I thought I knew.
I mean, I knew that we have had some ugliness in our history–starting with how the first white settlers treated the native inhabitants. They came to this country fleeing persecution and seeking new lives for themselves and their children–but frequently and brutally mistreated the people who were already here…determined to wipe them out.
And we had the ugly stain of slavery, when we again chose to see people of a different color and religion as somehow “less than” those who had power and control. We even fought a war over that–but we are still struggling with the impact of those relationships.
Let’s not forget the lynchings that grew out of the post-war period–when slavery proponents were trying to find ways to keep former slaves “in their place.” Those lynchings aren’t ancient history. The last “official” lynching took place in 1968, although 30 years later, the death of James Byrd by being dragged behind a truck could fit the definition of lynching. And it wasn’t just men who were lynched. Women were as well–as was 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose “crime” was to whistle at a white woman.
We’ve also had the time when we were happy to have Chinese immigrants here to help build the railroad…to do the laundry of those trying to make their fortunes by digging gold. But we didn’t want them to be part of our society–not really.
There was also the time when we allowed our fears of “the other” to make it “permissible” to force Japanese-Americans into internment camps, simply because of their background, not because of any verifiable concerns.
And at the same time, we denied asylum to thousands of people fleeing genocide in their country of Germany because of their religion…and yet, we “adore” Anne Frank’s diary. Her father had tried to get his family to America for safety–but we made that impossible through our immigration restrictions.
I had thought and hoped that perhaps we were past that…that as we looked back at our history, we could see how ugly that was and we could move closer to what we have held up as our ideals.
But as I have watched these last few years, it sometimes seems like we have learned nothing from our history.
Yes, we have had our first African-American president–whose hopes and goals were blocked by individuals who made no secret of their intention to block anything positive that he suggested. And he and his family were subject to racial epithets that came directly from the time of slavery.
And now we have an administration that has called people of color names that no one should be called. People of a non-Christian faith have been demonized and refused entry. Others who are fleeing persecution–just as many of the early American settlers did–are being denied a hearing and, in fact, are often being forced into internment camps.
And most recently, critically ill children who were brought to this country legally are now being told that their permission to stay here is withdrawn–without any medical evaluation–and told that they must leave or be forcibly deported. The medical care they need is found only here–and forcing them to leave is sentencing them to death.
Is this who we are?
We have taken pride in considering ourselves as a leader of the free world…as a “light on a hill”…as a place of safety and asylum. But our actions in the past have said otherwise…and our current actions definitely say otherwise.
So who are we, really? I’m not sure I know any more.