On Wednesday, January 20th 2021, we saw Joe Biden become the 46th President of the United States. In his inauguration speech, he spoke of “Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation.”
The word “unity” has been a heavily echoed theme, not only through Biden’s rhetoric, but also in the discourse of the media and many Americans seeking some respite in the aftermath of the Trump administration. In just the past year, we’ve witnessed countless protests for racial justice and widespread social unrest which causes some to believe that we’re a country more divided than ever.
Yet, such an argument begs the question: Was there ever a time in history when America was truly united?
Think about it: Was there any time in your adult life that you recall American unity?
Some people point to the height of American unity as being the period following the 9/11 attacks. One op-ed circulating the internet expressed a longing for the “America of September 12, 2001”, claiming that this was a time in which Americans were most unified as a country.
Sure, maybe there was an increase in patriotism and nationalistic unity in the post-9/11 era for some Americans, but who was excluded from that “unity”?
I’m old enough to remember the America of the post-9/11 era, and I learned that American unity can often mask other forms of division. In this time period, I had my earliest introductions to American xenophobia, as well as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry.
As a child of post-9/11 America, I learned that, in theory, unity is great. Yet, in practice, American unity is an illusory concept. Working off of the rhetoric of uniting a divided America in order to “Bring our country together again” is almost as ahistorical a concept as “Make America Great Again”.
When we hear people speak of unity in this country, we also have to ask what exactly that unity entails. Unity with whom? Unity under what principles?
Are we going to unite with the 567,715 people throughout the country experiencing homelessness? Are we planning to unite those who have criminal records or are incarcerated in this country? Are we planning to unite with the 69,550 migrant children held in U.S. government custody? Are we uniting with those without access to proper healthcare, food, clean water or education?
Whose unity do we seek?
If we’re speaking of uniting under the banner of simply being Americans, that’s an idea that gives me pause. As a Black man in the U.S., I struggle with the concept of uniting with all Americans, mainly because not all Americans see me as their brother. Not all Americans have my best interests at heart, not politically, socially or economically.
Additionally, Black people are one of groups of people who have been in the U.S. going back hundreds of years, were forced to labor to build this country and develop its primary wealth for free. Yet, America has never fully embraced us.
Calls for unity are hollow unless we’re ready to do the work to address and fix where the division comes from. Did it occur to any of our politicians that these divisions we’re seeing in society exist for a reason? Often, deep-rooted, systemic forms of inequality and injustice create and feed the division of which they speak.
Basically, we’ve been divided, for a long time.
Some might ask, “what about having hope is for a better world?” I do have hope for a better world, but my hope doesn’t lie in politicians or political unity, in fact, it doesn’t even lie solely in the U.S. My hope for unity is on a global scale through justice and equity.
My kind of unity is one in which Western governments don’t further exploit the resources of places commonly referred to as “Third World countries” and “developing nations”. The unity I’m looking for doesn’t involve wars. The unity I’m looking for requires us to rethink the relationship between law enforcement and Black and Brown people globally.
My idea of unity isn’t limited to settler-colonialist borders or under the banner of one flag.
If I know anything about unity it’s that real work toward it demands sacrifice and change in the power structure. The question is, if we really want unity, what are we willing to give up in terms of power and privilege? Many people in high places are willing to speak of peace and unity, but few are willing to sacrifice anything to get it.
So maybe it’s not unity that politicians and media are talking about. Maybe they’re referring to something else — like comfort. Maybe they just want American complacency. Maybe they just want the American status quo.
Regardless of what they want, if their vision of unity neglects & alienates the most marginalized people among us, I don’t want it.