Head-to-Head: You are lucky to live in America — if you are a straight, white, rich man

Josie Schuman, Managing Editor

This column is part of a “Head-to-Head” series. Read the counterargument by Dave Meredith. 

Sept. 11, 2001. One of America’s most painful tragedies that changed the nature of the country forever. Less than a week ago, we commemorated the thousands of innocent lives so senselessly lost in this horrific terrorist attack. However, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and a wave of police brutality, the commemoration of 9/11 struck me differently this year. 

I’m not going to act like I know what it was like. I was two years old on 9/11. I don’t remember anything except what my family has told me. I did not experience the panic, fear and sorrow. I did not unexpectedly lose a beloved family member or friend. 

9/11 was a tragedy, that’s a fact. The loss of Black life at the hands of the police is a tragedy. Almost 200,000 people dying from COVID-19 is a tragedy. 

I am not trying to compare losses, and I extend my sincere respect and compassion to all those who were touched by this act of terror. But, I am trying to highlight a pattern. These tragedies have been met with wildly differing reactions. After 9/11, there was a completely united response. How then are the tragedies of the coronavirus pandemic and the senseless deaths caused by police brutality dividing us like never before?

It seems hypocritical … ironic … strange, for lack of a better word, to commemorate the tragedy of 9/11 while other tragedies rage on. Of course we should honor the lives lost during 9/11, but the other lives being lost right now should also demand national attention and action. 

What do these differing reactions say about America? What do we value? Who do we value? 

“In the wake of 9/11, the speeches of George W. Bush and his supporters asserted the radical distinctiveness of the U.S. with a new belligerence,” said Ian Tyyell, an Australian historian known for his work on American exceptionalism. “We have all heard it: It is ‘our freedoms’ that Islamic terrorists hated; they wished to kill Americans because they envied this exceptional inheritance.”

Photo by Jagz Mario from the Creative Commons

We responded to this catastrophe with a renewed love for our country, one deeply rooted in our history. Since the birth of our nation, we have been exceptional and done things differently. We are unique, special, better. After all, we were the meek colonies that broke away and defeated a global superpower. “The U.S. is not just a bigger and more powerful country — but an exception,” said Tyyell. “Exceptionalism requires something far more: a belief that the U.S. follows a path of history different from the laws or norms that govern other countries.”

Freedom. Rights. Independence. Is it these “inherently American” ideals that make us the exception? Perhaps. But, I argue that there is another American exception, characterized by Blind Patriotism. Toxic Individuality. Systemic Discrimination. 

We claim to champion freedom for all Americans, but our definition of American is restricted to those with the specific identity of white, straight, cisgender, rich males. Not everyone who lives in this country enjoys the freedoms that we so often boast.

We can talk about freedom when Black people are free to get into their car without being shot in the back, when immigrants are free to seek asylum from their dangerous home countries, when members of the LGBTQIA+ community are free to get healthcare and when Native Americans are free to reside on their ancestral lands in peace.

I acknowledge the privileges that living in America provides to me as a person who benefits from white privilege, comes from a middle-class family whose parents both have professional degrees, and can pursue my own college degree. But people with other identities will undoubtedly answer differently and have answered differently. 

This summer, we have witnessed the disturbance of White America, or the awakening depending on how you take it. This has been received by rallying cries of “Preserve our history!” or “Take back our America!” It’s funny to demand the return of something that was never rightfully yours — or not exclusively yours, that is. 

The loss of privilege feels like oppression, as the popular adage goes. I mean, I get it. It must be tough when the perfectly well-oiled machine created to benefit you stops doing just that. While white people whine about the freedoms they have lost, others continue the never-ending fight for the freedoms they never had.

What will our current conception of freedom look like when the minority becomes the majority? According to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau, people of color will outnumber whites in 2043, and one in three residents will be Hispanic by 2060. Who, then, will assume the identity of American and reap its full benefits? 

This is a crucial time in our country’s history.

A crossroads. 

We can condemn ourselves to complacency, seeking refuge in American exceptionalism where our fragile white egos can do no wrong and social progress goes to die. Or, fueled by the momentum of nationwide protests, we can wake up from the deep sleep of power and privilege, emboldened to destroy and recreate what has become the American identity.

Now that would be exceptional.