A long time ago, in a classroom somewhere deep in the inner ring of suburbs around Hartford, I learned about America. I learned about the flag, about George Washington and the cherry tree, about the heroes of the Revolution, and the tragedy and triumph of the Civil War. But most of all, I learned that America was Good.
Maybe you learned this, too. Maybe you drew in our founding myths like water from your parents, or your church, or the Boy Scouts, or something else entirely. We internalized the notion that we were the luckiest people on the planet, to be born in such a great country where there was freedom and opportunity for all.
For many people, Black Americans especially, that never fit with their actual day-to-day experiences of this country. But for white suburban middle-class kids like me, it was God’s own truth. All the bad stuff was in the past. We’d overcome racism, we’d beaten the Nazis basically singlehandedly, and we were winning against the freedom-hating communists in the USSR. It was morning in America, and the future was bright.
That’s what I learned. And then as I got older, I began the long and painful process of unlearning just about all of it.
The world view we absorb as kids has an outsized effect on us for the rest of our lives. That’s one of the many reasons President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” resonated with so many white Americans – it was validating that old world view they’d grown up with. It was a guilty (or not-so-guilty) dive into the deep pool of uncomplicated, uncritical beliefs.
Unfortunately, this almost religious embrace of American myth over American reality has turned into a major impediment to progress. How can we fix our healthcare system if we can’t admit it’s broken? How do we confront systemic racism when we refuse to see it? It’s been this way for my entire life.
But the past year may have been a turning point.
One illustration of this is a Monmouth University poll that asked respondents whether racial discrimination was a problem in this country. A shocking 71% of white respondents said it was. Another poll from CBS News asked if respondents felt police treated communities of color differently than white communities; 52% of white respondents said yes, with much larger margins of younger people saying yes.
YouGov recently ran a poll about patriotism and Americans’ views of America, among other things. Several of the questions had to do with how Americans perceive ourselves and our history. One of the questions asked whether racism was something that had been solved in the past, or was it “a current problem that continues to hold back people of color.” Fifty-eight percent of respondents, including 52% of white people, said that it was a current problem.
An actual majority of white people who can see and begin to understand systemic racism in this country is considerable, though obviously the remaining 48% who see no issue pose a huge problem. Even more interesting, though, is the dwindling belief in American exceptionalism. When asked, 59% of white respondents said that America was not an exceptional nation to be admired throughout the world, but instead is “a country with its own unique strengths and weaknesses, much like other countries.”
That matters in both good and bad ways. Maybe that white wall of indifference will start to fall. Maybe there will be enough willpower among white people to understand and fix our nation’s problems instead of letting them fester. Where the American people go, politicians and policy follow soon after.
But the idea of America, more than anything else, is what holds this massive, contradictory, infuriating, wonderful country together. Ronald Reagan, the biggest booster of the uncritical, sepia-toned, nostalgic view of American exceptionalism, called us a “shining city on a hill” in his farewell address, echoing the Bible and the Puritans. In the YouGov poll, 62% said that we can’t describe ourselves that way anymore if we ever could.
If we discard American exceptionalism and bury the old myths, then the challenge will be to forge new, better bonds of freedom and equality with one another. Understanding the whole scope of our history, while vital, is just the start of what could be a long and arduous process.
I just hope it’s for real this time.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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