Editor’s Note: Jonathan Rosenberg, a professor of US history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center-CUNY, writes on race relations, classical music and international affairs. His most recent book is “Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War through the Cold War.” Manu Bhagavan, a professor of global history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center-CUNY, writes on human rights, international affairs and South Asia. He is working on a biography of Madame Pandit, one of the pioneering women of the twentieth century. Follow him on Twitter @ManuBhagavan. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
A global pandemic has left more than 100,000 Americans dead in a matter of months.
Over 40 million are unemployed. And we are bombarded night after night with deeply unsettling images from around the country as thousands protest the brutal killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a police officer.
The national fabric is unraveling before our eyes. Stability in our political and economic systems, the rule of law, the promise of equal justice, even civility itself – which we once took for granted – seems evanescent. What’s happening and why?
In a sense, none of this is new, as Peter Baker pointed out in the New York Times.
In 1918, a virulent disease raced around the planet, killing millions in its wake. In 1929, the ripple effects of a collapsing economy led to deprivation and years of hardship. And in 1968, this country was riven by violence, dissent, and political malpractice as many Americans marched against racial injustice at home and the war in Vietnam.
A year that changed America
What is especially overwhelming about the current moment is that each of these pivotal years seems to have come back to haunt us at the same time. But ghosts survive because they cannot rest – or more precisely in the case of history, because difficult challenges remain unresolved.
What we are witnessing on the nation’s streets is a consequence of American denialism, a profound failure to confront the past and to learn from it. America has a deep history of racial persecution and oppression, a history too many have long ignored. And so we find ourselves on the edge of an abyss.
The brazen actions of mobs, individuals, and law enforcement officials have been responsible for brutalizing countless black Americans. And only very rarely have the perpetrators been punished.
The nation’s collective unwillingness to confront the violent history of American race relations, despite the urgent appeals of some, continues to impede meaningful progress between white America and people of color.
Because millions repeatedly tell themselves their country has made great strides on the race front, they have failed to grapple with and effectively address the persistence of black poverty, of inferior health care for African Americans, of discrimination in employment, and of profound inequity in the criminal justice system. This persistent determination to turn a blind eye to the American past reveals a country that lacks the stomach – to say nothing of the heart and the conscience – to work in a serious way to address generations of racial persecution.
What is required to redress this situation is a commitment to look honestly and fairly at ourselves and our past. But in the age of Donald Trump, it is not unreasonable to fear that denialism has the upper hand.
The President has in fact built his entire career warping reality to his liking. His political project is a manifestation of American denialism in its purest form: anti-science, anti-expertise, anti-fact, anti-history itself. Indeed, Trump is denialism’s product and proselytizer.
And this is precisely what makes our current moment so fraught. We are faced with multiplying crises, epic in scale – the novel coronavirus, a resurgent white nationalism, and a seething, frustrated body politic – each of which alone would have made for a serious challenge to American lives and livelihoods. In the economic sphere, the country is reeling with levels of unemployment not seen since the Great Depression while in the political sphere, the President continues to make spurious claims about mail-in-voting, potentially undermining the confidence of the American people in their elections.
The confluence of all this at once, with yet more challenges like climate change looming, threatens our very existence.
But the President is trying to deny his way out of all of this, misleading the public about the severity of Covid-19, while simultaneously downplaying the very real threat of systemic racism.
And yet, the overlapping death tolls of coronavirus victims and the black and brown individuals who have been brutally and needlessly murdered belie the President’s claims and reveal the stark reality of life in America today.
So now we are compelled to suffer the grave consequences of our collective failure to engage seriously with the past. Unless we come to terms with this enduring flaw, it will not be possible to imagine a better future. And a reckoning will be upon us.