a man we all knew to be an egomaniacal, lying, cheating, racist bully to be our president. More homeless people appeared on the streets of my town. A gunman with a semi-automatic rifle shot and killed 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and injured 17 more. Botham Jean was shot and killed in his own home by a white police officer, and then Atatiana Jefferson was too. The pandemic hit, and African-American and Latinx citizens are getting sick and dying at rates higher than their proportion of the population. Our national government failed to respond to the coronavirus like leaders of a first-world country with access to science, but even if they had, our brothers and sisters of color would still have been disproportionately affected. The pandemic merely exposed a racial divide that existed long before coronavirus arrived on our shores.

And then on Memorial Day a white police officer knelt on the neck of a black man named George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he was dead. I’m finally ready to concede what I couldn’t four years ago.

America is broken.

This week I turned to poetry, as I often do when I’m trying to counter the specters of panic and despair that lurk at my side since the 2016 election, and I found my way to a poem by Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again.” The poem walks a lyrical line between “the dream the dreamers dreamed” and “the rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies” that were a reality in our country in 1935 when it was written and still are, the title itself a retort from the past to “make America great again.” It is a powerful poem, but it is more about economic oppression than racism, and there’s a danger in conflating the two, in not acknowledging the ongoing injustice rooted in our history of slavery, segregation, and oppression of black people. As a privileged white woman I appreciate Hughes’ inclusiveness: “I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shores,” he wrote. But the fact is, I am not affected by the misery my Irish ancestors suffered under the English the way that African Americans today are affected by their brutal history in this country. To pretend that the past is over and done with is worse than naïve. It’s dangerous. Ask any black man who goes out of his way to seem non-threatening when he’s among white people.

Langston Hughes reminded me that there are two separate evils to confront: one is the corruption in American government that has dismantled whatever checks we had on capitalism and allowed wealth and power to accumulate in the hands of a few, and the other is racism. To fight the first evil, we must work for campaign finance reform to restore some semblance of representative government. Then we can tackle climate change, equitable opportunities for education, affordable housing, jobs with a living wage and health care for all.

But at the very same time that we’re recovering from a pandemic and trying to save our planet and bring about economic justice, we also have to fight the scourge of racism. Enough is enough. Why did Americans take to the streets this week? One by one we must root out and remove the reasons for their righteous rage. As President Obama said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

So what can I, one white American woman, do right now?

First, I can examine my conscience for my own racism, a legacy of the culture I grew up in. But how do I recognize what is hidden from myself? This work will no doubt take the rest of my life, but to begin I will take a hidden bias test and read How To Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. (It has to be an ebook, though, if I want to read it now. This title and several others on racism are backordered at Bookshop Santa Cruz and on Amazon, thank God.) Second, I will welcome opportunities for conversation about racism wherever I find them. Third, I will donate to Black Lives Matter. Fourth, I will create a guide for students at Foothill College (where I am a librarian) on antiracism and civil disobedience.

This is just a start, and I welcome your suggestions. America didn’t break in 2016. Genocide of the indigenous people and slavery broke it before it even began. What can we do to repair it?