The US is witnessing a convergence of problems that feed off one another. The coronavirus disease crisis has led to an economic crisis that is rendering people exasperated. Meanwhile, the brutal and ugly killing of George Floyd, an African-American, by a white policeman unleashed grievances that have been brewing, unaddressed, for many decades.
The most clear and present threat America is facing today is internal division. US society has reached a dangerous level of polarization. Lawmakers have called for the removal of the names of Confederate leaders from military installations such as Fort Bragg, home of the army’s airborne and special operations forces. Confederate generals like Braxton Bragg and Robert E. Lee were this month branded “traitors” by retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered the removal of paintings of Confederate leaders from the Capitol. Such voices are an expression of America’s guilt toward the slaves who were brought from Africa to build the US as a white nation. A statue of Christopher Columbus was also removed from Columbus, Ohio. That looks like a noble act for some, who see it as an acknowledgment of past sins.
On the other side, people see such moves as a bid to erase history and American heritage, and a denial of the collective self. Pat Buchanan, the conservative commentator, questioned that, if all white men were “canceled” from national history, what would be left of America. People on Buchanan’s side argue that those figures who owned slaves lived in a different time and had practices that were acceptable by the ethical standards of their time. They cannot be judged by the standards of our time. Those who adopt this worldview consider that history should be embraced and accepted, not erased.
The worrying part in this feud, largely between the right and the left, is people resorting to violence. Though it is only of a low level, violence should not be an option used to solve problems. However, public anger tends to result in violence. Heavily armed white militias that started mobilizing to protest the lockdown got energized by the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Their members view far-left movements such as Antifa as a terrorist threat they need to counter.
But Antifa is a vague, overarching idea that does not represent a unitary organization. If the trend of labeling Antifa as terrorist develops, the country risks sliding into a new wave of McCarthyism. In the 1950s, the US was swept by a movement where several public figures, artists and directors were accused of being sympathetic to communism. McCarthyism resulted in assaults on people’s civil liberties, contradicting the sanctity of Americans’ freedom. The US should be careful not to slide down that path again, as it would widen the divisions and increase anger. While the right describes the actions of some protesters who resort to violent acts like throwing stones at the police and burning buildings as terrorism, those who commit such acts view throwing a stone as nothing compared to the police brutality they are subjected to. The important issue America now faces is how to diffuse the public anger that can lead to violent clashes between left and right.
The Congress is in deadlock and partisanship has taken its toll on suggested police reforms. This issue is steering much controversy. The call to defund the police has raised alarms. Adherents to this idea advocate disbanding local police units and rebuilding them in conjunction with the communities they represent. However, the right interprets defunding the police as a call for anarchy and lawlessness
Where does this struggle lead to and when will it end? When and how can American society, with its conservative right and liberal left, achieve reconciliation? Reconciliation cannot be achieved by blaming the figures of the past for the plight of today’s disfranchised people, and it also cannot occur by calling the other party a terrorist. Reconciliation occurs by directing the public discourse and public attention to issues that can bring people together. Today, the divisive discourse over changing the names of installations or removing statues of people who lived 200 years ago should make way for a debate on how to make society more equitable, and how to provide justice for African-American and other disenfranchised communities by improving their conditions. Questions and dialogue about symbols should be left for when everyone is calm and ready for a balanced, intellectual discussion, not now in the midst of heated emotions.
The first item on the list of discussions should be basic education in black neighborhoods. It all starts with this, as education is the path for people to improve their conditions. Education should be followed by equal access to social services and employment opportunities, the addressing of racial profiling, and many other life-enhancing projects for disfranchised communities. Instead of focusing on symbolic issues that do not make a difference to people’s day-to-day lives, opinion-formers should concentrate on issues that make a substantial difference and that can lead the US toward a more equitable society.
Change should be put at the heart of a comprehensive plan aimed at creating a more equitable society. The key word should be equity. Equity can bring people together. Equity can overcome people’s grievances and desire for revenge. In a “Last Week Tonight” show with John Oliver this month, an African-American woman commented on the burning of a store and a hall of fame in her own neighborhood by saying that it is not “theirs,” as they own nothing. She addresses the system by saying: “You are lucky that black people are asking for equality and not revenge.” If the issue is not handled carefully and no serious efforts are made to move toward equity, the feeling of bitterness could lead to a desire for retribution, which would be catastrophic for the American social fabric.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She holds a PhD in politics from the University of Exeter and is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
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