Two visions of America’s past — and future

“I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.” And just to make sure everyone in the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference and those watching at home got the message, former president and current presidential candidate Donald Trump repeated that last line: “I am your retribution.”

Trump revisited his “American carnage” 2017 inauguration speech to again paint a picture of an angry and divided America — with a promise to lead a charge into battle if elected.

On the same weekend, President Joe Biden traveled to Selma, Ala., to commemorate the 58th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, that day on March 7, 1965, when marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge heading to the capital city of Montgomery for voting rights and for justice in the name of civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson — who was killed by an Alabama state trooper — were met with violence from law enforcement as the world watched.

The result of the marchers’ resolve and sacrifice was the Voting Rights Act, signed by Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965.

“No matter how hard some people try, we can’t just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know,” Biden said Sunday. “We should learn everything — the good, the bad, the truth — of who we are as a nation.”

And, after renewing his call to strengthen those same voting rights citizens had demanded that day in 1965, Biden concluded: “My fellow Americans, on this Sunday of our time, we know where we’ve been and we know, more importantly, where we have to go: forward together.”

At CPAC at National Harbor, Md., last week, the speaker’s list included Jair Bolsonaro, the former president of Brazil, whose followers attacked his country’s capital city after his loss; and Kari Lake, still in election denial about her own November defeat in Arizona’s gubernatorial race. Notice the theme?

Attendees could choose between sessions on “Finish the Wall, Build the Dome” or “No Chinese Balloon Above Tennessee,” but there was no room for a lesson on the American history made on that Selma bridge 58 years ago.

There’s no escape from any country’s complicated history

America is so invested in its exceptionalism that it sometimes seems to take any glance abroad as heresy. When even delving deep into America’s reality has become taboo for attention-grabbing politicians eager to whitewash the present and past, looking beyond our shores for both lessons and warnings is certainly a no-no. Me, I like to explore how other countries tell their stories and learn just what they think of ours.

That’s not to say I lean into criticism of my own country overseas. In fact, I seem to grow more defensive about America the farther I roam, sort of like when someone else talks trash about the family members you’re constantly feuding with and you reflexively jump in to sing their praises. I reserve the right to get cranky about America’s shortcomings — as a citizen who wants it to do better. But if anyone without skin in the game chimes in, I immediately start waving the Stars and Stripes.

It’s funny, though, how a recent trip to Portugal illuminated commonalities rather than differences in human nature when it comes to how countries build the stories they tell about themselves.

Looking for a relaxing vacation, I left a country embroiled in how history should be taught and memorialized, and traveled to one where similar debates are taking place.

Portugal is confronting how it represents the country’s involvement in the international slave trade, which spanned the 16th through 19th centuries, as well as 1960s and 1970s battles to retain control of colonies in Africa. How does any country decide which parts to highlight and which details it would rather gloss over or leave out altogether?

I visited castles and forts where conquerors and kings resided, opulent palaces, beautifully preserved. In Sintra, the brooding Castle of the Moors is a stalwart reminder of their rule over the region centuries ago. I stood next to the giant Monument to the Discoveries in Belem, a tribute to the country’s so-called Age of Discoveries, with Henry the Navigator at the prow and other names we learned in our own history books here — Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan.

It is an amazing and impressive structure, the backdrop for countless tourist photos, including mine.

But, of course, those discoveries that gathered wealth, so much from the trade in human beings, came at a cost. Are the enslaved and the free Black people who helped build the country just a footnote in the official story?

When tuneful nostalgia turns toxic: The old days weren’t good for everyone

When songwriters Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager penned “Everything Old Is New Again” decades ago, I wonder if they could have imagined the jaunty, oft-covered tune would one day be turned into a blueprint for some very dangerous doings.

In 2023, turning to the past to find solutions for present challenges is taking the country down roads far darker than the song’s images of mellow trumpets, Bacardi cocktails and “dancin’ at your Long Island Jazz Age parties.”

Today, those glancing “backward when forward fails,” as a verse explains, have landed on child labor and Jim Crow — not exactly the good old days. And the citizens of every age whose lives could be turned upside down don’t feel like singing.

In Iowa and Minnesota, bills working their way through the system float an idea that was abandoned when even the cruelest among Americans couldn’t stomach policies that permitted children to toil in sweatshops and on assembly lines, stealing time from education that might have led to brighter futures. Some of the work could possibly endanger their lives.

But what’s a country to do when there is need — the need for low-income families to earn more money and for businesses to fill hiring goals? Something once thought repugnant can look pretty seductive if the alternative, trying to level the playing field with empathetic policy, is out of the question. So, why not reach back to a time when inequality was the point, tolerated by those who benefited and ignored by those who didn’t feel the pain?

And by jobs, I’m not talking about babysitting or scooping ice cream.

“Legislators in Iowa and Minnesota introduced bills in January to loosen child labor law regulations around age and workplace safety protections in some of the country’s most dangerous workplaces,” The Washington Post reported. “Minnesota’s bill would permit 16- and 17-year-olds to work construction jobs. The Iowa measure would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work certain jobs in meatpacking plants.”

What could go wrong? Well, the Labor Department has been taking an interest, with investigations already looking into how much industry is or is not protecting younger workers.

Those actions haven’t stopped other states from exploring ways to loosen regulations.

Such work will predictably affect poor Americans more than most. I hardly think wealthy kids would choose working in a meatpacking plant over an internship in a chosen field. Such internships or jobs with little or no pay have been nonstarters for a young person who has to help the family pay the bills.

And, in this country, with its persistent racial wealth gaps, minorities might no doubt disproportionately be the ones working longer hours in more dangerous jobs.

There’s nothing wrong with hard work. At a young age, my grandfather toiled on oyster boats off the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a job so tough that the move to the big city of Baltimore and the life of a longshoreman on the docks were an improvement. But in his time, he had fewer options. Young people today certainly do not, and shouldn’t be too broke to exercise them.

Considering America’s history, it’s no surprise that minorities might be the first to feel any rollback of rights. In Mississippi, separate and unequal seems the reason for changes in the court and criminal justice systems, changes that have Jim Crow written all over them.

“A white supermajority of the Mississippi House,” reported Mississippi Today, “voted after an intense, four-plus hour debate to create a separate court system and an expanded police force within the city of Jackson — the Blackest city in America — that would be appointed completely by white state officials.” State Rep. Edward Blackmon, a Democrat from Canton, Miss., referenced a state Constitution that removed voting rights from Black Mississippi citizens when he said during the debate, “This is just like the 1890 Constitution all over again. … We are doing exactly what they said they were doing back then: ‘Helping those people because they can’t govern themselves.’”

This is a state where districts are so gerrymandered that bills can sail through the legislature with the votes of its white GOP members, and not a single Democratic one. With the state’s history of citizens attending separate schools and churches, of living in separate neighborhoods, of treating its Black citizens as children who need to be controlled, the proposed bill looks less like a return to the past than business as usual.

That’s the problem with fond longing for a rosy past that never was. It ignores the reality of those who survived only because of the hope of a brighter, safer, more equitable future.

Is the American dream for everyone? Just ask Ilhan Omar

Is American citizenship conditional? The country certainly will welcome the immigrant, the newcomer — “as long as.” And that list is long. As long as you don’t criticize. As long as you don’t make a mistake. As long as you fit a certain, undefined ideal of “American.”

Watching President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday night, I realized how much decorum matters only for some, and an impossible “perfection” is demanded for others who will never clear the bar.

A wild-eyed Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia can stand and point and yell, interrupting the president of the United States with her disrespect, and instead of feeling any shame for acting out, will probably replicate the moment to raise money from constituents and fans who love the show.

After all, it worked in 2009 for fellow Republican representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who no doubt earned extra points because the object of his ire was Barack Obama, the first Black president of the United States, a man who had to be “perfect.” That “You lie” has since been used against him doesn’t mean Wilson would change a thing.

While witnessing Greene’s act, I remembered the scene on the floor of the same Congress about a week ago, when Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota mounted a futile defense before Republicans, as predicted and promised, cast her out of its House Foreign Affairs Committee for words used to criticize policy on Israel, something she had quickly apologized for years ago.

The irony is that some of the same colleagues who ultimately voted against her — including Greene and the speaker of the House — had never felt the need to walk back their own comments, including a now deleted Kevin McCarthy tweet about Democratic donors trying to “buy” an election, employing the same trope members of the GOP and some Democrats had accused Omar of using.

Their Americanness would never be called into question.

In Omar’s presentation, I was struck by the riveting photo of herself as a child, staring straight ahead, both ready and unsure of what would come next after fleeing one war-torn country and spending years in a refugee camp in another.

That the little girl is now a congresswoman in the U.S. House of Representatives should be Exhibit No. 1 in the resilience of the American dream, the tale of someone starting out with little who has risen to the top.

But since the girl-turned-congresswoman is Ilhan Omar, a Black woman, a Muslim and born in Somalia, her story will always be suspect for some. Instead of seeing her global experience as something that could inform any debates on a committee devoted to exploring U.S. policy in the world, it has become a cudgel to threaten when she steps outside the boxes she is put into.

What has been the go-to command for politicians from Donald Trump to GOP Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas? They never hesitate to tell the woman who is as American as they are to “go back,” to “leave.” At the same time, they are insulting the voters she won over and the Americans she represents.

After Tyre Nichols, can they finally say those three simple words?

Black Lives Matter.

Now, can everyone understand the desperate, defiant power of those three words? Can all those who tried to act as though they didn’t get why the phrase needed to be said — over and over — finally stop pretending?

After viewing, listening to, reading about the video that laid bare the torture of Tyre Nichols by an armed gang, operating under the cover of law in Memphis, can anyone honestly insist that it’s the slogan that’s the problem?

Is there anyone out there still wondering that if only protesters’ signs had read “All Lives Matter,” the police would have looked at Tyre Nichols and seen a son and a father, a handsome young man who loved his mother’s home-cooked meals, who photographed sunsets and practiced skateboard tricks?

Would tacking a “too” onto the phrase have made the police listen to the 29-year-old on the night of Jan. 7, or answer his questions about why he was being detained? Would it have stopped the police from barking out 71 confusing, conflicting commands in 13 minutes, as The New York Times calculated, from punishing his slight body mercilessly when he was unable to comply?

When politicians call for nonviolence from those weary of being treated as “less than,” where are the calls for nonviolence from those charged with keeping the peace?

America is a country steeped in violence — no explanation needed after a litany of mass shootings in this new year. And now, the country has experienced a countdown to the release of a horrific video of a Black man being treated, as one of his lawyers put it, like a “human piñata.”

More proof, though none was needed, that Black Lives Matter is not in the training in any of the 18,000 police departments with different rules and regulations but depressingly similar outcomes.

When corporate activism takes center stage

How do companies achieve success, attract investors and decide how to center their own investments while also making a difference in the world? Can a company’s value and its values align? And, what is the plan for navigating these issues with knowledge and nuance? On this month’s Equal Time podcast, host Mary C. Curtis talks with Jonas Kron, chief advocacy officer for Trillium Asset Management, responsible for leading and coordinating the company’s work to engage companies on their environmental and social performance. He also serves on the board of US SIF: the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment. On the show, Kron explains a trend that is not that new. The podcast is co-produced with the FiscalNote Executive Institute.

The insidious power of keeping it vague

“Say what you mean and mean what you say,” unless you want to keep everyone guessing. Alas, vague is in vogue, the better to sow confusion about not-so-honorable intentions — and get your way in the end.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has mastered this dark art, most recently as he ordered thoughtful discussions of African American history to end before they had begun, with studies of other cultures somehow escaping his ire.

A pilot of an Advanced Placement course on the subject has run into the buzz saw of the state’s “Stop Woke Act.”

The Florida Department of Education’s letter to the College Board said the content of its AP African American studies course “is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value,” showing by its use of “inexplicably” that it had no earthly reason for a decision intended to close, not open, young minds.

Try teaching the history of the United States of America with “just the facts,” and you might end up with lessons on the enslavement of men, women and children, lynching, redlining and Jim Crow without judgment, without pointing out the evil, the inhumanity and the apathy of those who looked the other way while reaping the benefits of racist oppression.

In the name of not causing trauma in today’s students, Florida policymakers are erasing the trauma of the families and descendants of the Floridians lynched in Tallahassee, the state’s capital city, where the same lawmakers obviously close their eyes when passing markers acknowledging that chapter in American history.

Educators may want to fight back. But with jobs and livelihoods at stake, there are risks. ProPublica talked to a number of professors without tenure who are anxiously changing course names and weeding out terms such as “white privilege” to dodge cancellation and firing. But it’s difficult to avoid something that’s so hard to pin down, knowing all the while that disgruntled students who might be unhappy about a grade know exactly which “woke” cudgel will get immediate results.

So, for those instructors, it’s better to just stop. Just stop any mention of gender politics and the roots of racism, just stop connecting the dots between modern wealth and health gaps and how America’s institutions were constructed with discrimination the motivating factor.

Just stop answering questions from students of every race who are supposed to be curious, but apparently not too curious.

Don’t tell the governor that “woke” comes from a 1938 “stay woke” caution from blues singer Lead Belly, advice for Black Americans who wanted to avoid a fate similar to that of the falsely accused “Scottsboro Boys.” And by all means, don’t teach that in a Florida school. Because in 2023, “woke” means whatever DeSantis wants it to mean.

Unfortunately, Florida has set a template for other states, such as South Carolina, where Republican legislators have proposed a bill already being criticized by organizations such as the state’s American Civil Liberties Union for what it calls vague language that could discourage teachers from settling there.

A vague election law has already had its desired effect in, yes, Florida. After voters overwhelmingly approved opening up the franchise to former felons who had served their time, Republican legislators said, “Not so fast.”

Many of those hopeful voters, after being registered by confused election officials, themselves unsure of exactly what the law said, were swept up by DeSantis’ “election integrity” task force, arrested by law enforcement officers who seemed puzzled about the details of the law the terrified, targeted citizens were supposed to have broken.

Of course, those hauled out of their homes in handcuffs in well-publicized raids were mostly African American, with the white transgressors in The Villages given not much more than a slap on their presumably Republican wrists.

Charges may have been dropped in most cases, but do you think minority folks with a former brush with the law would risk another by voting?

Call it a pattern of intimidation by obfuscation.

Telling the truth, onstage and off, so history doesn’t repeat itself

When members of Congress gathered on the Capitol steps last week to remember the events of Jan. 6, 2021, and honor those who defended them and democracy itself, there were glaring gaps in the heartfelt tableau.

That Friday morning, two years to the day after insurrectionists swarmed the U.S. Capitol with the intent of overturning the results of a fair election, many Republicans were too busy with a call sorting out the Kevin McCarthy speaker of the House drama to attend, though GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania was spotted among his Democratic colleagues.

It should have been a commemoration that transcended party and politics, a brief acknowledgment of the truth of what happened that terrifying day. Instead, memories of a mob breaking windows and pummeling police officers while calling for the heads of then-Vice President Mike Pence and then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, have, in some quarters, gone poof!

That’s the danger of “whitewashing” history, a term I use with intention. It’s a practice neither shocking nor original, but it blocks any progress toward Americans understanding one another and this country we all share.

Thankfully, culture provides plenty of opportunities to fill in the blanks — and to reflect.

A play I’ve seen twice in recent weeks is a prime example. It illuminates a time many seldom think about, a history others would like to forget despite its imprint on injustice that remains in the present day.

“A Soldier’s Play,” first produced for the stage in 1981, set largely in the barracks of an all-Black Army unit in Louisiana in 1944, is a drama, a mystery and a history lesson — one that’s more relevant and necessary than ever at a time when any mention of this country’s past that doesn’t come tied in a shiny bow has become one more battle in America’s culture wars.

Why a lost election left Adam Frisch (and his son) optimistic

The announcement this week that Republican Lauren Boebert had won her race, and would be heading back to Washington to represent Colorado’s 3rd District in the House, hardly came as a surprise to her Democratic opponent. The surprise is the optimism of Adam Frisch — about Colorado, America and politics — after coming so close (a 546-vote margin close) to upending predictions and winning the seat.

“We’re all very proud of how well we ran and the way that we did it,” he said when I spoke with him on a Zoom call last week. “We took the high road throughout the whole journey, and that resonated with a lot of people.”

Frisch had already conceded before the recount, citing Colorado’s “very, very strong election laws” and “very high level of election integrity” and finding comfort in that. Based on her well-documented mistrust of government, I doubt Boebert would have accepted defeat quite so easily.

He is human, so “as great as the moral victory is or was,” Frisch said, “it certainly would have been better to have a victory victory.” But I believe Frisch when he says the 20,000-plus miles he traveled during his campaign were more than worthwhile. That’s because I had already met the other person on our call, his frequent companion in his trips throughout the district, the candidate’s 16-year-old son, Felix Frisch.

That any journalist covering politics, culture and race might occasionally succumb to cynicism will come as a revelation to exactly no one. One remedy for me turned out to be teaching a group of high school juniors and seniors and incoming college freshmen for two weeks, as I did this past summer, in a School of The New York Times Summer Academy course in political commentary. Felix was one of the students.

We explored Washington, D.C., including stops at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and, on an early excursion, the memorial to third president Thomas Jefferson, where we had a chance to consider the complicated legacy of one of America’s Founding Fathers.

On the walk back to the Metro on what must have been one of the hottest days of the summer, Felix told me he had been campaigning for and with his father, traveling the Colorado district to convince voters that Adam Frisch would represent their needs better than incumbent Lauren Boebert would.

I listened as he spoke excitedly of meeting voters in corners of the district few candidates had taken note of, and I thought to myself, “Too bad your dad doesn’t have a chance.”

But though it’s natural for any son to think his dad can do anything, Felix was on to something.

The Boebert I covered at the North Carolina Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Salt & Light Conference in September was ripe for a challenge, with her emphasis on grievance as she cast herself as victim in a kind of holy war.

Adam Frisch thought so too.

Georgia voters spoke. Is the GOP listening?

One of South Carolina’s senators must have an incredibly low opinion of Black Americans, their intelligence and judgment. The evidence? His sad, almost laughable closing argument as he barnstormed for Herschel Walker, who lost his runoff race challenging Democratic incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock and won’t be joining Lindsey Graham as a Republican colleague in Washington, D.C.

Graham did not talk about Walker’s proposals or plans for the people he would represent in the state of Georgia. He never mentioned Walker’s experience, which consisted of long-past football glory and running some businesses with a debated degree of success. In fact, Walker’s buddy barely let the candidate speak in TV appearances where Graham tried for “sidekick” but instead came off as “handler.”

No, Graham’s final arguments for the Donald Trump-endorsed Walker went something like this absurd statement he yelled more than stated on Fox News: “They’re trying to destroy Herschel to deter young men and women of color from being Republicans.”

Graham said, “If Herschel wins, he’s going to inspire people all over Georgia of color to become Republicans and, I say, all over the United States.”

No, senator. In fact, the reality turned out to be quite the opposite.