The Painful Path to Unity

Redressing injustice and rebuilding community will force us all to acknowledge our shortcomings. But we have to get started.

Politicians speak of unity as if it were an unqualified good. We are the United States of America, after all. A united nation is one where we have solidarity with each other, are civil with each other. A united country is a productive country: the trains run on time and political life is orderly and efficient.

Yet there is a price to be paid for what we sometimes call “unity.” Sometimes, consciously or not, we use “unity” to fashion societal arrangements that bury legitimate grievance and social dissent beneath consensus, where they may be comfortably ignored. This is the unity that undergirded the bipartisanship of the 1950s and the simmering subjugation of Black Americans in the Jim Crow South; that made acceptable the second-class status of women as non-voting citizens in America until 1920; that made it possible for mainstream society to ignore the dramatic rise in hate crime against Muslims, Sikhs, and Arab-Americans in the aftermath of 9/11. This is the type of unity that progressives are now fearful of—one that returns our politics to a state of complacency with respect to social justice.

Conservatives, on the other hand, fear a unity that subordinates conservative values to the social consensus of the left. They worry that conservatives will be forced to shoulder moral culpability for the backward forces of American society, so that we may move forward “together.”

What Americans agree on is that we are tired of the culture wars. We fear a trajectory in which the cold wars of culture become the hot clashes of fists and bullets. This outcome is no longer theoretical. Political violence is rising in America. President Biden’s calls for unity sound a welcome note of relief: The president of the United States, at least, seeks a calming of the furies in favor of peace and reconciliation. This is a fact that, in contrast to the vitriol and incitement of our previous president, ought to be welcomed by all. Yet this call to unity falls beneath the shadow of the unspoken fears so many Americans have: that unity marginalizes; that unity obscures the truth; that unity facilitates oppression and violence.

We do need unity in America. We need peace and order for us to flourish. We also need justice and the correcting of genuine social inequities. There is a path to this kind of unity. It is a painful path, and narrow is the gate that leads to it.

The painful path to unity will not be the first priority of most Americans.

Most Americans will move into the years of the Biden administration concerned, among other things, with surviving this pandemic and avoiding economic ruin. They have the material concerns of hearth and home, life and death to deal with. The cause of reconciliation is not likely to be the issue upon which most Americans focus their moral or mental energies tomorrow. Nor should it be. Most Americans have more immediate concerns.

At the same time, the cause of unity cannot be the domain of high-minded intellectuals, moral philosophers, spiritual crusaders, psychologists, and political idealists alone. Ordinary Americans must be the artists in our renaissance of civic understanding if such a thing should ever come to be. We require a unified vision of an America that could be but has never been.

This may be impossible. But it is certainly necessary.

If meaningful unity is possible, the path must begin with a redrawing of the line demarcating the hemispheres of our polarization. It must include a reweighting of the moral responsibilities we imagine ourselves as having to each other. We may feel polarized in America along the axes of left and right, Black and white. But the core division that must be identified and spoken to in American life is the divide between the privileged and the marginalized—in ways that go beyond what you might think.

I live an immensely privileged life. I am half African-American, but my privilege exists not merely despite my color but also, in my case, because of it. I grew up biracial in a liberal, multicultural community where people like me were celebrated. In a culture hungry for diversity but not always comfortable with the culture clashes true inclusion can produce, I came of age filling a space as the missing piece required for full integration: the safe representative of Black America.

This acceptance, and that of other well-integrated, suburban Black kids (whether mixed race or not) and kids of color, was overwhelmingly earnest. It translated into opportunities that I may not have made the most of but were repeatedly presented. I was ever conscious of the fact that America—the America I was presented with, anyway—was rooting for me. That, in truth, has been the experience of my entire life.

This is not the experience of millions of white kids across America. It is not the experience of millions of people enduring rural poverty in the Deep South, nor narrowing opportunities in the industrial corpses of the rust belt, or diminishing life-spans in drug-addled and sometimes violence-ridden neighborhoods littered across Appalachia.

I certainly can remember immigrant children from Sri Lanka and elsewhere who had difficulty fitting in. Their strange accents and unfamiliarity with our sports left them feeling out of place. The rest of us took every opportunity to remind them of it. But I can also remember a boy named Donny from Tennessee who fared no better.

Donny and I had things in common. Our fathers were white men from small towns in Tennessee. But as a boy, my father moved to Los Angeles with my grandfather, who parlayed success in the music business back in Nashville into massive success in the record industry in L.A. His children grew up in Beverly Hills. They soaked in the pristine panache of 1960’s Hollywood. They became teachers, editors, and sophisticated musicians. Though my grandfather’s money had little direct impact on my life growing up (his fortune had diminished by that time), my sensibilities were sophisticated, even at the age of eight or nine. Teachers found me bright and articulate. I was someone worth encouraging. Strangers would compliment me on my speech, my hair, even the “beautiful color” of my skin.

Donny, however, spoke with a thick southern twang that conjured stereotypic images of backwoods and chewing tobacco. He wrote half his letters backwards and couldn’t reliably be counted on to start his work on the right side of the page. He listened to country music and Pink Floyd. Donny was “dumb.” Donny was a “redneck.” Donny was teased and isolated. We didn’t know how Donny got to be in a class with the rest of us. But it was clear he didn’t belong.

Kids with names like Suganesh got much of the same or worse from other kids, particularly when they were “fresh off the boat.” But if anything made it worse for Donny, it was that there was no culture of charity for kids like him. When an immigrant student would join our class, he or she would receive a special introduction. We were told to be patient with them while they adjusted to their new environment. Some special interest would be taken in them. Just like, in a different way, special interest was taken in me. No special interest would be taken in kids like Donny.

Yet the struggles of millions of poor white Americans are real. Their lack of privilege is evidence, in some respects, of the consequences of falling into the wrong categories of white. The shortfall of empathy for them from far more privileged quarters of American society inflames the trends that have led so many of them into conspiracy culture and populist rage.

There is a belief among poor, working-class, rural, religious, and often southern White people that “we”—cosmopolitan, multicultural, academic, political, coastal, and cultural elites—do not want them. And we don’t, by and large. We don’t push for their representation in universities. We don’t generally put them in mainstream movies and television except as bigots and bad guys. We often frame the struggle for social progress in American history as the struggle to overcome their values, their culture, and their identities as the bane of real equality in America.

Pointing out that I, as one individual Black man, am possessed of more privilege in my life than millions of white people in America is not to claim that the historic struggle of African-Americans and other marginalized groups is roughly comparable to that of poor white people today. It is, instead, to say that privilege and marginalization in America are not mere matters of color. My story points to the larger inequity that faces a greater number of Black people in America for falling into the wrong categories of Black. Black kids that I grew up with—with ethnic names, “urban” dialects, and harder lives—received less in the way of social access and special support. These students were patronized by a cultural status quo within an educational system that wished to signal its tolerance. But meaningful empowerment of children of color is not proven by special affection for “well-adjusted” kids like me.

Polarization in America does not just exist laterally between the parties. A diagonal polarization crosses from elites and the privileged on each side of the partisan divide, severing the bridge of empathy with marginalized Americans who populate each side’s political base. When poor whites hear liberal politicians, pundits and professors talk about “white privilege” and the ignorance of Trump voters, they feel the same revulsion Black Americans feel when confronted with the chidings of elite conservatives who say that Black people’s problems would be solved if they would simply stop shooting each other and find a job.

Our empathy with America’s marginalized becomes divided. We are forced to cherry-pick which of the disenfranchised are worthy of our understanding. We obliterate the common cause that ought to exist between all people who are shut out of the American dream. Thus, we fail to keep the suffering of all Americans in plain view.

The path to unity does not end with our learning to empathize with the struggle of Americans across the spectrum of suffering. But it is a necessary step towards unity. We must re-center the moral imperative of this cause away from a shallow nostalgia for civility and towards a new convergence—one that recognizes the needs of Americans who suffer from the breakdown of our societal capacity to unite in pursuit of the common good.

We must not be afraid to learn from the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., who advocated for the uplifting of poor whites in the Appalachian South. He sought to organize them within the scope of the Nonviolent movement without ever suggesting that the sufferings and circumstances of poor whites and Blacks were precisely the same or equal:

“... I have come to see that [there] must be a massive movement organizing poor people in this country, to demand their rights at the seat of government in Washington D.C….and by that I mean all poor people...And for those who will not allow their prejudice to cause them to blindly support their oppressor, we’re going to have Appalachian whites with us in Washington.”  

The foundational teaching of King’s nonviolence was that we must recognize the mutual human dignity of all suffering people. From there we may move together towards justice and community.

Community is key. In King’s estimation, community in the ideal sense suggests a society within which we do more than merely tolerate each other’s presence across the lines of our differences. It suggests a society in which we positively affirm the dignity of one another and embrace an ethos of agape love (read, goodwill) through which we are determined to see both our friends and enemies in private and public life. The whole canon of King’s thought and teachings aspired towards this end.

Those who would advance a meaningful unity in America must commit to modeling this ethic of goodwill. If we can agree that marginalization is present throughout the body politic, we can prepare ourselves to admit that no political party and no major sector or institution of American life—be it government, church, academia, or national media—is without fault in our collective failure to strengthen democracy and advance the good of all the American people. We can then turn to fostering a culture of goodwill among leaders in our country in every sector and city, from the halls of government to our PTAs, and trust that there is willingness to do good on the “other side.” From there we build towards community.

What do we share as Americans? Presumably, we share a belief in justice, equality, and freedom. We also share the reality of pain and suffering, of struggle and progress in America. We disagree on how our ideals should manifest. Some of our histories are weighted with more tragedy than others. But collectively we might imagine that, as a general rule, we as Americans wish to live up to these values. Our individual backgrounds explain why we see our history differently. Unity comes in recognizing these contrary commonalities as foundational for a dialogue of goodwill. 

Goodwill in politics means that politicians must speak to and about each other with more charity. But the incentive structure of partisan politics rewards polarization.

Goodwill in the workplace could incorporate diversity and inclusion models, institutional practices that neither unduly punish conservative opinions nor gloss over the challenges people face on account of their identities and cultures. But the orthodoxies that define these practices are hard to revisit.

Goodwill on campus might mean allowing the unorthodox to hold court in class, so long as they do not invite violence and trauma. But, to whatever degree ideological intolerance on campus is a problem, it will not vanish on its own. It is the means by which certain people command cultural influence.

Goodwill in the media could manifest as intellectual honesty from pundits and a willingness to engage different points of view without demonization. But there is money to be made by appealing to the baser instincts of the American people.

The work of unity is the labor of loving our enemies until they become our friends. Sometimes it produces inspiring stories of transformation. More often, it is thankless and frustrating, but moves the needle of our hostility ever so incrementally away from extremism and towards tolerance; or even away from mere tolerance and towards respect. In some cases, our enemies really do become our friends. Other times they spit in our faces and do not change at all.

There is goodwill left in America. We now have a president who, on the whole, seems willing to speak to it. The question is whether we as Americans are willing to accept that the path to unity—at least a unity worth having—is a painful one, littered with disappointment in others and in ourselves. But we must walk it anyway.

John Wood, Jr. is a writer, speaker, musician, and former nominee for the U.S. Congress. He serves as national ambassador for Braver Angels, a bipartisan organization based in New York that facilitates political and cross-cultural dialogue.