A Presidential Prescription for De-Polarization

by | February 10, 2021

Joe Biden took office just a few weeks ago. The message of his inauguration was one of unity, tempered by the myriad challenges before us: COVID-19 is running through the country almost unabated and emboldened white supremacists are threatening additional violence. While crisis often unifies a country, compliance with the most basic public health measures that would help to control the spread has become a sign of political division. 

In the face of such resistance to the truth, what can Biden do to bring the country together, particularly after the insurrectionist violence that culminated in the deaths of five people and the temporary occupation of the U.S. Capitol? 

Unity without accountability allows dangerous ideologies and myths to take root. This is a key lesson of the aftermath of the civil war. It should be clear that the attacks on the Capitol were a symptom of a fraying sense of decency, empathy, and recognition of our common humanity, not the cause. 

Signs of division are everywhere. 

Hate crimes in the U.S. have risen. The murder of George Floyd and sharply contrasting responses to the Black Lives Matter protests that followed are one piece of evidence. Another is the growing anti-immigrant hostility in schools. In a recent survey, 60 percent of U.S. schools reported ant-immigrant bullying. The crowds at the Capitol on January 6 seemed to have no problem with white supremacist symbols, including t-shirts proclaiming that the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust were not enough.

People of color, Jews, immigrants, LGBTQ Americans, and others have long argued that the consensus of civility that others believed held our nation together is nothing but a front that works to silence those that sought to expose inequity and injustice. We need a new consensus, and to get there, we need a new narrative of who we are as people and a nation.

To replace the explicit and implicit narratives driven by white supremacy, Dr. King and other adherents of non-violence spoke about their belief in the “beloved community,” an inter-racial democratic vision that arose from their understanding of Christian teaching. Others have sought to unite that country with a master historical narrative, framing the country as a nation of progress or a nation of immigrants. The challenge with these, of course, is that they ignore our history of slavery, the genocidal removal of Native peoples, and 60 plus years of Chinese exclusion. 

And, yet there is something powerful about the story of movement and migration in the United States. All of us are descendants of people who have moved, by choice or force, across borders or within, in this generation or in the distant past. Despite stereotypes, we know that immigrants and migrants are good for our communities, as they bring fresh perspectives and entrepreneurial energy. Over time we come to understand that migration is a good news story. Migration stories, while they are not the same, follow predictable patterns: Life before migration, arduous migration journeys, and the challenges of adjustment and acculturation. 

We’ve found that by sharing stories of migration, people create connection. Migration stories reveal courage, resilience, negotiation and survival. In our work with teachers and students, we’ve watched how in other’s stories, people find themselves, and by listening to others who are willing to listen to them, people are able to open themselves up to hear that the differences in our experiences often reveal inequities of power. 

Migration is at the core of the American story. We are Spanish settlers reaching our coastlines. Pilgrims arriving in Plymouth. Africans forced to migrate through slavery. Our overlapping experiences have shaped our nation. We are Irish, Italians, Chinese, Mexicans, Eastern European Jews and so many others searching for new opportunities.  We are Vietnamese, Armenians, and Central Americans seeking safety after wars and violence. And we are today’s new immigrants arriving from every nation. We are a nation of movers, from the Westward Expansion, the Trail of Tears, and the Great Migration of African Americans to the North. We have moved for adventure or a better way of life or simply had no choice. But we moved and had to start anew. 

In sharing these stories, two amazing results emerge. First, we begin to shift our perspectives, which often begins with simply recognizing that we have one and it has been shaped by our experiences and the narratives we tell. And second, we learn to communicate across differences, finding ways to connect with people whose experiences both overlap and diverge from our own. 

President Biden has talked about asking people to take the next hundred days to focus on defeating the virus. Hate and division is a virus as well. Education is not a vaccine, but it is where prevention begins. 

We call on the President to end the assault on education that began in the Trump Administration with attempts to suppress teaching about the more difficult histories that are part of the American story. Education can be an inoculation, preparing us to fight the spread of hate. To strengthen our immunity to bigotry, the President should use his bully pulpit to encourage education about migration, about sharing stories past and present. While some of the stories are celebratory, others reveal more difficult truths. Altogether, they bring us back to one of our foundational narratives, one that we have not always lived up to – E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one.

About the Author

Adam Strom is the Director of Re-Imagining Migration, an organization whose mission is to decrease bias and hatred against young people of diverse origins, and help rising generations develop the understanding and habits of heart and mind that are necessary to build and sustain welcoming and inclusive communities. Before helping to found Re-Imagining Migration, Strom was a long-time member of the senior leadership team at Facing History and Ourselves.

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