The United States is teetering on a dangerous ledge, and our democracy is in crisis. Civil unrest is never a coincidence. Those who feel included, those who feel understood, those whose needs are being met, those who feel safe, those who feel like they have power don’t take to the streets. The protests that are happening in every major American city are the product of broken systems.
|Photo credit: Flickr/Fibonacci Blue|
Democracy, at its core, is a form of government in which the people have the power. When this becomes untrue, democracy fails. In American systems - political, economic, healthcare, education, law enforcement, and others - power has been consolidated by a select few. Those select few don’t tend to look like George Floyd. Or Breonna Taylor. Or Ahmaud Arbery. Or Loreal Tsingine. Or so many others who have had their lives needlessly taken.
Those with the ability to do so have leveraged their wealth and political power to construct in their image the systems that are supposed to serve and be controlled by the people.
To save American democracy, we must flip our systems and give agency equitably to all. Decisions must be driven by the life experiences, expertise, and intimate knowledge of the communities that are most impacted by those decisions. Top-down hierarchies that systemize marginalization and consolidate power must be shattered, redesigned, and rebuilt.
Solutions developed without complete understanding of their implications at the point of execution lead to unintended negative consequences at best, and intended negative consequences at worst. Not all who suffer from the erosion of democracy in our systems are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), but we cannot begin to fix what is broken without acknowledging that race impacts opportunity in the United States.
As a teacher, I know that education is part of the solution. That’s why I spent the last year bringing together the diverse voices of some of the United States’ most accomplished teachers, students, and educational researchers to share an optimistic vision of how we can create a flipped American education system in Flip the System US: How Teachers Can Transform Education and Save Democracy. Public education is the foundation of democratic society, and the United States can’t be healthy unless our public schools are. But our survival as a democracy depends on flipping all of our systems - not just education.
When 3 Americans (not 3%) own more wealth than the bottom 50% of the rest of us, and the stock market surges as 40 Million Americans file for unemployment during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is obvious that our economic system is not democratic. The American people are being exploited for the benefit of the self-anointed aristocracy. How many Americans will be affected by the economic disaster that is unfolding? How few will benefit from a rallying stock market? How few of those who benefit will be BIPOC, who have been systematically prevented from building generational wealth through racist housing and education policies?
COVID-19 has exposed the great inequities in our healthcare systems. Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans have been disproportionately affected. Those in the lowest paying jobs have both had less opportunity to transition to much safer remote working and have been most likely to lose their jobs that provided health insurance. Of course, not all of those in poverty are BIPOC, but the systemic economic issues mentioned above have ensured that they are disproportionately represented.
It’s often mentioned that the path to meaningful change is through voting. And, in a healthy democracy it would be. But, the consolidation of power in our political systems have ensured that each American’s vote is neither equally weighted, nor equally able to be cast. Voter suppression efforts that close polling places in targeted areas, gerrymandering, the egregious influence of money in our political system, and corruption - which has been legalized in many cases to protect the powerful - have all been used to marginalize communities of color and the working class. Everyone who is able must use their vote to demand meaningful change, but we cannot be blind to the fact that flipping of political systems must happen at the same time.
I have intentionally left our law enforcement systems for last. BIPOC deaths at the hands of police are not isolated events. They are part of interlocking systems of marginalization that lead to power imbalances for entire communities. These deaths are an inevitable outcome when certain members of a society have the systematic agency to wield power over others. Not all police officers are bigoted, but all operate within systems that codify racism - systems that we, as Americans have allowed to perpetuate and erode our democracy. Each of us must own our complicity and commit to action both to repair the damage that has been inflicted and to ensure it stops.
Democracy is not granted. It is earned. There is no cosmic law that bestows democracy on the American people. If we want to keep it, we must go about doing the work of earning it. And, that work will be hard. All important work is.
Those who are peacefully protesting right now are doing that work. They need our support. This civic outcry cannot end without positive change, and that change must extend to all of our societal systems.
I will not presume to have solutions to the issues we have with policing in the US. As a straight, white, male, I am about as privileged as one can get. When I’m pulled over I don’t worry about much more than whether I will get a ticket. I can go for a walk in an affluent neighborhood and not be viewed with suspicion. My children have never feared for their lives or those of their family members.
What I do know is that solutions must be developed, implemented, overseen, and constantly evaluated by the communities that have been most traumatized. That requires those in power and those who look like me to listen, empathize, and be willing to cede some of the power we have in order for others to lead. It’s the only way to stop the cycle we are in.
If we restore true democratic control of our systems to all the people, rather than a select few, we can prevent American Democracy from being described in future history books as a 250 year failed experiment. Past history has shown us that collective power of the populace can be more powerful than the corrupt few - if the people can come together and demand change. I believe that we can.
But, the time must be now. Justice cannot wait. Incremental change is prolonged trauma.
We must unify and act, because the drop from that ledge on which we stand is a death sentence for both our democracy and far too many of our fellow citizens.