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Are we in this American experiment together? A July Fourth question to contemplate

Backlash from Harris’ debate performance shows the country still has a long way to go

Reactions to California Sen. Kamala Harris’ performance in last week’s Democratic debate have exposed the divide between those Americans allowed to express and feel pain and those expected to grin and bear it, Curtis writes. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images file photo)
Reactions to California Sen. Kamala Harris’ performance in last week’s Democratic debate have exposed the divide between those Americans allowed to express and feel pain and those expected to grin and bear it, Curtis writes. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images file photo)

OPINION — Who doesn’t love Cary Grant, the debonair British-born, American acting legend, who wooed leading ladies, including the Hepburns, Katharine and Audrey, as well as generations of moviegoers? 

But he was not so charming when his submarine commander character in 1943’s “Destination Tokyo” said: “The Japs don’t understand the love we have for our women. They don’t even have a word for it in their language.”

Demonizing “the enemy” in wartime as “the other,” incapable of emotion and not quite human is not unusual. But someone always pay a hefty price. Loyal Japanese American families, rounded up and shipped to internment camps, waited until 1988 for President Ronald Reagan to issue an apology; survivors received meager compensation. Though that was expected to be that, the trauma to those Americans and the nation lingered.

And despite that World War II-era lesson, and ones before and after, America continues to make the same mistake, a notion important to contemplate during the Fourth of July festivities, when we celebrate the ideal.

This year, a Washington, D.C., military parade and fireworks display with a speech by Donald Trump that places a national holiday squarely in partisan territory will be both a distraction from and a reminder of our current plight.

The situation at the southern border offers a glaring example of that gap between promise and reality, as some members of the border patrol tasked with an admittedly difficult job — maintaining order and safe conditions as asylum seekers attempt to cross into the United States — were revealed by a ProPublica investigation of letting off steam with cruel and dehumanizing remarks that make light of the deaths of children and the concern of visiting elected officials.

It starts at the top, of course, with a president who shows little empathy for desperate families — try imagining the fear and despair that would fuel the decision to start such a dangerous trek — as he leeches money away from aiding the countries they are fleeing and still insists a wall is the solution.

Though Republican and Democratic lawmakers contentiously came together to approve $4.59 billion in supplemental funding to improve border conditions, that comity as a path to progress on bipartisan immigration reform is fading fast. With Trump’s re-election plan to stir up resentments, villains are needed — asylum seekers fit the bill.

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Debate backlash

The post-Democratic debate reactions also reveal who in America is allowed to feel and express pain and who is expected to grin and bear it.

It’s no surprise that Donald Trump Jr. shared (then deleted) a tweet questioning the identity of California senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris. It’s a sadly unsurprising sign of a return to the birther lie Trump and company tried to pin on President Barack Obama.

What has been interesting, though, is how many Democrats are taking issue with Harris’ dust-up with former Vice President Joe Biden on his nostalgic statement about working with vicious pro-segregationist senators and his record of joining them in legislative efforts to fight busing to integrate schools.

The backlash from those who find the fact that she brought up the subject impolite offers a master class on who gets to be vulnerable, to make the political personal and to show preparedness and power in a venue — a debate — where that is actually the point.

You don’t have to support Harris to have been impressed with her debate performance. She did not raise her voice as she asked Biden to explain his long record (though being soft-spoken won’t protect a black woman from being called “angry”); Biden had a chance to respond, and he should have seen it coming. With years of experience and the same opportunity and obligation to prep, he was hardly a politician in distress. If he is the last candidate standing against Trump, Biden will face a far tougher grilling.

Yet, though her poll numbers show a bump, there have also been accusations that Harris took a cheap shot, landed a low blow, dealt the race card — name the cliché — as though race has not been a thread that is woven through every part of American life since the nation’s founding.

So many have dismissed her contention that Biden’s actions and associations hurt, deeming her upbringing too comfortable, her parents too educated, her academic and professional achievements too impressive for her to have ever felt any emotion that genuine.

New Jersey senator and fellow presidential hopeful Cory Booker faced a similar reaction when he said Biden’s recollections of convivial banter with segregationists hit him in the gut. How dare he actually bring into the conversation how Biden’s reminiscing made him and so many others feel?

If black folks in America let every slight or insult stop them from going about their business, they would never leave the house. That doesn’t mean we are impervious to the pain. Ask Barack and Michelle Obama if being leader of the free world and first lady of the United States — rising that high — makes you invulnerable from criticism or provides an impenetrable shield?

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Double standards

Now, note who does get the benefit of the doubt and a pat on the back.

In a not-quite-as-publicized moment on last week’s debate stage, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was given high marks for merely owning up to his failure in two terms to diversify the city’s police department and to bridge a glaring wealth gap in his hurting city. This when he is asking the American people to elect him to lead a country, not a small Midwestern city.

When a black man was shot by a white South Bend police officer with a troubled racial history, Buttigieg faced questions from his community and California Rep. Eric Swalwell, a 2020 rival, that he could not answer. (He has since unveiled a racial justice and minority investment program he said he would pursue as president.) But his less-than-adequate answer has been held up as a model for how Biden should have responded.

Harris had better be prepared to defend her own past as a California prosecutor and attorney general when it surely comes up; rather than seeing those attacks as a cheap shot, a lot of folks will surely say she had it coming.

The example of Buttigieg’s media celebrity and golden boy glow contrasts with how Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and Housing and Urban Development secretary in the Obama Cabinet, was covered until his own standout debate performance.

When Castro, who has put forward a plan promoting police reform, listed just a few of the people of color killed in interactions with police — “What about Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Pamela Turner, Antonio Arce” — it was startling just hearing out loud the names of Americans who seldom get even that measure of consideration and respect.

It’s so easy to listen to propaganda from a long-ago movie, cringe and move on. Just give Cary a pass. But as America has seen again and again, it doesn’t take a war for that ugly tactic of dehumanization and disregard to surface.

It could be a struggle over who matters and who does not, who deserves a slice of the all-American pie and who gets the crumbs, or lately, who falls on which side of political difference.

Are we all in this American experiment together? As the country pauses to mark this year’s Fourth of July, it is a question that is as relevant as ever.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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