The Thread

Is the United States Still a “New” Democracy?

Article In The Thread
New America
July 6, 2021

(Content Warning: This piece contains mention of racial and sexual violence)

In this conversation with New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter and staffer Melody Frierson, we explore the idea of what new beginnings and a new normal can look like for a more equitable, multi-centered United States of America. They talk about a new initiative, US@250, a broad partnership that pushes us all to envision the America we could have in 2026, as it celebrates the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the steps we need to take to get there.

Melody: It's July 2021 and everyone is talking about a return to normal and the acceptance of the “new normal.” But normalizing the “new” is a much bigger concept outside of COVID-19. What topic comes to mind when you think about something new that's in the process of being normalized? How does renewal—something so important to your own work (and your forthcoming book, Renewal) play into this?

Anne-Marie: The "new normal" is a contradiction. We will go back to some things that we did before — like having in-person meetings and hanging out together for lunch or coffee and, for some at least, doing more computer work in an office rather than at home. But the experience of working remotely has illuminated a different landscape of possibility that will now inform what we want to make normal.

To take one example, our staff meetings used to be run for the people who were physically present, with those who were not often in the office feeling left out or forgotten. Our challenge now is to figure out how to build that equality into our physical meetings, by finding hybrid ways of mixing physical and virtual participation. For me, using whatever changes the present brings to interrogate the way we were before and then distill a set of insights and conclusions to guide how we want to be is the core of renewal — the title of my forthcoming book. New Americans have taught me a great deal about renewal, about how it lands with many audiences. That is why we now emphasize "renewing the promise of America" in our mission statement rather than "renewing America." I now define it as a process that looks backwards and forwards at the same time —facing the past with radical honesty and using it to understand the present and to guide us in building a new future.

Melody: I really appreciate that you brought up how our time working remotely lifted up an issue of equity around access to meetings, in particular. I know our colleagues who are disabled or who were remote pre-pandemic acutely felt this issue, and I'm excited to see how we can use what we've learned to build a more equitable and inclusive solution.

I want to go back to what you said about "facing the past with radical honesty" to understand where we are and where we're going. This is something that sounds so good, but is so difficult to do in practice and gets an outsized amount of pushback, we can just look to the intense backlash against the 1619 Project and the teaching of critical race theory as examples. You and I have been really lucky to work with an exceptional group of people on a project called US@250 that is attempting to do just that, but in the context of the history of the United States and it's upcoming sestercentennial (250th "anniversary"). From my perspective, the majority of the work that we've done as a core group has been (over and over again) trying to figure out how to walk this tightrope of acknowledging without completely alienating. What do you think about this? How will US@250 attempt to hit that renewal sweet spot that's an invitation and celebration, but also honest reckoning?

Anne-Marie: You've nailed the issue: "acknowledging without completely alienating." True acknowledgment is bound to — and really has to — make people uncomfortable enough to challenge their deeply held assumptions and biases. Reading as widely as possible over the past few years and inviting the kinds of conversations I never had before, I have had to take a new and difficult look at my own family. My mother is a Belgian immigrant, but many members of my father's family — the Slaughters, the Hokes, the Alexanders — all originally from Virginia and North Carolina — enslaved other human beings. I was very close to my paternal grandmother who told me long stories about Fanny Ramseur, the woman who raised her. Fanny was enslaved until she was 15 but continued to work for our family and lived long enough to see my father born in 1931. All of it wrapped in the "we were all family" sentimentality that characterizes the portrayal of Mammy in Gone with the Wind.

I look back now with different eyes. I still love my grandmother deeply. But I think anew about what it means to come from an old Southern family, about the enslaved labor that supported my family's upper middle class life, including university education for all the men. I wonder whether I have relatives, like the Hemingses of Monticello, who were born of rape. I ask that question even as I have come to understand that in an age of obsession with digitally enabled genealogy, African-Americans who are descended from enslaved people typically cannot trace their ancestry back before the Civil War, even though their ancestry goes back far longer than the hundreds of millions of Americans descended from 19th and 20th century voluntary immigrants.

What, in this context, does a reckoning mean? Personal discomfort, even greater through public acknowledgment, yes. But what more? These are the questions that all Americans who have benefited and continue to benefit from entrenched racism and discrimination have to ask and try to answer.

I also believe deeply that as important and necessary as it is, reckoning is not enough. Renewal demands reckoning, but as the precondition for building something genuinely new, together. Here I think it is critical for Americans to understand just how much we have to gain by embracing a plurality rather than a white-majority country. A true reckoning can offer not just the cleansing of atonement but also the possibility of a genuinely new beginning, linked by common ideals and a common vision of what is possible.

A true reckoning can offer not just the cleansing of atonement but also the possibility of a genuinely new beginning, linked by common ideals and a common vision of what is possible.

Melody: I really appreciate how so much of this circles back to the stories we share with one another and how our US@250 gatherings have made creating the conditions for people to talk and listen deeply essential. As a Southern Black woman whose daddy has an Ancestry.com account and fierce desire to understand who his people were, your point really resonated with me. When I look through census records before 1865, I have to keep an eye out for plantations owned by white men with my surname.

If I could be really honest, the renewal and plurality you describe seem to be about getting white folks to a place where their worlds are not completely white anymore.

Anne-Marie: As always, I am so grateful for your honesty. Only with that kind of honesty, done in the spirit of calling in rather than calling out, can I and other white people come to understand how our words and deeds are really heard and received, and thus engage in a true conversation. As I see it, addressing guilt is not just a matter of increasing comfort, it is also about tackling the deep sources of denial. When we feel terrible about something, and when that something requires us to see ourselves and those we love differently, so many of us are inclined just to push the whole subject away. So for me, trying to model what it looks like to be radically honest is an essential part of deep equity work, the precondition for allowing our nation to embrace a far more inclusive and complicated history that can, in turn, lay a new foundation for all Americans.

Melody: I wonder how we move beyond centering whiteness and white guilt and towards really doing the work of supporting communities of color and creating the infrastructure that will help them thrive? Something else I keep coming back to is your point of getting to a place of "genuinely new beginning" where we're linked by a beautiful common desire for health and happiness. For me, that's the goal of US@250, but it's big! What are some appetizer-type things that folks can do to lead up to this entree US@250 is cooking up?

Anne-Marie: Our US@250 colleague Keith Yamashita often talks about a "multi-centered America," which I think is a big part of the answer. The work that I have been trying to do—the deep work of reading, reflecting, fighting my own defensiveness and opening my mind—is one center, a center that I hope that millions of Americans can connect to. At the same time, though, we cannot think about what I call a process of renewal sequentially, passing through one stage before we turn to the next. The work of supporting communities of color—changing the daily lived reality of Americans who have been denied the universal promise of equality and equal opportunity that has long been our national mantra—has to happen now, at the same time.

What would that look like? That is a question that we are trying to answer right now in our US@250 group, as we identify specific initiatives—the 25 national signature initiatives, the 250,000 organizational and institutional initiatives in communities across the country, the 250 million grassroots experiences—that we want US@250 to produce, power, and inspire. How can we make those initiatives centered—multi-centered—on everyone? The next step is to set our imaginations loose, to believe that deep change is possible and dream about what we would truly like to see—beginning with our workplaces and our communities, maybe even our families. We begin with the question: What would it take to start?

In 2026, the United States marks the 250th year since its founding. Visit https://usat250.org/ to learn more about the US@250 initiative's work as a creative engine built to uplift efforts, generate new ideas, and focus the narrative to build a better America—for all, by all.


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