On Wednesday, January 20, we finally got what we so desperately needed: the inauguration of a new American president, Joseph R. Biden, Jr., and vice president, Kamala Harris. It was a day of so many firsts - first Black, Southeast Asian woman to serve in a national office, first Latina Supreme Court justice to administer the Oath of Office, first Jewish Second Gentleman, first active educator with the title of “Dr.” serving as First Lady, and the installation of the first Black and Jewish senators from Georgia and Latino senators from California. Overnight, party-control of the Presidency, the House of Representatives, and the Senate aligned like the Rockettes at a Christmas Spectacular, all cued up and ready to high kick their way through the Democratic policy agenda. These achievements speak for themselves, indicators of a country that can choose to change when enough of us decide it is time to do so. However, they were hard won victories, certain majorities but, like a tree with new roots, still capable of flattening in the wind. Not to overshadow the excitement of the moment, I raise the question: What must we reflect on now in order to chart our path forward?
People dancing in the street following the inauguration of President Joe Biden, on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (Photo/Julian Leshay)
The tension of the moment, for us in America and abroad, is one defined by bifurcation. We are in a “walk and chew gum at the same time” challenge: We must walk forward to address the needs of a country dying from the viruses of covid-19, white supremacy, and climate change, while also keeping at least one foot in the past to hold President Trump, his administration, and the many who followed his lead accountable for the near-death blows they delivered to American democracy.
Domestic Terrorists breach the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (Photo/Julian Leshay)
Drunk on hope, there is the risk that we lean too heavily on the prospect of what our future can be, and avoid reckoning with what our past is. The sheer gravity and urgency of our present condition makes the impulse to move forward quickly - to, as President Biden says, “Build Back Better” - alluring. There is so much to do: pass a bill to get economic relief out to workers and business owners across the country, set up a medical infrastructure that can administer millions of vaccines quickly, and unite 50 states in the singular effort to curb the virus and decrease deaths. This feels like it should be the whole iceberg; it is only just the tip of it.
However, to move forward too quickly without holding anyone accountable for the incitement of treason and sedition is to set in motion the wheels for it to happen here and abroad again. Consider the Obama Presidency: Just like this time, we celebrated the election and re-election of President Obama by dancing in the streets. However, the wave of hope prevented us from meaningfully addressing the undercurrent of hate running through White America. Just as Trump rose to power here, right wing movements blossomed around the globe. Now, like then, we danced for a new president without waking up the next day to address the fact that 74 million voters went to the polls to re-elect Trump. The attempted coup on January 6, the most shockingly unshocking event given its predictability, indicates that our past is not past - it is present. The only way to restore trust in American institutions and show the world that it is possible to maintain a democracy even in the face of violent right-wing dissent is to let those institutions do the work of holding up the constitution that the rioters sought to destroy.
We in America are no strangers to a bifurcated reality. We have built a whole country on the foundation of two different systems, be it criminal justice, education, housing, health, or transportation, for White folks versus Black folks, the wealthy versus the poor, Christians versus all other religious beliefs, cisgender versus other gendered, hetero versus homosexual. The persistence of these dual systems defines the American experience, while sitting with the discomfort and shame of them is anathema to it. I grew up in Southeast Louisiana, the descendant of Jews that came here to escape religious persecution in Europe and the Middle East. The children of those immigrants - my grandparents - fought a war against Nazis and fascists, only to return home to find they couldn’t buy a house in the neighborhoods they wanted or easily deliver medical care to the Black and Brown families they wanted to serve. When I was in elementary school, David Duke, a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, ran for Louisiana state and national offices multiple times, and I would actively avoid playing near the houses with “David Duke” signs on their lawns. The short history of my family in America reveals that while we speak of unity, what we accept and expect in every generation is bifurcation.
We cannot accept the old bifurcation of two systems for different groups, but we must lean into the discomfort of pursuing accountability for the previous administration’s failures while policymaking for good now. There will be many among us who will fight to push forward without holding anyone accountable. The Mitch McConnells, Ted Cruzes, and Josh Hawleys of our government will want no action to ensure that their power remains unchallenged. In these moments, we must hear the call of President Biden to “Build Back Better” and not let justice be delayed or denied for political gain.
We must do it for the world: For countries fearful that taking another chance on democracy might lead to another coup, we must illustrate how democratic institutions can survive in the face of violence intended to destroy them. We must do it for ourselves: For those afraid of the shame of the past, we must be brave enough to interrogate the racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism rampant in our present so that they do not define our future. By living with bifurcation a bit longer, we might have unity sooner.