Eq­uity should be at heart of ef­forts to nar­row US’ di­vides

Arab News - - Opinion - DR. DA­NIA KOLEILAT KHATIB

The US is wit­ness­ing a con­ver­gence of prob­lems that feed off one an­other. The coro­n­avirus dis­ease cri­sis has led to an eco­nomic cri­sis that is ren­der­ing peo­ple ex­as­per­ated. Mean­while, the bru­tal and ugly killing of Ge­orge Floyd, an African-Amer­i­can, by a white po­lice­man un­leashed griev­ances that have been brew­ing, un­ad­dressed, for many decades.

The most clear and present threat Amer­ica is fac­ing to­day is in­ter­nal di­vi­sion. US so­ci­ety has reached a dan­ger­ous level of po­lar­iza­tion. Law­mak­ers have called for the re­moval of the names of Con­fed­er­ate lead­ers from mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions such as Fort Bragg, home of the army’s air­borne and spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces. Con­fed­er­ate gen­er­als like Brax­ton Bragg and Robert E. Lee were this month branded “traitors” by re­tired gen­eral and former CIA di­rec­tor David Pe­traeus. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Speaker Nancy Pelosi or­dered the re­moval of paint­ings of Con­fed­er­ate lead­ers from the Capi­tol. Such voices are an ex­pres­sion of Amer­ica’s guilt to­ward the slaves who were brought from Africa to build the US as a white na­tion. A statue of Christo­pher Colum­bus was also re­moved from Colum­bus, Ohio. That looks like a no­ble act for some, who see it as an ac­knowl­edg­ment of past sins. On the other side, peo­ple see such moves as a bid to erase his­tory and Amer­i­can her­itage, and a de­nial of the col­lec­tive self. Pat Buchanan, the con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tor, ques­tioned that, if all white men were “can­celed” from na­tional his­tory, what would be left of Amer­ica. Peo­ple on Buchanan’s side ar­gue that those fig­ures who owned slaves lived in a dif­fer­ent time and had prac­tices that were ac­cept­able by the eth­i­cal stan­dards of their time. They can­not be judged by the stan­dards of our time. Those who adopt this world­view con­sider that his­tory should be em­braced and ac­cepted, not erased.

The wor­ry­ing part in this feud, largely be­tween the right and the left, is peo­ple re­sort­ing to vi­o­lence. Though it is only of a low level, vi­o­lence should not be an op­tion used to solve prob­lems. How­ever, pub­lic anger tends to re­sult in vi­o­lence. Heav­ily armed white mili­tias that started mo­bi­liz­ing to protest the lock­down got en­er­gized by the re­cent Black Lives Mat­ter demon­stra­tions. Their mem­bers view far-left move­ments such as An­tifa as a ter­ror­ist threat they need to counter.

But An­tifa is a vague, over­ar­ch­ing idea that does not rep­re­sent a uni­tary or­ga­ni­za­tion. If the trend of la­bel­ing An­tifa as ter­ror­ist de­vel­ops, the coun­try risks slid­ing into a new wave of McCarthy­ism. In the 1950s, the US was swept by a move­ment where sev­eral pub­lic fig­ures, artists and di­rec­tors were ac­cused of be­ing sym­pa­thetic to com­mu­nism. McCarthy­ism re­sulted in as­saults on peo­ple’s civil lib­er­ties, con­tra­dict­ing the sanc­tity of Amer­i­cans’ free­dom. The US should be care­ful not to slide down that path again, as it would widen the di­vi­sions and in­crease anger. While the right de­scribes the ac­tions of some pro­test­ers who re­sort to vi­o­lent acts like throw­ing stones at the po­lice and burn­ing build­ings as ter­ror­ism, those who com­mit such acts view throw­ing a stone as noth­ing com­pared to the po­lice bru­tal­ity they are sub­jected to. The im­por­tant is­sue Amer­ica now faces is how to dif­fuse the pub­lic anger that can lead to vi­o­lent clashes be­tween left and right.

The Congress is in dead­lock and par­ti­san­ship has taken its toll on sug­gested po­lice re­forms. This is­sue is steer­ing much con­tro­versy. The call to de­fund the po­lice has raised alarms. Ad­her­ents to this idea ad­vo­cate dis­band­ing lo­cal po­lice units and re­build­ing them in con­junc­tion with the com­mu­ni­ties they rep­re­sent. How­ever, the right in­ter­prets de­fund­ing the po­lice as a call for an­ar­chy and law­less­ness

Where does this strug­gle lead to and when will it end? When and how can Amer­i­can so­ci­ety, with its con­ser­va­tive right and lib­eral left, achieve rec­on­cil­i­a­tion? Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion can­not be achieved by blam­ing the fig­ures of the past for the plight of to­day’s dis­fran­chised peo­ple, and it also can­not oc­cur by call­ing the other party a ter­ror­ist. Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion oc­curs by di­rect­ing the pub­lic dis­course and pub­lic at­ten­tion to is­sues that can bring peo­ple to­gether. To­day, the di­vi­sive dis­course over chang­ing the names of in­stal­la­tions or re­mov­ing stat­ues of peo­ple who lived 200 years ago should make way for a de­bate on how to make so­ci­ety more eq­ui­table, and how to pro­vide jus­tice for African-Amer­i­can and other dis­en­fran­chised com­mu­ni­ties by im­prov­ing their con­di­tions. Ques­tions and di­a­logue about sym­bols should be left for when ev­ery­one is calm and ready for a bal­anced, in­tel­lec­tual dis­cus­sion, not now in the midst of heated emo­tions.

The first item on the list of dis­cus­sions should be ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion in black neigh­bor­hoods. It all starts with this, as ed­u­ca­tion is the path for peo­ple to im­prove their con­di­tions. Ed­u­ca­tion should be fol­lowed by equal ac­cess to so­cial ser­vices and em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties, the ad­dress­ing of racial pro­fil­ing, and many other life-en­hanc­ing projects for dis­fran­chised com­mu­ni­ties. In­stead of fo­cus­ing on sym­bolic is­sues that do not make a dif­fer­ence to peo­ple’s day-to-day lives, opin­ion-for­m­ers should con­cen­trate on is­sues that make a sub­stan­tial dif­fer­ence and that can lead the US to­ward a more eq­ui­table so­ci­ety.

Change should be put at the heart of a com­pre­hen­sive plan aimed at cre­at­ing a more eq­ui­table so­ci­ety. The key word should be eq­uity. Eq­uity can bring peo­ple to­gether. Eq­uity can over­come peo­ple’s griev­ances and de­sire for re­venge. In a “Last Week Tonight” show with John Oliver this month, an AfricanAme­r­i­can woman com­mented on the burn­ing of a store and a hall of fame in her own neigh­bor­hood by say­ing that it is not “theirs,” as they own noth­ing. She ad­dresses the sys­tem by say­ing: “You are lucky that black peo­ple are ask­ing for equal­ity and not re­venge.” If the is­sue is not han­dled care­fully and no se­ri­ous ef­forts are made to move to­ward eq­uity, the feel­ing of bit­ter­ness could lead to a de­sire for ret­ri­bu­tion, which would be catas­trophic for the Amer­i­can so­cial fab­ric.

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