The refrain became so familiar, so quickly. I heard it from Joe Biden on the radio just this morning, talking about Charlottesville. I heard it in the days following the president’s first attempt to ban Muslim immigrants from entering the country. I heard it over and over in 2017, and each time it hit my ear with the same hollow, tinny register, like someone was speaking to me through a tin can and a string.
“This isn’t us,” they said. They seemed to mean it. “This isn’t who we are. This isn’t America.” I wondered if they had ever read Notes on the State of Virginia, in which Thomas Jefferson carefully outlined important tenets and observations of the world as he saw them: local climate patterns and wind currents, the birds that could be found in the region, and the fact that black people were incapable of complex thought, true grief, or reflection beyond the moment of the present. These were the facts of life as Thomas Jefferson saw them, and he annotated them carefully, surely in the hopes that we might read them. I worry that not enough of us have.
It’s my chosen profession to write about how segregated our country is, the many fissures that run between people and buildings and neighborhoods. Mine is often a world of dismal numbers and abstract fractures. But frequently, in much more quotidian ways, I am reminded that Barack Obama was wrong in his rousing 2004 speech: There is not, despite his insistence, one America. This is most evident to me when — well, if I’m honest, this is most evident to me when I hear the rousing, soul-stirring enthusiasm with which white folks sing “Sweet Caroline” at public functions. But second to that, this is most evident to me when I hear this isn’t us and I wonder how so many people have lived this way for so long. How is it that they have been raised in the same America as I and have evaded the fact that our culture is defined by violence?
As far as I can tell, this feat of cognitive dissonance rests on a simple principle: Relegate the experiences of people of color, people with disabilities, and queer people to the marginalia of history. If we are footnotes — never the main text — it’s possible to understand America as a fundamentally just and noble country, wherein violence is the caveat rather than the rule.
This is all well and good until you consider the enormity of what we are being asked to forget. This year, in conversations about Confederate statues, we saw Americans willing to condemn Robert E. Lee but unwilling to extend their critique to, say, Thomas Jefferson, who held six of his own children in human bondage, or George Washington, who was once said by one of his neighbors to treat enslaved people “with more severity than any other man.” These are not secrets; these are the facts about the men whose ideologies so shaped the fabric of this country that we call them our fathers.
Throughout 2017, we once again saw horrific acts of mass violence committed with guns, acts of violence that in another time or another place would have been considered the sort of historically distinct moment that defines an entire generation or an era. Instead, they move so quickly from our consciousness that to be reminded of them is akin to being shaken from a momentary daydream. While the frequency and intensity of these acts is relatively new, the culture that begat them is not. After 58 people were murdered in Las Vegas, the initial willingness of Congress and the NRA to talk about increased regulation of bump stocks — a reaction so tepid in the face of a tragedy so monumental that it’s tantamount to responding to the sinking of the Titanic by considering a ban on ice machines — faded just in time for a man to open fire on churchgoers in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Eight days later, in Rancho Tehama, California, Kevin Janson Neal killed five people and wounded several young children.
But it is not only the guns. In this conversation, the guns are, in some ways, the easy part to talk about. It’s that after Neal pulled up alongside Tiffany Phommathep and fired into her car, and she sustained multiple bullet wounds, and witnessed two of her three sons being shot, and drove to a nearby gas station and screamed for help, no one assisted her. That’s the hard part. The hard part is that police visited Neal’s home the day before on a domestic violence call, and his first victim was his wife, whom he buried under the floorboards of their home. The hard part is that we live in a culture that views women, especially women of color, as objects whose personhood is immaterial. It is not a coincidence that an Asian-American woman bleeding and screaming for mercy found none in the eyes of onlookers. It is not a coincidence that over half of the individuals who commit mass shootings have a history of domestic violence. As advocate and organizer Mariame Kaba noted in the aftermath of the Sutherland Springs shooting, “the home is a practice ground often for the violence that then becomes public violence.” And in our preoccupation with the harm that occurs in public, we fool ourselves if we forget its insidious roots that are birthed and sustained in private.
The ugly fact is that there is no vast gulf between those who harm women by striking or shooting them at home or school and those who harm women by abusing and assaulting them in the workplace. In the scheme of history, there is not so great a space between the blueprint Thomas Jefferson laid for this country and the men who lit their pitiful torches in Virginia on August 11 and marched on the grounds of the university that he founded. And this, you see, is the story. Ours is a nation wrought by violence, and in the name of violence, America marches on without apparent desire to do otherwise. This has always been the story, and to pretend otherwise accomplishes nothing.