Opinion: What ‘unity’ really means in America

When I think of the word unity, I think of Queen Latifah bellowing “U-N-I-T-YYYYY,” in a sing-songy tone with a touch of Newark twang. When I think of unity, I think about the way Black women endearingly call each other “sis,” and how Black men greet each other by throwing a nod from “across the way.” However, one thing that notably does not come to mind is a vision of our 50 states.

In the spirit of truth, honesty, and fairness — principles inherently foreign to a country that could declare “all men are created equal” while stealing indigenous land and trading slaves — a brief walk down memory lane will show you that my view of unity as antithetical to America is not truly my fault; it’s America’s. Growing up Black in this country, you learn from an early age just how divided these United States actually are.

You see, I was still in elementary school, pledging my allegiance to our flag each morning, when I first heard the divisive “N-word” used as a racial slur. In middle school, when I was “taught” about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his admirable dream for a unified America through non-violence, I had already been educated outside of school about his broader legacy and the activism that made him a target. So, when white teachers, on the verge of tears, hailed him a hero after reading a few cherry-picked quotes, it wasn’t lost on me that it was the government of these purported United States who relentlessly surveilled him and a White man in these United States who murdered him.

There was also that year in high school when I was the unofficial Black spokesperson in my A.P. United States History course. It was quite apropos to discuss all of America’s utopian ideals of unity and its divisive truths in a classroom where nearly all of my peers were White.

My America has never felt united. Not when I learned of the Jim Crow policies that drove my grandparents North and started my family’s Midwestern saga. Not in my childhood growing up in Detroit, where I observed the stark differences between the city and the suburbs past 8 Mile Road — even the grocery stores were more plentiful and pristine. Not in my young adult years spent marching or crying for Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor and the many others whose names we don’t know. And certainly, not now.

Not even a year ago, the deadly virus we are actively battling swept through our purported United States, affecting people of all backgrounds, but disproportionately decimating Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. When that latter fact reached mainstream media, I heard the narrative shift from viewing Covid-19 as our union’s “great equalizer,” to stories of armed extremists demanding “freedom” from “oppressive” stay-at-home mandates. “Liberty or death,” some protested, while standing maskless, of course. My take on the common denominator? Some of the anti-shutdown conglomerate stopped feeling as concerned that “the bad” and “the deadly” would happen to “them” because they weren’t Black, or Latino, or Native. A few folks even went on to form a kidnapping plot against Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, for her attempt to save their lives.
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But, united we stand, right?

Here we are. Not even a month into 2021, and domestic terrorists –which included many White nationalists — born and bred on our own soil have already stormed the Capitol building. They struck a Capitol Police officer — who later died from his injuries — with a fire extinguisher. They wielded Confederate flags and zip ties, vandalized offices, stole confidential documents, and interrupted the electoral vote count. And yet, after all of this, the President of our union tells these people that he loves them. A stark contrast from the message “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he had for protesters for Black lives last summer.

You see, our country’s biggest failure is perpetually refusing to name, claim, and confront its White supremacy problem. Instead, it makes division its convenient scapegoat and unity its go-to rallying cry. In reality, both racism and disunity are as American as apple pie.

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Our history is full of division that many Americans conveniently dismiss or romanticize as “behind us.” But, the loyalists and colonialists, the Confederates and Unionists, the enslavers and abolitionists, the segregationists and integrationists, aren’t really that different from the modern day have-a-lots and have-nots, the “Blue Lives” Matter proponents and the Black Lives Matter activists, the MAGA fascists and the rest of us.

For centuries, there has been division on issues of morality, but the palatable, textbook versions of these conflicts seem to be preferred, along with the unity we pretend followed as soon as the “good guys won.” To think critically would force us to acknowledge that unity on certain issues isn’t attainable when hate is on the other end of negotiations.

So, no, I will not unify with those who explicitly believe that I am inferior and who want to cause me harm because they really hate themselves; that would be a repugnant act of self-betrayal. And, no, I don’t want some politician’s empty soundbite or tweet about how “this isn’t America.” It is America. If you’re surprised, it’s because you’ve been under a rock.

If we want to save our democracy, false unity can no longer be our principal priority. Instead, we must bask in division if it means dismantling white supremacy’s stronghold on our country, as we work towards a nation where genuine unity becomes possible after righting our wrongs.

Until then, I’ll take division if it means continuously pointing out the systemic inequalities that allow people to starve and become homeless during a pandemic, while legislators squabble over $600 chump change. I’ll take division if it leads to legislators passing tax laws that force billionaires to pay real taxes. I’ll take division if it leads to policy makers acting on the need for free higher education, substantial student loan forgiveness and free health care. I’ll take division if it means fighting against police brutality until “breathing while Black” stops being a death sentence. I’ll take division if it pushes the government to implement reasonable immigration policies that ensure human decency for asylum seekers. I’ll take division if it leads to commonsense gun control and the end of school shootings. I’ll take division if it leads to a livable minimum wage — and in fact, I’ll revel in it. In the meantime, I’ll gladly bid phony unity its overdue farewell.

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