On this Labor Day, with a presidential election nearly upon us, it is worth reflecting upon the situation in which we find ourselves as a nation. States continue to grapple with the devastating economic and social effects of the pandemic; cities continue to be convulsed by violent riots and vigilantism, as we grapple with the very real gaps in our society. Anxiety and fear prevail in many parts of the country, particularly on the economic front, even as we awaken to issues of systemic racism and social justice.
As we watch this moment unfold, there are those among us who believe that all is well and that what is happening across the nation is simply people taking advantage. They are wrong: All is not well when our national leadership stokes division, and when we see massive protests in cities from New York to Los Angeles. At the same time, there are those who would question the very idea of America, saying that the original sin of slavery fundamentally corrupts us and makes us unviable as a nation. They are likewise wrong.
To be sure, we did not live up to the ideals upon which our nation was founded. Our history includes deep injustice and terrible oppression, much of it codified in law. And while we fought a civil war to end slavery, we cannot forget that the vestiges of slavery remained with us for very long after, with separate schools or lunch counters persisting into the lifetimes of many alive today.
Nonetheless, our past failures are not a predictor of our future successes. The question we must all ask ourselves is, “What comes next?” To paraphrase a great leader, Gen. Colin PowellColin Luther PowellCivil rights museum to honor Michelle Obama, Poor People's Campaign In Afghanistan, lines between aid and government agendas are blurred The Powell Doctrine could have helped us avoid the Afghanistan debacle MORE, we must never lose faith in America, as her faults are our own to cure. If we lose faith in our founding ideals — even if our forefathers didn’t live up to them — we cannot hope to find our cure.
On the surface, no doubt, our nation looks broken. Yet, the challenges we see today are not fundamentally borne from a lack of faith in our nation but, rather, from a deep, driving sense that we might fulfill the nation’s original vision. This is a moment not to blame but to embrace the challenges in front of us — as President Kennedy said, to accept “our own responsibility for the future.”
The path forward, frankly, is not that complex. We must openly acknowledge the tragedies that occurred to our fellow Americans on the path to freedom. Slavery and its horrors should not be swept aside, nor glorified by monuments that disregard the experiences of so many. We must include the history of all Americans in our statues and monuments, in our museums, in our education system. This doesn’t mean ignoring our history or tearing down every founder’s statute but, instead, using our history as a teaching opportunity.
Likewise, the illegal use of force by police must be corrected through the kind of training that our military receives. To be clear, we need a great police force, and most police officers work with the right code of ethics. We also must work to eliminate violence in our communities, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. Such efforts will fail, of course, if we simply defund the police, but they also will fail if the police aren’t trusted. We must restore trust across the board because a police force that is lauded in the suburbs but reviled downtown cannot be effective.
As we tackle these challenges, it is worth remembering that our nation was founded by rebels, many of whom were far from perfect but who created a nation that provides freedoms and opportunities unmatched around the globe. This is true even in this moment of great challenges. In creating this nation, our founders talked about the ideals of America in absolute terms — and if they all may not have lived up to all of these ideals, we still can.
Where do we go from here? As a nation, we must look to create an America where freedom, opportunity and equality are truly in the grasp of all. We must therefore make fundamental, multi-systemic shifts in our national culture. We must embrace the idea that we are not looking to deconstruct but, rather, to invest in our future. We must fundamentally reshape our educational system at the state and local levels. We must build real pathways to encourage the creation of wealth and establishment of safe living spaces for all racial and socioeconomic groups. We must rebuild relationships in our town halls, churches, synagogues and mosques. And we must each serve our families and communities, striving to be the hand that lifts someone up or is the role model for someone who is struggling. All it takes is one of us to offer a glimpse of hope, to navigate someone out of the depths of poverty, abuse and despair.
Ultimately, we must remember that our fate does not rest in the hands of a few but in each of us, individually. This is the strength and beauty of the American spirit — the rebellious, passionate spirit that started a revolution and continues to drive us to fight for freedom and equality. That spirit lies within all of us and, when uncovered, can be the unifying force that enables us to weather today’s storm and come out stronger. To do so, we should remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
“With patient and firm determination we will press on until every valley of despair is exalted to new peaks of hope, until every mountain of pride and irrationality is made low by the leveling process of humility and compassion; until the rough places of injustice are transformed into a smooth plane of equality and opportunity; and until the crooked places of prejudice are transformed by the straightening process of bright-eyed wisdom.”
Gen. (Ret) Keith B. Alexander is the former director of the National Security Agency and founding commander of the United States Cyber Command. He currently is chairman, president and co-CEO of IronNet Cybersecurity, a start-up technology company focused on network threat analytics and collective defense.
Julie M. Bailey is a clinical social worker who has worked in the field of child welfare and trauma for 19 years. She is a therapist at a sexual abuse treatment program and an adjunct professor at University of Albany’s School of Social Welfare.