Finding A Way Out: a few thoughts on rebuilding America

(Warning: my editor is otherwise engaged, so I’m going this alone again. Beware of typos)

As a way to generate conversation, Heather Cox Richardson recently asked what might be needed to rebuild the nation. It’s been on my mind for some time, enough to sketch out a few thoughts. No doubt you also have some thoughts on it. The problem is, none of mine are new. They’ve been around but never seriously acted on. Maybe now is the time to get serious.

The Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution establish the high moral values we’ve always claimed for the United States. That they were sometimes limited to adult white men of property, and extension of them to others has been slow, painful and inconsistent, is notwithstanding. They remain the standards we claim for ourselves. It’s time to rededicate the nation to their fuller realization.

It’s hard to get started with serous intent to change our ways, partly because it’s often seen as coming from a radical unAmerican fringe, and partly because people of influence and means are distracted by their desire to maintain an orderly life free of disruption. Getting them to refocus on issues of injustice isn’t easy. Past experience suggests concern over destruction of property leads to vague agreements that something needs to be done, but not until things settle down. By then enthusiasm for change has waned. A tricky piece of right wing propaganda abets waning enthusiasm by attributing property destruction to outside left wing agitators. No one seems to notice that rioting reinforces the right’s intent to keep things as they are.

Systemic racism is deeply embedded in society, but a surprising number of acquaintances deny it, or claim it’s not that serious. We can’t address it if we don’t know its history. We must teach K-12 history and social studies in a way that includes a more honest truth about America than the mythologized versions most of us grew up with. For example, a local friend with multiple advanced degrees learned only recently, while on a trip to Tulsa, about the 1921 Tulsa Massacre. That should not be.

New teaching doesn’t have to heap moral culpability for historical sins on contemporary persons. It can be done in a way that presents a greater reality that illustrates a more complete story of the good, the bad, and the slow struggle to meet the high standards we set for ourselves. It may be uncomfortable, but it can’t be ducked anymore, and there remains much to be celebrated in our history.

The new way of teaching history must also address the genocidal conquest of American Indians, the nation’s betrayal of every treaty, and the continued failure in our own day to live up to commitments made to the tribes. In fact, the whole story of the American West has to be something better than Daniel Boone and John Wayne. Again, amidst the tragedy there remains greatness to be honored.

We already have constitutional protections and reasonably well written laws intended to remove obstacles preventing the proclamation that all persons are created equal from being fully realized. Lax enforcement has made them easily evaded. That can change if we want it to change. It will take more than voting for the right people to lead us. It will take something like a mass marketing campaign to sell the American public on why it will be better for those most threatened by change, and those most in need of change. Those in opposition are gifted at it. Those in favor are not.

Constitutional protections have seldom been extended to immigrants, documented or otherwise. Most agree the immigration system is broken, but few know what it is or how it works. As in the past, opposition to immigrants is based on racial prejudice, fear of job losses, and conviction that immigrants are a public burden. Our lack of a simple, easy to understand immigration process has led to a large number of undocumented immigrants, which has made it easier to demonize and criminalize them. Complicating it is the growing awareness that white Americans will soon lose their majority status. We will become a nation where there is no racial majority. Since race alone has been the white claim to the right to set standards for who is an American, the prospect of losing that right is frightening. Clearly, the nation needs a new immigration system, one that is simple, efficient and expedient. It won’t be easy to overcome white suspicion and fear.

Federal grant and loan programs for housing and community development are not well managed. They’re loaded with unnecessary, duplicative reporting requirements that have been loaded on top of one another. The effect is to suppress efficacy of programs intended to help those most in need. I suppose it’s meant to satisfy political suspicions about their use, so administrators try to solve outlier problems by applying additional requirements to the entire system. Community loan and grant programs are among those needing to be restructured to answer a simple question: How can best practices of customer service be implemented?

Meeting the needs of those at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, the most vulnerable and the most oppressed, is what leads to national prosperity for all. It runs counter to laissez-faire individualism and supply side economics, but millennia of historical evidence supports it. What social welfare means changes with conditions, and what it means for us now is universal health care not dependent on employment, access to low income affordable housing equipped for the technological age we live in, and social service programs to educate and assist families that lack social and educational resources to participate fully as responsible citizens. It’s a tricky issue. As a gross over generalization, conservatives believe the lower classes are able to be self reliant if they want to, but they don’t. Liberals believe they want to but aren’t up to it, and need paternalistic social baby-sitting. Most people want to be self reliant, and have the ability. Treating them paternalistically is demeaning, but they still need help, and the nation can provide it without being paternalistic. We must. Call it socialism if you want, we still must.

While national laws get the most press, local and state laws have more impact on ordinary daily life. Many of them, even with good intent, work to maintain patterns of discrimination, and must be amended or replaced. Among them are local zoning ordinances and urban development plans that cement economic and racial segregation, often with no recognition that they do. A significant problem has been permitting land use according to highest and best use measured only by return on profits from development and future rent value. It can also be measured by community standards of quality of life. Gated compounds for the more wealthy do exactly that.

Speaking for myself, I’m committed to quality public education that excludes or short changes no one. I’m suspicious that charter schools are a detour that can’t provide what they claim, and are often excuses to maintain social class distinctions. Moreover, as a member of the Christian clergy, I am unalterably opposed to public funding of parochial education, with a minor exception of aiding transportation and feeding for those that meet acceptable non-discrimination standards.

Restructuring the police function has been a hot topic, one seemingly addressed by little more than competing bumper stickers and emotional fervor. That it must be done, and now not later, is not debatable. But how? I appear to be a lone voice arguing that police work is social work. Training, structure, and organizational culture need to be managed to reflect it. It doesn’t remove law enforcement from policing, it redefines it.

So those are a few thoughts roughly divided between national and local actions that could be taken, but in no special order. You have your own, and I would like to know what they are.

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