It’s easy to buy into America’s mythology, glorify the Constitution’s framers, forgive slavery, justify Manifest Destiny, allow genocide, proclaim emancipation and forget the disenfranchisement of millions. But history without context isn’t history, It’s ignorance.
Perspective is key to understanding and coming to terms with America’s injustices. In a society that continues to be dominated by straight white men, perspective can be lacking. Its absence can be seen and heard in presidential candidates and leading politicians demonizing Syrian refugees. It’s easy to say that refugees of the Syrian Civil War want to spread radical Islam and change the American way because people want to believe it. Fighting against the tidal wave of propaganda is difficult.
Getting over the cognitive dissonance from seeing a refugee crisis as a result of America’s foreign policy failures in the Middle East can be a bit much to ask for from a typical person, but this is what’s required of us to allow for a more just world. Most of the two thousand refugees are moving across the world to get away from the atrocities in Syria, to create a stable and happy future for their children. Most would have preferred to stay in their native country if it wasn’t being run by a genocidal dictator. But ignorance on an immense scale allows the facts to be manipulated to push a political agenda.
This lack of perspective doesn’t just end with xenophobia. The ignorance of facts is also the cause of the centuries old American tradition of terrorizing African Americans. This includes Jim Crow, burning crosses and lynchings that have taken on a modern form in Voter-ID laws, poisoned water and police brutality. Understanding the black perspective in America is almost impossible for anyone not born into the culture just in terms of the severe racism that permeates through every aspect of society specifically geared against African Americans. But that isn’t an excuse to lack empathy.
With higher unemployment rates, higher incarceration rates and higher dropout rates, black men and women face an incredible onslaught of discrimination in their day-to-day life. Despite these statistics, the historical context of the way African Americans were treated, and even with recorded footage of a black man being choked to death for the crime of selling loose cigarettes, many Americans quickly dismiss the cry of “Black Lives Matter” as whining and reply that “All lives matter.”
American history isn’t without precedent for these prejudices. Refugees flowing from Italy in the aftermath of an earthquake in the 1900s faced severe discrimination in America. The same happened to the Irish escaping a ruined economy and famine. But these groups were eventually absorbed into the growing definition of what an American is, even as the word continued to exclude Native and African Americans. The modern discussion of Mexican migrant workers in the southwest draws an eerie parallel to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigration to protect American jobs. But even with these events to learn from, America continues to make the same mistakes. They continue to draw from the same well of hatred to target different groups of people.
The only way for America’s infected wound of bigotry to heal properly is to understand what caused it. Ignoring it will only make the situation worse as America approaches a point where non-hispanic whites are becoming a quantitative minority and people of color begin another wave of civil rights protests. Acknowledging the terrible injustices perpetuated against minorities in America and working to understand their perspectives is the only way for racial tensions to ease. America has to begin meaning more than just skin color; it needs to reflect the ideals and hopes of the millions who helped build it.