An honest accounting of facts

by Inclusive Communities Board Chair Greg Ramirez

What does it mean to love one’s country or community? How do I reconcile my identity as a proud American with America’s past and present transgressions against marginalized groups? Many in our country have determined that any criticism of our collective past, or our institutions, is “unpatriotic.” Some even suggest that such criticism amounts to a hatred of America. I’ve always wondered how such people can willfully ignore not only indisputable statistics, but also the lived (and increasingly video-recorded) experiences of so many of their neighbors. After years of hearing excuses for systems that have failed so many, at some point I recall thinking that maybe we should consider our love for our country, our history, and our communities in the same way that we might love family and friends who are flawed.

In the last several years, and especially since June 2020, many of our fellow citizens have conflated awareness of racial inequities in both policing and our criminal justice system, and being “anti-police.” Even some of our elected officials right here contend that it is “un-American” or “contrary to Nebraska values” to explore the idea that our institutions – voting, legal system, education, etc. – still carry the legacies of slavery, segregation, and other forms of systemic racism. Indeed, segregation was still around when my parents were born! To me, to think that such institutions still bear these scars is, sort of. . . . well, intuitive. Ten years ago, I would not have thought that such an idea would be provocative. Today it is. Yet while I believe the legacy of racism and discrimination exists in our society, I still deeply love my country despite those difficult aspects of its past (and present.)

I have come to view a love for country and community like the love for a close friend or family member. I may love a friend or family member almost unconditionally, but that love does not require me to willfully overlook their destructive traits. I might treasure their optimism, perseverance, or playfulness, but I would not overlook their past struggles with substance abuse, gambling, or abusive behavior. I can love the friendliness or sense of humor of a friend, but still not ignore or excuse instances of poor judgment, selfishness, lack of self-awareness, or other characteristics that have caused others, or even themselves, pain. I want them to be better, but this requires an honest accounting of facts. Why should it be any different with our country or community? Stated simply, it should not be different. At least not for me.

We can love our country and cringe at some of its past and present behavior. We can read the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address with profound awe and pride. Yet observable facts, both then and now, show that some of our most sacred ideals are still not fully realized by all Americans, simply because of their immutable characteristics like race, religion, sexual identity, disability, or cultural background. A person can deeply cherish his or her Southern heritage, but also acknowledge that the Civil War was fundamentally about preserving slavery, and that perhaps his or her ancestors were not on the right side of history. Ulysses S. Grant, a hero of the Union during the Civil War and future president, issued General Order No. 11, expelling “Jews, as a class” from his military Department. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement, ordered the internment of American citizens during WWII based solely on their ancestry. These are facts. Uncomfortable facts, to be sure. John Adams, while acting as defense counsel at the murder trial of British soldiers who fired on a crowd of Bostonians in what we now refer to as the Boston Massacre, famously said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” The British soldiers, hated as they were by Bostonians, were acquitted based on self-defense.

Accountability demands acceptance of reality, whether for our country, our communities, our loved ones, or ourselves. This cuts in all directions, and we must be willing to accept uncomfortable truths about what we think we know. Facts cannot be, must not be, ignored. By acknowledging and accepting reality, we can move forward with a clearer mind toward a better future, and with a sense of grace and forgiveness. The best way to love our country is not to deny or ignore its past or current faults, but to love it, despite those faults. Unless we accept the reality of our country’s past, including its mistakes, we cannot effectively strive to make our country better.

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