By Decker Ngongang, PACE Fellow
Editor’s Note: At PACE, we know it is easy to talk about things like civility and democracy in academic/abstract ways, but these concepts, intellectual as they may be, cannot be separated from the real experiences and emotions of people. So Decker decided to personally reflect on what this exploration process was like and meant for him as a person charged with leading this inquiry. The views here are his own.
Early in this process, I was talking with my mom about her childhood. She grew up in Jim Crow South Carolina, where she and my aunts picked cotton as sharecroppers to make ends meet. I was expecting her to talk about how far she has come—how far we have come—instead, she expressed a sense of resignation about where the country was headed.
My mom remarked that she feared we were not just headed back to the Jim Crow days of segregation, racialized violence, and systemic discrimination, but that the seemingly anemic response of our current civic and political institutions meant to protect democracy seem insufficient in the face of the old ghosts of Jim Crow.
The Jim Crow period, which started when segregation rules, laws, and customs surfaced after the Reconstruction era ended in the 1870s, existed until the mid-1960s when the struggle for civil rights in the United States gained national attention.
The laws affected almost every aspect of daily life, mandating segregation of schools, parks, libraries, drinking fountains, restrooms, buses, trains, and restaurants. “Whites Only” and “Colored” signs were constant reminders of the enforced racial order.
Donald Trump’s speech has existed outside the norms of civic discourse and, in many ways, represents a poisoning of civic discourse that began long before he took office. The uniqueness of this moment is less in Trump and more in the fact that more notably than any other time or figure he has revived the civic tensions that have been around since the founding – the tensions between the ideals of our origins and a multicultural civil society.
Donald Trump’s rhetoric and his lack of respect for democratic norms has poisoned the public sphere. Trump and his acolytes’ rhetoric not only denigrates the humanity of individuals, it has led to the normalization of harsh and dehumanizing rhetoric. While I do not expect President Trump to moderate or apologize for inflammatory remarks, what is painful about this moment is the continued silence of civil society institutions.
The way we respond to demagogues is never on their terms, but by affirming the ideals of our common humanity. Democratic principles have sustained because they have been maintained, and in that process, have successfully resisted attacks by demagogues.
As we experience this moment of divisiveness in rhetoric and hate-fueled violence, the institutional instinct to wax nostalgic about better times ignores that consequential moments marked by divisiveness and violence were part of this country’s path to expanded equality; with the important awareness of the asymmetry in the values and intentions of the stakeholders involved (that is, that some people may be acting in bad faith or actively seeking to stoke division).
As I continued to review research, interview stakeholders, and follow the latest in politics, I began to question the premise of civility as a positive goal in the face of what is dividing the country.
Anxiety and civility
A significant challenge during this process was not scheduling interviews or organizing research, but managing the depression and anxiety that befell me as my own interactions with racism and discrimination were triggered as I processed a news story or engaged someone who said something racist. I often found myself thinking, “why are they worth engaging?” It caused me to think about civility itself not as a destination, but a process that requires negotiation before all parties can embrace it as a shared goal.
I became depressed that I had naively taken for granted the charge before each generation in this democratic experiment, that we have to maintain democracy in order to sustain it. The United States was founded in conflict, much of which centered on the question of who is the “we” our Declaration affirms. The rancor and violence at the center of the most monumental moments of our democracy cannot be forgotten, ignored or glossed over in our appeals for civility.
Before each of the moments of compromise, restitution and progress in our country’s evolution lay intense and devastating struggles for legal civil rights. When I think about the pain and devastation my mom endured while advocating for a fuller democracy and then consider the work ahead of my generation, I cannot help but think “civility is not enough.”
My mom’s story
During one of our conversations, my mom shared an experience that deeply impacted her as she came of age during the terror and struggle of the Jim Crow era and being the first black student at her college. Along with learning something new about my mom, it provided a through-point for me to process my despair at the direction of civil society and a new way to think about bridging civic differences.
“I experienced racism in my newly integrated college. The professors challenged my answers to historical events, and severely scrutinized my writing assignments. I knew I could compete academically with my classmates and I stood my ground. College was marked with my exposure to serious racism. I had to stay in the infirmary where sick students came for assistance. I slept behind a curtain in a bunk bed. My clothes were on the floor. No one volunteered to room with me for six weeks. It was a time of integration of public schools and universities. Parents were sending their children to private schools to get away from being integrated with Black students. A Christian student asked to room with me and they required an agreement from her parents. They told her parents “do you know she might steal and she could be violent and she might smell. Do you really want your daughter to room with her?” The mother of Patsy K. Davis said “yes.” She was one of my guardian angels and she still reaches out to those downtrodden and in need as a missionary.
The death of Dr. King was marked with jokes and applause on my college campus. One student asked me “do you know why they knew he was a doctor?“ I said, “No.” She said, “They found two black bags.” I was the only black student on a campus with 1600 white students. Students in my dorm kept coming to see if I would cry. My aunt called me and told me to leave campus. I went to my grandmother’s house in Asheville, NC. I was there for a week. The chaplain of the school and several students came to see me there. They apologized for the students’ behavior. I told them that there are wonderful people in this world; sometimes there are others who are afraid of change, and they attack the nearest object that represents change. I told them that change had been painful for me, but I had family praying for me. The student body eventually did a memorial service in honor of Dr. King.”
Beyond etiquette, towards action
While difficult, I found these conversations and explorations quite transformational. I began this process and the interviews with some trepidation as I looked to find the best way to process or suppress my own experiences (and trauma in some instances) as I interviewed key informants.
Yet where I expected to find only difference and disagreement, I often found room for common ground. While I did find reasons to disagree with the perspectives of key informants, having the opportunity to hear about someone else’s experiences and core beliefs, I gained new empathy for people whose perspectives differed from mine, and began to see that the path to bridging difference was to appreciate rather than ignore the things that make us unique.
This made it easier to interrogate my own assumptions, appreciate differences, and identify room for common ground. It also helped clarify the difference between those with differing perspectives and circumstances, and those who are operating in bad faith.
Today, millions of Americans are going about their lives with wildly inaccurate perceptions of one another. My experience throughout this process is that despite America’s profound polarization, there are many more opportunities to build community than conventional wisdom suggests. Most Americans are appalled by our politics, but we are overwhelmed and conditioned by it.
What became clear from this process is that we are in need of renewed civic leadership that goes beyond merely advocating for civility and moves more intentionally to identify and counter the forces of division. This means more than just powerful words in an op-ed, conference panel, or on the floor of Congress. Polarization and civic division are the consequence of complex economic and social forces, as well as enduring historical injustices.
Any attempts to address or make our communities more civil must be matched exponentially with efforts to address the deep and persistent fissures in our society. The responsibility to hold bad faith actors accountable is a collective responsibility as the costs of inaction are not equally shared.
In tackling this challenge, I reflect on my mom’s story and the millions of stories that add context, complexity, and color to this democratic experiment. America has one great asset unrivalled in the world: a powerful and messy (his)story of national identity that, at its core, is painful, robust, idealistic, hopeful, inclusive and impossible to narrow down to one characteristic. In advocating for “unity,” we cannot run from the complexity of a pluralist democracy; instead we (especially civil society institutions) should advance language of unity and civility that embraces the fullness of society and our differences as we strive for a shared future.
The American story is a story full of “these divisive moments” and the way we have emerged better from each moment is when civic leaders and civic institutions call for the nation and its people to act with civic virtue and against cruelty and division (even when it is coming from the President of the United States); that – civility through accountability – speaks to the better angels of our nature.
Institutions can help renew civil society by affirming a renewed sense of national identity, one that fosters a common vision for a future in which every American can feel that they belong and are respected in all their complex differences. This national identity can be the force that pushes back against bad faith actors and unifies people to overcome the polarization that has dominated this moment in history.