An Open Letter to America
When I first arrived at your shores, I was a freshly-minted college graduate from India. I had never until then tasted failure, and hope was brimming in my breast. You, America, made me spread my wings. In doing so, I stumbled badly, first in a relationship, then in founding a tech startup. Both were big, public failures, and I feared I would be judged and written off by my colleagues and friends. But in each case, you lifted me up. So I dreamed a bigger dream and pursued it doggedly, secure in the knowledge that if failure were to clip my wings again, you would still believe in me, heal me, and make me soar once more.
And now it is you whose wings are clipped! It is you who has failed in a big, public way. And it is we, your people, who now must believe in you, help you heal, and make you soar again.
You are wounded, my America. This wound you carry of racism goes way back, to the dark days of slavery, and, even earlier, to the ways in which your natives were treated when we began dreaming the American dream. You kept this wound hidden, away from our parlors, parishes, and press. When it became too unbearable, you sought to heal it by amending the Constitution for the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth times, but the racists among us fought back, finding ways to go around the laws. Waves of reformers came in the ensuing decades to make a renewed push for equality, sometimes bringing the wound back into the harsh glare of public attention before you conveniently hid it again. Part of the wound got patched up, but it largely still remained unhealed. And now, you can no longer keep it hidden. Cameras are everywhere. Now the world knows what your people of color have long borne witness to that the wound is still active, raw, and hurting.
This time we need to heal this wound, permanently. We have to make sure you do not fall into that same trap you have in decades past. Let us by all means enact new laws and vote in new leaders, but let us not declare victory prematurely. New laws and leaders will help, but the human mind is a scheming mind, and those among our people who wish to keep racism alive will find ways around your laws and leaders, just like they have over the last one hundred and fifty years. Just read this book to see how diabolically ingenious evil minds can be.
Instead, we have to find a way to reform as many of the racists’ minds as possible. The most critical education gap in America isn’t poor performance in reading, writing, and arithmetic. It isn’t low STEM scores. It is the blighted belief that one race is superior to another. Inner poverty that is more crippling than outer poverty. We have to find ways to disabuse people of such racist views.
I know, you never wanted this. You’ve tried. You’ve preached the gospel of equality for so long. And yet, some still cling on to racist attitudes. Do not despair. We may have failed at completing this mission in times past. But it is you, America, who taught us that failure is never final. One of your own, the fierce women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony, once said this when she was asked at the age of eighty-five if she felt defeated. She had waged on for over fifty years to win women the right to vote – with no apparent success. “Defeats?”, she replied, “There have been none in my life and work. All our defeats have been glorious victories, in that the cause of women has never been presented to the voters of the country without winning very many of them. We never lose. We are always progressing.” We too have made progress in the cause of stemming racism, and we have won very many of our people, though not enough to come even close to declaring victory.
We need more Matthew Stevensons. As a student in my class at Columbia Business School, Matthew once shared the following story. At college, he would host a Shabbat dinner gathering for his friends every Friday at his dorm apartment. In his freshman year, the college community discovered that among the new students was Derek Black. Derek’s godfather was David Duke, the former grand wizard of the KKK, and Derek was the heir-apparent to the white nationalist movement. While other college students ostracized Derek, Matthew, an Orthodox Jew, decided to invite him to his Friday Shabbat dinners. Over time, Matthew and his other dinner guests were able to not just befriend Derek, but reform his beliefs. Derek later reflected, “The stuff that white nationalists believe—it's factually incorrect. But you can't throw facts at somebody and change their mind. It matters who's saying it and whether there's mutual respect.” Matthew and Derek should give us ample hope; people’s minds can in fact be changed.
But we have to go one step further. We have to go beyond changing people’s minds. The wound of racism runs deep, America, extending all the way into your heart. The racial violence that has recently been captured on so many viral videos makes it clear that when those acts of violence were being committed against George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and others, the perpetrator was feeling no compassion at all for the victim. Their heart was stone cold. That is the only way they could have inflicted what they did in those moments.
Now why might that happen, America, when we the American people have so much compassion? We have among the highest rates of volunteerism and charitable donations in the world. This spirit of our people has always inspired me. What happens to our compassion in those moments where acts of racial violence are committed? Allow me to speculate.
We have become very good, as a nation, in dividing humanity into the good guys and the bad guys, and in celebrating the use of violence against the bad guys. We are introduced to this good-guy/bad-guy way of thinking from a very young age. We see it in our TV shows and in our video games. The press gives us a steady diet of bad guy stories. When you, America, go to war, the other side very quickly becomes the bad guys. Heck, when we went to war with Iraq and the French refused to support us, we even renamed French Fries as Freedom Fries.
Many of us believe as parents that we must not spare the rod on our children, turning them briefly into the bad guys that we need to inflict pain on – while there’s ample evidence that this has numerous negative long-term effects on our children, including making them more prone to aggression. We do this in our contact sports. We do this when we bully classmates at school. We do this in our politics. In our social media. In our bar-room brawls. We even do this with our loved ones, when we want to hurt them because they have hurt us. When we combine racist beliefs with this tendency toward dividing people into good guys and bad guys, and celebrating violence against the bad guys just as much as we celebrate charity toward the good guys, then racial violence is the natural consequence.
But this is just human nature, you say. We all want to lash out at the bad guys when we are mad. How can we ever put a stop to that? What if our true nature, our untapped potential, was not an agitated, aroused, angry self but a peaceful, wise, humane self? What if we all worked on nurturing peace within us and then brought it into outer manifestation, with ‘malice toward none, with charity for all’? Let’s take a moment, America, to reflect on these words from the individual who we the American people voted as the most admired person of the 20th century – Mother Teresa. “I was once asked why I don't participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”
Perhaps our ultimate aim should be not simply to create an anti-racist nation, but a pro-humanity one. Perhaps it is only then that we will have collectively achieved the American dream – the one enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
And fret not that the whole world is watching this moment of your epic failure. Because in fact, the whole world is hurting, the whole world is reflecting, the whole world is seeking. They wish to stem their own racism too. They wish to cultivate their own humanity, too. For they, too, dream the American dream, of forging a society that grants to all its people the rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
So lead the way, America. Show the world how to become the best version of yourself. Soar, bald eagle. Future generations are waiting in your wings.