June 4th, 2020
I have failed. Make no mistake. In what ways? Let’s look:
• The USA has not taken climate change seriously.
• The USA has not adequately addressed its endemic racism.
• The USA has enabled the greatest disparity between rich and poor in modern history.
• The USA has refused to accept that the right of women to control their own bodies should not be negotiable.
• The USA has valued gun ownership above support for education leaving a generation under-informed about history, the world, science, and so much more.
• The USA’s delusion of its own exceptionalism has reinforced self-destructive isolationism.
• The USA’s persistent and recurring xenophobia has distorted human interaction, civil society, and the respect for civil liberties.
• The USA congratulates itself on it being the land of opportunity while embedding economic classism more deeply than ever before.
• The USA, alone among industrialized societies, refuses to grant health care, childcare, and elder care to all of its citizens.
• The USA has the most misanthropic anti-Constitutional POTUS in its history.
Is this enough? It is a litany of failure.
Last week, a colleague challenged a group of us. All the evidence you need that we haven’t done enough, he said, is to look at the facts. The last 3 months have underscored the fragility of our health system and the financial well-being of millions of citizens – through no fault of their own. The last week alone has underscored the depth of our systemic and cultural racism. There have been all too many other recent examples that underscored every single item on the list.
Yes, I have failed.
Yesterday, I attended one of the most moving protest gatherings I have ever attended. It was right here in Bethesda and it was organized exclusively by high school students. Since the mid-60’s, I have attended countless numbers of protests, marches, rallies, sit-ins, teach-ins, and vigils. Most mattered; some were moving. None moved me as much as this one.
Here, in the privileged alcove of Bethesda, a bastion of presumed upscale liberalism, we listened to personal narratives of racism experienced by teenagers of color – in their lives, in their schools, by their families – in this community. One speech was read by a proxy for a student who feared for her life if she attended. Others told of dismissive attitudes by teachers, administrators, fellow students… to say nothing of graffiti and words and implicit discrimination. Right here in Bethesda.
The teenagers organized their rally to support each other – never imagining that many hundreds of us would join them; the crowd extended for several blocks. [There is a photo by a tv station showing one older bald white guy in a blue blazer sitting surrounded by several hundred teens. I wonder who that old white guy might be? For readers who might not know what I look like, I happen to fit that description.] Before beginning, the teens demanded that we all “social distance”, wear masks, and pledge to participate peacefully.
What got me, what made me weep behind my COVID-19 mask, was when a few student speakers spoke of their grandparents marching for racial justice in the 60’s when they were high school students themselves. I am older than those grandparents! Over 50 years later, we are still here. Yes, I have failed.
But, you might ask, “why do you keep saying ‘I’?” Shouldn’t you be saying “We have failed?” There are even a small number of readers who have known me long enough to say: “What about when you did this?” Or “preached that?” Or “went to the line for…?” Or called out that racist comment? Why put myself down if, perhaps, I have may have done more than some others?
And that may be true. However, this “I’ is not some hubris driven belief that I could have changed anything in that list alone. It required and still requires many to be addressing them together. But “we” is a collection of “I”s and the “we” only works when each of us, individually, accepts the burden of what each of us can do. “We” simply means we do those things with a commonly felt mission.
Also, if I am being honest, whatever I have may have done, however worthy it might have been, is less than I could have done. I may have been too reticent to speak as forcefully as I should have when I was still a person of some influence. I may have not been as visible in settings where it might have made more of a difference. I may have under-supported the social justice initiatives that have been fighting this systemic fight for much too long. I daresay most of them have no idea that I am a fellow traveler.
Yesterday’s teen led gathering left me shaken. What have we wrought that our grandchildren must experience this sense of abandonment, of fear, of suspicion, of challenge? After all, over the last several years as I settled into my mid-70’s, my apologia pro vita mea has been: “with experience comes sagacity”. It seems to be true in the philanthropy world where I have spent the last half of my career. It seems to be true in the international interreligious realm where I am still privileged to be treated like a respected elder.
Make no mistake, though, It surely is not true in knowing what to say or advise young people who are on the cusp of young adulthood looking to create a world that overcomes the failures our generation has left for them.
Yes, we have failed them. And, since, as I said above, every “we” is a collection of “I”s, it is not hyperbole to say, “I have failed.”
I and we must assure that the sad legacy of racism, misogyny, inequities, and the other cancerous and destructive failures of our society end. These young people deserve no less. If we succeed, the next generations won’t have to look back at us and wonder where we have been, or 50 years hence, have to weep as another generation painfully asks “why.”