Commentary |
12 June 2020

Black lives make America great

It is African American civil society that has historically held up a mirror to America and made it live up to its ideals. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Lydia Khalil
Lydia Khalil

Three years ago last November I watched the voting result come in. Incrementally, then all at once, I and the rest of the world, realised that Donald Trump, the original bridge and tunnel guy, wannabe master of the universe, who peddled racist conspiracies and praised autocrats, would become the president of these United States of America.

Trump’s election and presidency made a mockery of American democratic ideals. His election made a mockery of my life history and patriotism. In that moment, I had never felt further away – both in geography and in spirit – from America, the country that inspired my family to leave everything behind, and start anew; a country that inspired my career in public service and national security.

I always knew that America was not without its problems but still believed it always aspired for a more perfect union. But when Trump was elected president, it was as if America stopped trying.

And the world seemed to have given up on America too. Though America’s image and standing in the world had been on a precipitous decline since the strategic failures of the global war on terror, President Trump’s election and his America First isolationism signalled the end of American hegemony and global leadership.

The world would soon realise that the extent of his articulations stopped at his signature catch phrase and become inured to his incoherence. His lies and exaggerations were not showmanship but designed to remove the guardrails of American democracy.

His administration’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to 115,000 (and counting) deaths put the incompetence of the United States under the Trump administration under harsh relief. His presidency cemented the belief that America no longer can, nor wished, to lead.

I was all but resigned to the fact American exceptionalism and potential for leadership has been irreversibly corroded by the Trump presidency. That is until the Black Lives Matter movement swept in and restored my faith in American democracy and leadership.

Soldiers' service led to civil rights

The Black Lives Matter movement and African American civil society reminds us all that it was not always its presidents who made America exceptional or who led the world. We have had isolationist, racist, conspiracy-minded problematic presidents before – Millard Fillmore, Andrew Jackson, Rutherford B Hayes, to name a few.

Rather it was American civil society, mostly African American civil society, that reveals American exceptionalism.

This awakening has already led to political, policy and legislative changes and will no doubt lead to more.

The declaration of independence and the US constitution are thought to be the origins of equality and civil rights in America, principles that have been idealised around the world.

But it was actually the service of 200,000 black soldiers in the Civil War that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which led to birthright citizenship and legal equality among citizens and the principle of civil rights. Without this act, I and generations of other immigrants would not have been able to gain citizenship and equality regardless of race or national origin.

As Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has written, “Black Americans have been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom … the perfecters of this democracy.”

African American civil society and activism – from the abolition movement to reconstruction to the civil rights movement and to now – have consistently held up a mirror to America’s democratic ideals. The Black Lives Matter movement continues that tradition.

The BLM is particularly inspiring because it demonstrates that American democracy can still work, that citizens still have the ability to effect change not with the money buying power of political influence but through the power of the people. And it shows that after years of struggle and incremental steps, change can materialise very quickly and all at once.

Overnight transformation

A recent poll shows that American voters' support for the BLM movement has increased in the past two weeks of protests by as much as it had in the past two years. Even conservative pollster Frank Luntz wrote, “In my 35 years of polling, I’ve never seen opinion shift this fast or deeply. We are a different country today than just 30 days ago.”

The protests are not made up of the usual suspects and the usual activists but are multigenerational, inspiring people to protest for the first time in their lives, and have led to an unprecedented awakening within America’s white majority to the systemic racism in their midst, the need for justice and restitution. This awakening has already led to political, policy and legislative changes and will no doubt lead to more.

The BLM movement is not only continuing to perfect America’s democracy but is showing how America can once again lead the world – not through its presidents but through its populace. The BLM movement has forced countries around the world, including Australia, to face their own histories with its black citizens and other people of colour and their own legacies of racism and colonialism. From Paris to Japan, there have been unprecedented, large protests, made more extraordinary given we are in the midst of a global pandemic.

The world may have given up on President Trump, but the Black Lives Matter movement has once again raised our hope and expectations of the United States. For the first time since Trump’s election I’ve been inspired and hopeful for America’s future and its place in the world.