America at a Tipping Point; We Must Rediscover Our True North

America is at a tipping point. We are heading into an era of dramatic change.

Earlier tipping points were triggered by cataclysmic events: the end of World War II (1945), the assassination of President Kennedy (1963), Osama bin Laden’s assault on New York (2001), and the collapse of the global financial system (2008). The lesson of these earlier events is that we never revert to the prior state in a year or two. Rather, the fallout and changes evolve over many years, usually a decade or more.

Now in 2020, America is facing the greatest crisis since the Great Depression. Actually, we are facing four crises simultaneously that are inextricably intertwined: the racism exposed by the killing of George Floyd, the ongoing spread of COVID-19, the ensuing economic turmoil, and political disintegration caused by extreme partisan cleavage.

Floyd’s homicide spawned protests throughout the United States and the world, revealing America’s racial and economic inequities to the entire world. In contrast to other polls showing a splintered nation, Americans were united in support of the protesters: 84% percent felt the protests were justified while only 12% felt they went too far.

Throughout America, people are asking, “Is this who we really are?” Until we rid America of the scourge of racism and extreme inequality, we must admit that this is who we are.

Three years ago, Penny and I stood at the Jefferson Memorial with our oldest grandchildren, Dylan and Freeman, on the first night of our grandparents trip to the nation’s capital. As we looked above the towering statue of Thomas Jefferson to the words of the Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal,” I asked them whether they believed that.

Now in 2020 the entire nation is questioning whether we believe – and practice – those words.” George Floyd’s killing ripped off the bandage of America’s idealistic façade and revealed the ugly truth that many Americans do not believe we are created equal. Moreover, we are failing to provide those unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” to all Americans, especially people of color.

President Ronald Reagan cited John Winthrop in calling America “the shining city on the hill.”  Today, that shining city is in flames as we closed our doors and became “America First,” which has regressed into America alone.

America has lost sight of its True North, proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. Income inequality is greater than it has ever been. Disparities between whites and people of color are widening, not shrinking. People of color face racial injustice regularly. The middle class is shrinking and struggling to stay above water. Ill health and diseases like COVID-19 fall much more heavily on people of color. Those on the lower rungs of the social-economic ladder carry the burdens of underpaid jobs, lack of health care benefits, part-time work, and the ranks of the unemployed. For many, the American dream seems far out of reach.

It is easy to stand to cheer the American flag and sing the nation anthem, but much harder to make the promises of July 4, 1776 become reality throughout the nation. As we approach the nation’s 244th anniversary, we are more divided as a nation than we have been at any time since the Civil War. As Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Lincoln strove to unite Americans amid the turmoil of the Civil War as he summoned Americans to have “malice toward none and charity toward all” and “bind up the nation’s wounds.” Today we have strayed far from his admonition; all too often, we seem to have malice for many and charity only for people in our tribe. After decades of progress in desegregating our society, we have re-segregated our schools, communities, churches and friendships.

Now is the time for Americans to set aside our differences and cast off our anger, prejudices, and disdain for people who look or believe differently than we do. We are all Americans – white, black, brown, or yellow; native-born or recently immigrated citizens. Yet often we do not treat each other with respect or dignity, especially if their differences make us feel uncomfortable.

This is not just a national problem that can be solved with a new president. The change must come first from us as individuals – in our hearts and minds – and then by working within our communities and our cities. That is the only way genuine and lasting change takes place.

First, ask yourself, what can I do? Then ask, what can we do together? At my wife’s suggestion, I made this list of simple and immediate things I can do right now:

  1. Call my African-American friends to see how they are feeling and understand their point of view. Hear their personal experiences with discrimination.
  2. Tour the riot torn areas of Minneapolis, led by a local resident, and talk to people about their hopes for rebuilding. Explore how and why the health and economic burdens of COVID-19 have impacted lower social-economic groups more severely.
  3. Watch documentaries like “The 13th” and “Just Mercy” and read books articulating the history and viewpoints of African-Americans like The New Jim Crow and White Fragility.
  4. Listen to cable television stations, check out websites and read newspapers articulating perspectives different than those you normally consider. For me this includes Fox News, Breitbart, American Conservative and Federalist. For others it might include The New York Times, The Atlantic, or The New Yorker.
  5. Engage in dialogues on social media with thoughtful people whose viewpoints are different in order to understand their perspectives.
  6. Listen to what our neighbors are saying and feeling. Explore what we can do together, such as creating a neighborhood block party or joining National Night Out.

If these ideas stimulate your thinking, join in, and make your own list.

At this tipping point, most American hunger for change, but this will only happen if we as individuals vow to change ourselves and broaden our perspectives. Only in this way can we as Americans rediscover our True North, by reuniting around America’s founding principles.

Rediscovering America’s True North requires unified leadership from all elements of society, our elected leaders and community, business, civic and social service and health care leaders, representing all racial and ethnic groups. This is the only way to restore the soul of America.

Only then can we get the country back on course toward the promise of a better life to which we all aspire.

Only then can we be the beacon to the world that provides equal opportunity for everyone to work hard, advance along the economic ladder, and realize our unalienable rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Only then can we renew the American dream.