The Tale of Two Americas
With a global pandemic and a national uprising for long-awaited racial justice, it is clearer than ever — there are, and always have been, two Americas. In one, the promise of the American Dream — freedom, equality, opportunity — is alive and well. In the other, these mantras are a perpetual reminder of the hypocrisy of a nation unwilling to acknowledge its own past.
In my June letter, I described a “knowledge deficit” that, by virtue of attending the nation’s public schools, we all face here in America. Today, I want to discuss another phenomenon I believe exists in this country: an empathy gap. This empathy gap has allowed for the creation of two realities, one characterized by justice and opportunity, the other characterized by the lack of both.
Let me begin by describing one America.
After spending five years attending an international school in Bangkok, Thailand, I moved to Allen, Texas, a Dallas suburb, when I was fourteen. I went from the very socially progressive mindset of my international school community to the ultraconservative collective ethos of the Allen community. My new community was for the most part, ethnically, politically, and religiously homogeneous; there are countless Texas suburbs just like this.
Before I get into why this is relevant, I want to emphasize that some of the families, friends, and friends’ parents were the most loving and welcoming people I’ve ever met. Some of these people from my high school years are truly like family to me.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve seen multiple problematic Facebook posts from my high school community. The common arguments presented: “the missed point” with the protestors and their outrage is that people “should have been following the law.” And “when a police officer tells you to put your hands up, don’t move, don’t reach for something in your pocket, just do as you’re told.” And finally, “there are just some bad cops out there, you can’t blame the whole system.”
These sentiments are completely out of touch with reality and, to recycle the phrase, completely miss the point.
The question is not “Should people be held accountable for breaking laws like not stopping at a red light and [insert other minor infraction]? The question here is “Should people die because they didn’t stop at a stoplight?” Regarding the “do as you’re told” argument: “What about when a Black person is killed even though they immediately put their hands up and very clearly surrender to a police officer’s orders? What about when a Black person is killed while simply walking in a neighborhood or babysitting a young relative? And finally, the “bad apple” policing argument — that misconduct speaks to the failings and flaws of the individual police officer, not the failings and flaws of the policing system — refuses to acknowledge the objective patterns of racial targeting in policing today and throughout history.
The arguments I’ve shared render incidents of police brutality as situational — either the result of an individual police officer's poor decisions or the result of the victim’s missteps when stopped by the police. Ultimately, in these views, the root cause, systemic racism, is never even considered.
In a wealthy, sheltered, white school district like my high school’s, the people sharing opinions on the issues of police brutality or discrimination in law enforcement have quite literally no context. And unfortunately, the vast majority do not seek out the necessary exposure they need to understand what is beyond their immediate reality.
Yet, they feel entitled to not only share extremely problematic viewpoints but infuse them with an attitude of “I will not only share my beliefs, I will completely invalidate yours...even though you are the one living through the issue and I am nowhere close to it.”
Discourse is always important and conversation is, of course, one of the best ways to provoke thought. But with these cases, and any resulting dialogue, it quickly becomes clear that the viewpoint is anchored in an idealized, often romanticized, perception of America that conveniently disregards our nation’t disturbing (and relentless) history of discrimination.
It’s like trying to have a conversation about a photo while the other person is describing the photo negative.
As I mentioned, my high school community is full of extraordinarily kind, loving people and there are a few who are like family to me; those people do not engage in explicit personal racism and would not support that in their community. But unfortunately, their understanding of racism in America abruptly ends there.
To many of them, a perceived absence of personal racism in their immediate surroundings seems to provide enough evidence to wholeheartedly deny — and fight to invalidate — the existence of the systemic racism that cripples our communities of color.
And there we see it, the empathy gap; one America refusing to acknowledge the painful, lived experience of many in the “other America.”
Beyond systemic racism in law enforcement, this empathy gap pervades every social issue in America including the criminalization of immigrants.
My parents are both Indian immigrants who came to America alone to gain their higher education. While there are many immigrant families in Dallas, my school district had very few; as I mentioned, it was very homogeneous.
As a young teenager, I remember feeling very uncomfortable whenever the topics of immigration or border security came up on the radio while I was in the car with a friend’s family or during a dinner between my family and another family in the community.
As soon as the topic arose, there would be immediate tension as smiles became forced and, understanding the futility of trying to argue, we simply began to politely nod or quickly look at each other. As I got older and experienced increasing emotional frustration with the callous, often vicious, sentiments and remarks, it felt like I had to hold my breath to hold my tongue.
Over the past few years, as the Trump administration has mercilessly enforced immigration laws; we’ve seen thousands of families separated as a result of criminal prosecution of migrants and asylum seekers at the border and during immigration raids. The separation of families at the border is a result of the administration’s zero tolerance policy and the decision to immediately prosecute all adults entering the country without documentation. Prior to this policy, such prosecution happened “relatively infrequently.” Waiting for trial, the adults are held in federal criminal facilities and their children are held separately in Border Patrol facilities.
One would think that seeing families aggressively, potentially permanently, separated would at the very least encourage a sense of compassion even from those who have black and white perspectives on border security, undocumented immigrants, and related issues. But, the response in ultraconservative communities has been an unwillingness to budge from the familiar, “well, it’s simple, people need to follow the law if they want to enter my country.”
The desire to protect and provide for your family, especially when facing immediate danger and no economic prospects, should be a point of universally relatable. But, for such Americans, this moment of of relatable empathy simply does not arrive.
Reflecting back on some of those uncomfortable moments in high school, I realize that many ultraconservative, “follow the law no matter the desperate nature of these cases,” individuals hold a grossly disillusioned belief that our immigration process actually provides an accessible and reliable channel for gaining entry and/or citizenship.
Any reference to America’s long, undeniable history of an anti-immigrant sentiment is dismissed as hyperbole or unrelated to the current issue.
The impenetrable conviction of those with extremely harsh opinions on such issues is often based on misleading, oversimplified justifications and “clarifications” by politicians who create and support cruel laws and then return to their privileged lives with zero regard for the devastating impact of their work. If compassion and the ability to put oneself in the shoes of separated families is inaccessible, I feel that the minimum responsibility defenders of the policies have is to read about the true limitations of the immigration process. And then at least acknowledge the fact that the path to America is virtually blocked off for the majority of hard-working families in desperate need of opportunity.
Ultimately, one America is completely oblivious to the daily struggles of marginalized Americans.
In this America, moving to San Francisco means an exciting life, not gentrification. Reparations means entitlement, not justice. Legislation is (occasionally) a dinner table discussion, not a cause of incessant anxiety.
If America is going to begin to reconcile its past and right its wrongs, it is going to require the active participation of those of us who are rewarded by the nation’s institutions and protected by privilege. At this point, the greatest danger to the change this country desperately needs is the comfortable apathy of those who believe that true equality exists in America.
Image Source: Business Insider, Today Show, CNN.com
For those Americans who struggle to empathize with the “choices” made by systematically oppressed adults in this country — try to see America through the eyes of a young child observing two unequal worlds. I challenge you to pause and see the world through George Floyd’s daughter’s eyes. Or through the eyes of a child who, in the land of the free and the just, may never see her parents again.