“I can’t wait for this year to end,” and similar sentiments, peppered 2020, providing much-needed optimism in getting through the end of the Trump Administration, the COVID-19 pandemic, militant responses to Black Lives Matter protests, a recession and far too many other day-to-day ills.The only logical way out seemed with a clean slate offered by the dawn of a new year.
Unfortunately, when the clock struck midnight on January 1, our reality remained unchanged and overwhelmingly bad. And when President-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office on January 20, the U.S. will not suddenly be a good or even better place. Indeed, it will be a step in the right direction, but we will not suddenly go back to normal.
But therein lies the problem: going back to normal. Before all of this, before the pandemic, before Donald Trump took office, normal was not good.
“Trump is [not] the macro problem,” Julian Newman explained over a Zoom interview early last month. “I think he’s a symptom of something bigger.”
Newman is the founder and CEO of Culture Creative, a national consulting firm that specializes in diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. “We have to be careful not to give Trump too much credit,” he cautioned. “I think it’s important for us to look at this thing holistically and not make it all about the last four years.”
Electing Trump out of office and believing normalcy will return is like thinking a new year automatically brings a clean slate. It would be like putting a bandaid over a cut— a cut that is actually very deep, one that will fester and ooze and poorly scar unless you properly clean it out and stitch it up.
For the United States to heal, we must tackle the core poison that laid our country’s foundation. As Newman puts it, “Racism is part of the American story.”
The United States’ racist foundation
To start, it’s important to consider the status of the United States in the Before Times (that being early March 2020 and before). For example, in 2019, it was reported that Americans were unhappier than they’ve been in years and that less than 30 percent of Americans considered themselves financially healthy.
And yes, even the ills of pre-2020 might sound better than our current dilemma. However, as explained by Rebecca Renner in National Geographic, Western culture prefers the past because we tend to remember positive experiences. Our autobiographical memories are biased toward positivity and so we negatively interpret the present. Not only does that push us to look back on the last four years with rose-colored glasses, but it exacerbates the larger problem of the white-washing of history and ultimately revises the truth. To inhibit history from repeating itself, nostalgia cannot corrupt our remembrance of the near and distant past and the way it shapes patriotic values.
“The idea of American fortitude, the ideal that rests on hard work and diligence; that these and these alone—not inherited wealth, stolen properties or gender and class and racial biases—will get you ahead in life, is very much the groundwork for modern racism as we see it,” writer Joel L. Daniels wrote in Newsweek. “An attempt to depart from race and racism as one of the governing principles in which America was constructed is very much racist itself.”
He overviews that racism literally built the infrastructure of the U.S. The U.S. Capitol, railroads, numerous presidential estates (like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello), Wall Street and the White House were all built by slaves (not to mention the tobacco and cotton industries). And let us not forget the Constitution upheld “the peculiar institution” of slavery.
Over a third of people in federal and state prisons are Black people (in comparison to the general population being 13.4 percent Black). On Urban Wire, economist Margaret Simms scoped in on the fact that less than half of black households own their homes (compared to almost three-quarters of white households). Such low levels of homeownership and access to affordable housing restrain black households from building wealth and accessing high-quality neighborhood services. And the snowball effect does not stop there. Simms noted that high-achieving black families find it harder than white families to pass on economic and educational advantages.
Daniels said that the rhetoric around disparities in the criminal justice system, education, healthcare, wages “misses the mark by not honestly historicizing the racist policies that have gotten us here.” Threaded with racism, the publicized American timeline is a false narrative.
An opportune moment
The way racism laces the United States’ backbone is no secret either. TIME’s end-of-year cover proclaimed 2020 as “the worst year ever” and the accompanying story shines a light on the nation’s summertime reckoning with racism. In it, film critic Stephanie Zacharek described America’s injustice and inequality as “toxic traditions” that more white people woke up to.
“Whether this heightened awareness of the racism that has plagued our country since its founding translates into actual change remains to be seen,” she speculated. “That’s just one of many question marks waiting for us in 2021 and beyond. After a year of so many changes, will we change radically too?”
As the Trump administration exits and we inch slowly out of the pandemic, we are at a pivotal point crucial to making amends. Collectively vulnerable as ever, the only option is to heal.
In November 2020, The Atlantic’s Adam Harris and Rev. William J. Barber II discussed why healing the soul of the nation takes more than a return to normalcy. Barber explained that disregarding primary injustices will always undermine domestic tranquility and the promises of our nation. He evokes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s working title for what became the “I Have a Dream Speech.” The draft proclaimed, “Normalcy— Never again.”
“There can be no healing of the soul of America without healing the body,” Barber said. “You cannot simply go look for normal, or suggest there’s some place behind us where everything was okay, where we were all united. That is not a truthful rendition of history. It is not a truthful remembrance. What we need to do is look for what [to do] together. And we need to heal from the bottom up.”
Knowing that healing extends beyond that of the physiological, researchers in 2005 sought to determine a more holistic definition of the word. They found “healing” to be associated with wholeness, narrative and spirituality and concluded that healing can be defined as “the personal experience of the transcendence of suffering.”
“In order for us to heal, we have to tell the truth,” Newman said. “We have to acknowledge the pain of it.”
Andre Perry, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution’s metropolitan policy program, would agree.
“Nothing heals like acknowledging through your actions that you understand the pain that you’ve caused,” he said in a recent phone interview. Perry is also the author of “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities.”
Discourse on racial differences and verbal acknowledgement if not enough; extracting racist policies is critical. For one, the net worth of a typical white family is almost ten times greater than that of a Black family, according to the Brookings Institute. In fact, passed down inheritances account more for the ongoing racial wealth gap than other socioeconomic indicators.
What’s more, knowing the way anti-Black legislation has burdened Black people and debilitated their ability to deal with the economic shocks of traumatic events (like COVID-19 and Hurricane Katrina), Perry (among others) calls for reparations.
“For me, reparations is a way to help heal the country and provide a practical remedy to prevent communities from reeling when the next inevitable shock occurs,” Perry said. “The more society recognizes the harm in how the wealth gap came about, the more likely organizations will contribute to the reparations discussion in action.”
Perry sees this is both a financial and moral issue. He explained reparations will vary by circumstance, whether based on damages caused by slavery, red lining, the modern criminal justice system and so on. Compensation from the federal government is key, but Perry also acknowledges the need for efforts at the local level. He pointed out Georgetown University’s plan to financially assist the descendants of the enslaved people sold by the school’s founders and the Minnesota Council of Churches’ truth and reparations initiative. Last fall, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that will form a task study to work toward slavery reparations.
The need for forgiveness
Newman also pointed out that an essential step is healing from the trauma.
“I think we should raise our voice. I think we should be angry,” he said. “We need to speak truth to power and we need to resist injustice in all of its forms. [But] we have to do it in a way that as we’re attempting to break down the walls and the gates and barriers of injustice, we don’t break ourselves in the process.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, forgiveness improves your health. It can lead to improved mental health, less anxiety, lower blood pressure, fewer depression symptoms, a stronger immune system, improved heart health and improved self-esteem. But how does that apply to an intergenerational traumatic phenomenon that continually ravages lives?
“Human beings have a great potential for harm, but they also have a potential for good,” Dr. Frederic Luskin explained in a phone interview.
Luskin is the director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, which has explored forgiveness therapy with people who suffered from historically traumatic events, such as violence in Northern Ireland and the 9/11 attacks. His research expands upon Desmond Tutu’s message that without forgiveness, there is no future.
“Without forgiveness, we’re living in the past, and if it’s a bad past, then it will limit our present,” Luskin said.
The Forgive for Good workshop developed by Luskin outlines nine steps to work toward forgiveness, which includes the understanding that forgiveness does not mean reconciliation. Over the phone, he summarized the process, noting the importance of never losing perspective of the truth and pivoting from the victim to survivor point of view.
He also said forgiveness isn’t justice, though it’s legitimate to seek justice alongside. Acknowledgement of harm is also a healthy step, such as the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. It’s about truth telling, plus a release.
“You tell the story without bitterness, but maybe with a little bit of caution… The bitterness will make it much harder for the younger generation growing up to flourish,” he said. “[Forgiveness] is an honest appraisal of the human condition.”
But what about healing between people and among communities? In light of our country’s intense polarization, Newman laid out seven components for trans-cultural bridge building: love, listen, lament, learn, lean, lead and link.
“In order for us to have the momentum to be able to make change, it cannot just be [about] the crisis,” Newman said.
Like combating COVID-19, genuine healing from racism will take everyone. In a memo to Biden, Perry explained that for healing to work, politicians must stop equating the “radical left” and white supremacist organizations. Misconstruing non-centrist policies as extreme halts progress.
“Healing isn’t about giving people more time to make themselves ready to accept policies that advance racial equity,” Perry wrote.
To put it plainly, Perry said he wants white people to stop being raicst. He illuminated the fact that nearly half of Americans voted that they were willing to tolerate a racist president who openly undercuts democracy. A starting place would be for families to educate themselves on the policies that extracted wealth from Black people and to understand the full extent of America’s racist history. Looking at Biden, Perry doesn’t expect the president-elect to forge ahead with reparations on his own volition.
“The folks who can see the damage, who can understand the damage that discrimination has caused… I need for those people to push and organize and mobilize and demand change.”