Leonard Pitts: Better than this? We wish

Published 11:31 pm Wednesday, August 16, 2017

It has become the go-to cliche for moments like this.

We whisper it when someone breaks the mosque window or scrawls hatred on the synagogue wall. It is our assurance and our hope.

“We are better than this,” we say. “This is not America.”

So it is no surprise to be hearing that sentiment days after white supremacists descended, armored and armed, on a Virginia college town, leaving injury and death in their wake. Comedian Kevin Hart and singer Camila Cabello, among others, took to social media to proclaim it as the tragedy in Charlottesville unfolded.

“We are better than this,” said Hart.

“This is not America,” said Cabello.

The words are obviously well-meant. They are also false.

Better than this? Are we also better than the laws and regulations Republicans in states like North Carolina have imposed with, as one court put it, “almost surgical precision” to suppress the African-American vote? Are we better than a “justice” system that cannot bring itself to punish police for killing unarmed black people, even when video proves the crime?

As for this not being America: America is where people who have always earned 100 percent on the dollar, people whose religion will never get them thrown off any airplane, people whose votes will always be counted, people who dominate banking, business, education, politics, media and every other field this side of pro basketball, people to whom cops and courts often defer, people who enjoy better health and greater wealth, people for whom the country is and always has been, a conspiracy in their favor, whine about how victimized they are.

Certainly, there is more to America than Saturday’s ugliness. But it is important not to deny or minimize that that ugliness is part of us, too. After all, you can’t fix what you won’t acknowledge, as our lamentable president illustrated when this guy who never misses a chance to condemn Rosie O’Donnell took two days to grudgingly rebuke white supremacists.

In fairness, what people like Hart and Cabello likely mean to invoke is not America the actual, but America the ideal. But it is important not to conflate the two, not to lapse into the lazy, magical thinking that says what happened in Charlottesville is somehow foreign to the essential American soul.

No, every bit as much as baseball, hot dogs and apple pie, that bigotry is a reflection of the American soul, even as it is a rejection of the American ideal. But we sometimes forget that ideals don’t stand up for themselves, nor vindicate themselves.

That work is ours. And if America is, indeed, the hatred we saw Saturday, thank God it’s also the heroism we saw Saturday. This was embodied in Heather Heyer, the young white woman killed when a white supremacist drove his car through a crowd of counter protesters. In being where she did not have to be, doing what she did not have to do and losing her life thereby, she stood up for what is best in this country — and challenged us to do the same. First, though, you must see the country as it actually is.

We fail to do that when we embrace false equivalence — something else the president illustrated, initially blaming the violence on “many sides” — as if Nazis and those who oppose them were moral equals. But we also fail to see the country as it is when we conflate the actual and the ideal and give ourselves credit we do not deserve.

“We are better than this,” said Hart.

But we are not.

“This is not America,” said Cabello.

But yes, sadly, it is.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Email him at lpitts@miamiherald.com.