America is on fire. The global pandemic has killed more than 100,000 Americans and put more than 40 million out of work. Brutality against Black Americans has emerged from Georgia, Minnesota and elsewhere, in videos that show the banality of American racism — the complete disregard for Black lives. And, somehow, instead of having a real conversation about solutions to our structural problems, improving our criminal justice and education systems, our government is pumping trillions of dollars into backstopping corporate America, “indefinitely,” while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promises that the next stimulus bill will the last.
This is America in 2020.
Yet, in a disconnect so stark it appeared to come from another universe, SpaceX and Nasa launched two men to low-earth orbit. SpaceX, a company founded just 18 years ago, then landed the boosters from the flight onto a floating dock in the middle of the ocean. The computation, resources, ingenuity — the sheer scale of the systems and their precision that it takes to do this is incredible. It’s truly, deeply impressive.
This, too, is America in 2020.
But these two divergent stories, presented so starkly on a day in May, have brought around an unflinching question: How is it that America can manage technological innovation on an unrivaled scale, while completely disregarding its own people?
Generations have thrown their bodies into the great maw in pursuit of the American Dream. Immigrants from Ireland to Guatemala, migrants from Oklahoma and Michigan — farmers, industrialists, technologists—centuries built on the backs of dreamers and their pursuits. Capitalism promises a difficult but fair game. You run the gamut and get the prize. But it was never fair.
Race and gender absolutely play a role in the ability for someone to get ahead. And I’m not talking about Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates levels of “get ahead;” I’m talking about the ability to earn enough to be in the middle class.
Women are actively discouraged from STEM careers, and have to defend their cognitive abilities from coworkers, despite study after study that show they outperform their peers when their gender is disguised. If you are a man, I want you to consider this for a moment. Your accomplishments are not recognized or are discounted because of your gender. You are defined by an attribute that you have no control over. This is to say nothing of refuting unwanted advances, fighting off aggressive and entitled men, and walking a tightrope in the way you look.
Black Americans are three times more likely today to have Covid. They are incarcerated at five times the rate of white Americans. Combined, Hispanic and Black men comprise 56 percent all incarcerated people, though they are 32 percent of the US population. And, as in the case of George Floyd, they are far more likely to die from a police officer’s actions. Consider this too — you have to fear for your life from the people who are there to protect and serve your community. At what age does this insidious fact become a way of life? When do you decide that you’re better off going it alone?
And all of this is exacerbated by a lack of wealth, because in America your purchasing power is your social worth. This is true regardless of race or gender, but Hispanic, Black and Indigenous Americans are more likely to be below the poverty line.
At one time, America could hide its lack of empathy behind aspirational words like “freedom” and “individuality” and “self-determination,” but when you’re bound to the fate of your race or gender, how hollow do these terms sound?
I entitled this post the case for hope, and I’ve detailed some of the many, many social problems that surround us right now. But we have a lot of reasons to be hopeful. We have an election year, where we can change the government. We have decades of tireless advocates who have identified the country’s ills, and for the first time in 50 years, we have a new generation that is beginning to take over the political will of the country. Our demographics changing. The country is becoming more diverse and awoken.
It is hard right now. And, I thought for a moment, what I would say to Keedron Bryant, who sang so beautifully, “I just want to live.” I would tell him that our country needs you for this moment most of all. That pain and hardship shape our experience, but often what comes out of the other side is all the better for it. That his example, and the example of so many, who succeed in spite of their circumstances has been the best of this country, but that we can and must do better.
I am optimistic because there are people like Keedron Bryant who will know an experience that I will never know, and will choose life over death, will decide to grow instead of destroy.
Every seed planted is a garden.
This is America in 2020.
We have proven that we are capable of anything, of mastering the clay and dirt and rocks that we were born from. It is time that we master empathy for one another.
We can and we will, because we are Americans, and when a challenge arises that requires the best of ourselves, the brightest and most determined among us rise to meet that challenge.