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Violence, looting and optimism – a tale of two Americas

USE YOUR PRIVILEGE FOR GOOD the sign continues. In a deserted business district ahead of a 7pm curfew, another message sticks with me, spray-painted on the plywood barricades around a metro station: AMERICA, DO BETTER! And then, on the Lincoln Memorial itself, Y’ALL NOT TIRED YET?

The question echoes Donald Trump’s promise back in 2016 that if he were to be elected, Americans would be “sick and tired of winning”. Fast-forward four years and the country is sick and tired: up to 160,000 are predicted to die by August from coronavirus, and one in four workers are unemployed. For the black community, though, the word most often used is not tired but exhausted. Centuries of institutional racism and state-sanctioned violence, since the first slave ship arrived at Point Comfort in Virginia, will do that.

Black people must teach their children at an early age that the world is a dangerous place.

As the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones documents in her historical analysis, The 1619 Project, in The New York Times Magazine, slavery made American prosperity possible. It isn’t just the nation’s “original sin”, as the cliché goes, but rather, “it is the country’s very origin”.

Leaning on history is in some ways a cop-out for me in writing this column, because it excuses my complicity in an unjust system. (As a white person who has lived on and off in the US for 20 years, I have undoubtedly benefited from the colour of my skin.) At the same time, there is value in reframing the narrative: it helps me to better understand a nation that is not my own, and why its wounds run so deep.

To that end, I should rectify a smaller matter. That quote from Churchill, the one of which many Americans are so fond because it confirms their irrepressible optimism? Turns out he never said it. Let’s hope, nonetheless, the coming months prove it true.

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.

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