It'll be worse before it gets better


This past Fourth of July felt different. We all know it, and it would be naïve to think otherwise.

The protests following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have led to a nationwide self-reflection of our racist history. This collective awareness, as well as the deaths of more than 100,000 Americans killed by a disease we hardly knew existed at this time last year, have understandably left a bad taste in our mouth.

It is hard to enjoy fireworks when we are coming to grips with both our past and our present, although at this point, it is seemingly impossible to enjoy fireworks at all.

Shortly after the protests began, I decided that as a white person living in the United States, I had a duty to further educate myself on the history of racism in law enforcement, the lingering effects of slavery, and the “new Jim Crow.” And I was not alone: Almost everyone I knew — regardless of age or color — was doing the same. Every time I opened Facebook or Instagram, I saw a concerted effort to “do better.”

I saw donations to Black community organizations. I saw petitions calling for the arrest of murderous police officers, and bans on chokeholds, and calls to defund certain police departments. I saw friends and family post recommendations for articles and books they read on policing, segregation and implicit bias, and what they had gleaned from them.

I don’t think this collective enlightenment would have been possible if not for this mass sharing of information and literature. More to the point, I don’t think the slight progress that has been made so far in dismantling certain elements of racism in our country would have been possible without holding each other, as well as ourselves, accountable.

Of course, we still have a long way to go.

It is uncomfortable to confront a past riddled with bigotry, especially if we didn’t grow up doing so. In elementary school, I was taught that our founders believed in the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which was why they appear in our Declaration of Independence, our country’s very raison d’ etre.

I don’t remember being taught in that class that these rights were intended to extend solely to white, land-owning males. Or that the Founding Fathers themselves owned slaves.

For better or worse, we are not the only country that must confront our past atrocities on a regular basis. Germany is the most obvious example of another. After the horrors of the Holocaust started to come to light shortly after World War II, efforts to de-Nazify the country began. The symbols, slogans and songs of the Third Reich were not only frowned upon, but outright banned. Displaying a swastika publicly can now get the offender a three-year jail sentence.

There is thorough compulsory learning regarding the crimes of the Third Reich for all German students, such as school trips to concentration camps. There are also constant visible reminders of the Nazi era, like the massive Holocaust memorial in Berlin, or the “stumbling stone” plaques throughout the country, which denote the houses that belonged to Jews before they were slaughtered.

In the years that followed the Holocaust, many of those that survived were even granted reparations (my grandmother being one of the recipients). In short, Germany is dealing with its history in a healthy way. Germans even have a word for this national awareness of their history: vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, or “working off the past.”

All of this is a far cry from the United States where statues of men who fought for the right to own people still brazenly stand. How long this continues to be the case is up to us, but thankfully, it now seems like we are on the right path.

Confederate monuments are starting to come down. Institutions bearing the names of racist figures are being rechristened, and the Mississippi state flag — the only one left that displayed the Confederate battle flag in its canton — has been changed.

This is hopefully only the beginning.

The national pride stemming from narratives that left out hard-to-swallow chapters of our history is now starting to decay. This is a good thing: The elements of our country that need change the most are now being illuminated for us. Part of our identity will now consist of understanding our past, and using it to forge a more just and equitable present.

That is true love of country.

We are now in a moment of national collective reckoning. Millions of us are learning about the racism in our past and our present together, albeit from a distance. And if we continue to do so, we will surely grow and better our country because of it.

Patriotism was indeed not the mood of the hour this July Fourth weekend, and for good reason. However, this does not mean that it will be gone forever.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — the very rights written in our Declaration of Independence 244 years ago — are more important now than ever. In the months and years to come, I hope that we as a country will continue to learn more and face the most challenging parts of our history head-on, so that the inalienable rights enumerate by the Declaration of Independence will be enjoyed — sincerely enjoyed — by all Americans.

There is nothing more patriotic than making this a reality.

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Sam Cohen,