America is not the greatest country in the world.
It still sounds almost blasphemous to write those words. I was raised in Texas, and questioning American superiority was not only unpatriotic, it was downright un-American.
Putting America on a pedestal and glorifying “American values” shaped the way I viewed history growing up. Sure there were some bad moments. Some bad people doing bad things. But that wasn’t America. America was a force for good that transformed the world into a better place.
This rose-colored perspective blinded me from reality well into adulthood. As a White male, I was able to blissfully believe in an America that was all sunshine and rainbows, without having to confront anything to the contrary.
And there is some truth to it. America has been the dominant world super power for generations, and it ushered in a wave of democracy around the world, which has been a very positive development for humanity. But we didn’t earn our position as the global super power of the 20th century solely by promoting liberty and justice for all. We fought our way to the top. And we stole the wealth needed for that fight from Black and Indigenous People of Color.
If early America existed today, we would call it a terrorist state. Slave labor created the wealth that made America what it is today. Our forefathers built this country from the genocide of indigenous people and the systematic rape and torture of Black people — all to enhance the wealth and prosperity of White men. Men who conducted these atrocities in the name of God and with the blessing and encouragement of the government.
And yet we glorify these early years of America in our culture. We celebrate the founding fathers as saints and heroes. They left us with a constitution that disenfranchised women and encouraged the slave trade — one of the greatest sins of mankind — yet to this day we still care about the “intent of the founding fathers” when interpreting constitutional law and deciding how to govern. I can tell you the intent of the founding fathers: it was to give power to White men. We traded the consolidation of power with a monarch for consolidating it with people of a single race and gender. White men would inherit the power of the king, and use it to dominate everyone else.
This is America the great.
I was taught that slavery was a dark period in our history. A stain on our past. As though the stain was gone now. As though the darkness had been lifted. But the darkness is alive and well. We may have ended slavery, but we replaced it with Jim Crow, which we replaced with police brutality and mass incarceration. Each time we take a step forward, the darkness comes with us. It takes on a new form most White people are willing to overlook. And then it buries its poison fangs back into the heart of America.
Most White people don’t see America in this way because they are still viewing history through rose-colored glasses. Because they believe America is — and has always been — a force for good in the world. This is such a uniquely White perspective. We teach our kids to wave the flag and be proud of their heritage, never stopping to imagine what it might be like to live in a country that tortured our ancestors. We can’t even fathom being Black and surveying the abundance of wealth and prosperity surrounding us — primarily owned by White men to this day — knowing it was built by our great great grandparents, for which the only inheritance we received was systemic racism and injustice.
Instead of facing this reality, we sing our patriotic songs, wave our flags, and believe that our wealth and prosperity came solely from our own hard work. We believe God blessed us and showed favor on us as a nation. That our position of global power was earned peacefully.
All of this white-washes our past and makes us blind to the injustice and systemic racism baked into the bricks of America. We can’t even see it.
As a White parent of two beautiful Black children, I’ve been forced to see it. When I see Tamir Rice shot by the police while playing outside, I can’t help imagine that being my kid. When I see Ahmaud Arbery murdered while on a jog, or the police breaking in to shoot Breonna Taylor in her own apartment, or George Floyd murdered in broad daylight with other police looking on — it’s hard not to imagine those victims being my little boy or girl.
This month, the rest of the world has opened its eyes to the danger of simply being Black in America. But most White parents are still able to disconnect from the actual violence. They may be appalled, but they can’t really imagine those things happening to their babies. Implicit in this is that these kinds of things just don’t happen to White people. Parents of Black kids experience police brutality much more viscerally. It’s the fear that their kid could be the next name chanted at a rally. The next face on a mural to remind us of injustice.
All parents want the best for their children. The best schools. The best opportunities. The best neighborhoods, cities, and country. Over the past four years we’ve seriously wrestled with what it means to raise our kids in America, knowing we have the means to relocate somewhere else. If our kids were in an unsafe school or neighborhood, we would try to move them to a new one. That would be our responsibility. Our duty as parents. But what if our kids are in an unsafe country? Are we bad parents for continuing to live in America? For not moving our kids somewhere safer and less toxic for our family?
It was these questions that truly opened my eyes to reframe the way I view America. This is not the greatest country on Earth. Maybe if you are White and all you care about are other White people. Maybe then.
But I think the reason most people still believe in America is that we want to believe in a place that is benevolent and promotes justice, freedom, and equality for all. A place where everyone has an equal opportunity to rise to the top. To become anyone and do anything they put their mind to. We want to believe in this so much that we are willing to live in denial. To ignore the hard truths about the country we inherited from the generations that came before us.
And while it’s true that no one alive today has held slaves or waged war against indigenous people, if we continue to live in denial about our past, we will be in denial about our present as well. We won’t be able to see the depth of injustice in our streets today because we are simply blind to it. We’ll say that’s not America. Those are just a few bad apples. That’s not who we really are.
The reality is that we are a better society today than the one our founding fathers built. But the darkness from our past is still with us. We must see it, name it, and know that it is America too. Only then can we join the civil rights heroes and champions that have come before us in the work of taking away its power.
For now, the answer my family has landed on is to stay and be part of the change. While we may have the means to relocate, so many do not. And we believe in a better America. We are joining the work to help build that future for our kids, our friends, and our neighbors.
We need a new dialog about our past. One that does not downplay horrors of our history in a broader narrative about American exceptionalism. The first step for others to join in this work is to get educated. We all need to re-frame our perspectives on history and our nation so we can have a clear-eyed view of America today.
There are some great books that can help — read them individually, or form a book club to begin talking about these issues with friends and family.
- The New Jim Crow by James Baldwin
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coats
- Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad
- White Fragility by Robin Diangelo
But reading, education, and talking about these issues with others is just a first step. We must also do the hard work to dismantle injustice in our communities, our workplaces, and our classrooms, and put our money where our mouths are. Here are some great resources on how to take action:
- When Black People Are In Pain, White People Just Join Book Clubs by Tre Johnson
- Fighting the Racism that Killed George Floyd Requires More Than Hash Tags by Nesrine Malik
- How to Be a Good White Ally According to Activists by Emily Stewart
Finally, with today being Juneteenth, this is a great time to connect with your local community and help celebrate Black Independence Day and the news of abolition finally reaching the Texas coast. If you are a parent, try celebrating Juneteenth with your kids. Teach them about the evils of our past and the very real evil still alive in society today. I bet they will want to be part of the solution as they grow up. And I hope they push you to be part of the solution today.