By Norbert Mao
During his January 11, 1989, farewell speech to the nation Ronald Regan said: “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”
But this ideal conception of a great and exemplary nation is slowly giving way to a nightmare as those who previously viewed America as a beacon of hope now cast doubts on whether American idealism is authentic. Cynicism about America’s commitment to the ideals it preaches are on the rise. The inbuilt bias people of color confront everyday, the unwarranted police brutality targeting black people and the walls of hate being erected by the bigoted rhetoric of some leaders, challenges America to renew its covenant with its founding ideals.
The killing of George Floyd is just one more chapter in a book filled with the blood, sweat and tears of black people. Where is the justice and mercy that John Winthrop preached about on the deck of the Arabella as they approached the shores of Massachusetts? With every new case of police brutality and impunity America gets more polarized. Hardliners on both sides of the divide are cheered on. Those who speak of high mindedness, hope and healing are ridiculed as naive and out of touch with reality. Yet it is to them that eventually everyone turns when all that remain are smoldering ruins.
But America remains a paradox. How can black people, who are only 3 percent of the population, be responsible for over 50 percent of violent crimes in America? How can 90 percent of the population in America own only 25 percent of the nation’s wealth and how can 1 percent own 40 percent of all the wealth? Is it enough to preach grit and hard work when the problem is structural?
The American paradox reminds me of a story of a man who went to a fast food takeout restaurant one late night. He parked his car outside and went in. He made his order. He whiled away the waiting time looking at pictures on the restaurant wall. It took some time because it was late. The restaurant was about to close. The owner was alone with an assistant tidying up the place and counting the day’s earnings and putting it in a paper bag. Finally he was told that his food was ready. He received the paper bag and went to his car. When he opened the bag there was no food. Instead there were bundles of small denomination notes tied together by rubber bands. Instead of giving him his food, the restaurant owner had given him the day’s earnings! His conscience pricked him and he went back to the restaurant and gave back the money to the restaurant owner and got his food. The restaurant owner was so grateful.
As he turned to go back to his car the restaurant owner stopper him. “Wait a minute!”, he said, “We need to take a picture and send it to the local newspaper. Event the Mayor ought to hear of this. You’re one of a kind. Honest people are scarce these days.” The restaurant owner wanted the story of this man’s honesty to be told. They posed for a photo which the assistant took. Then the restaurant owner noticed that there was a lady seated in the co-driver’s seat. “That must be your wife. Let her join the photo”, he said. The man declined to let the lady join. The man was married and the lady in the car was not his wife. Now that is what you call signs of contradiction.