I got in my car this morning and headed to work in a reflective mood after reading the speech Donald Trump gave last night. My reflection ensued when I realized that the country he described did not at all correlate with the country that I know. I read about a country in retreat, a downward economic trajectory, terrorists at the door, immigrants overrunning our streets and stealing our jobs, wide spread lawlessness, a lack of respect between the police and the citizens they serve. I read about what divides us, what makes us different, about why we’re vulnerable, weak, and susceptible to the weakest of outside forces. Quite simply, I read about an America that doesn’t exist.
I read about this country whose economy was struggling terribly and could not see that struggle. I thought about the fact that I was heading into work for a company who gave me a chance to make some money at one of our nation’s darkest economic hours in 2009. The month I graduated from college the economy lost 563,000 jobs. It was a time when people with college degrees had to settle for part-time shifts at $8.25 an hour, or worse, unemployment with bleak prospects of finding any work. I’m not generalizing-I literally had a college degree, $35,000 of fresh student loan debt, was working 30 hours a week making $8.25 an hour, and the saddest part is that I was lucky. It took me 5 months, countless cover letters, numerous resume renditions, and no call backs to realize the depths to which our country had descended.
A lot of people with degrees didn’t even have a job. The prospects were even dimmer for finding a job with benefits and a wage that could support the debt we had just accrued while trying to further our education and better ourselves. Forget about trying to start a family, we were all just trying to survive. People offered uneasy assurances of better days ahead but we all knew there was not a sugarcoating sweet enough to make us feel better. Those times were the darkest I can remember. Light at the end of the tunnel seemed to be so far off it might as well have been a distant star in the night sky.
Fast forward 7 years and I don’t recognize the economy that was described or much else Mr. Trump discussed on the last night of the Republican National Convention. My drive this morning took me to a gas station where a Muslim man of Middle Eastern descent attended to me with a smile. I had previously heard Mr. Trump speak about the necessity of banning all Muslims from entering the country. Somehow in his mind the perversion of Islam by a tiny portion of its followers meant that all Muslims were dangerous, not worthy of being trusted, or given an opportunity to pursue their own American dreams.
However, the man at the gas station showed me nothing but gratitude for my purchases. I saw within his smile not even the slightest hint of resentment toward me for he knew my beliefs did not suggest I agreed or condoned with the verbal attacks on his religion and followers of his faith from Mr. Trump. I could tell he had the intellectual nuance to separate one man’s words from the beliefs of others, that he understood you cannot judge an entire people on the actions of a small few or the words of one. I was thankful he saw within me a man who did not judge him for the infinitesimally small group of people who perverted his faith in the name of hate.
As the sun began to rise against a clear blue sky my drive continued down the road, passing by the red and blue lights of a cop car driven by a white officer who had stopped to help a black woman try to figure out why her car had stopped running at a light. They looked under the hood, side by side, not thinking about whose lives mattered most or more or not at all, or about conventions, or elections, or division. They looked at a problem, a broken down car, together, and sought to find a solution. A man doing his service as a police officer. A woman relying on a man entrusted to protect and serve the community in which she lives. Nothing more, nothing less.
There was no battle between the officer and the woman as it was made to sound by Mr. Trump to be a certainty whenever those interactions take place. The fact of the matter is, there rarely is a battle. We talk about the bad interactions because they are flash points, but the vast majority of the time, nothing more than a simple traffic stop occurs.
From there I pulled into the parking lot of my store, a brand new store, only 3 months old. The store I work in wasn’t even a thought or possibility 7 years ago when I started with this company at the depths of our nation’s recession. I looked down a strip mall filled with stores that were vacant just a few years ago when the grip on the American dream had surely slipped from most small business owner’s grasp. In just an hour or two these stores would be filled with shop owners and employees doing their small part to make our community grow. Each employee earning wages they will take and care for their families needs with, wages that simply were not there to be earned just a half decade ago. Each individual accounting for one of the over 14 million jobs gained since 2009, a tiny portion of an unemployment rate that has fallen from 10.2% in 2009 to 4.9% this month. In each of those workers I could not see an economy on the verge of collapse or in ruin as Mr. Trump suggested our economy was.
I opened the doors of my store and the first 9 customers I serviced were Hispanic. Some of them able to speak English fluently, others still struggling to express their needs, but all thankful that I was there, patient, ready to help them with all of their needs. Thankful that there was no wall they had to climb to try and pursue their own American dreams; thankful that this was and always will be, a nation of immigrants. A sense of gratitude emanating from them that while certain people of my skin tone might bluster about building walls, separating families, sending the rapists and murderers back across the border, that this man standing on the other side of the counter possessed no such thoughts or ill conceived feelings.
They were happy to know that I was just as thankful for them as they were for me. For the business they bring into my store everyday allows for myself and my coworkers to earn the wages we do, to support the families we have, and pursue the dreams that we all share for ourselves and future generations. I am also thankful that they do not judge me or buy in to the fearful rhetoric, bigotry, divisiveness, and anger that Donald Trump spews during his campaign speeches. Another group of individuals with the intellectual capacity that Mr. Trump lacks to understand that groups of people are not monolithic, each unique in their own way, and not able to be casted under one judgmental umbrella.
As I sit here and type this I look at my morning and I do not see the America that was presented at the RNC this week. I do not fear the man working at the gas station, for I have no reason to. He is not a terrorist by association, he is an immigrant pursuing a better and more secure future for his family. I do not harbor anger at the black woman whose car broke down nor at the police officer who was trying to help her, because they have done no wrong as I am aware. I do not fault them for the divisions between police and citizens within our society because I know that the vast majority of officers do our communities proud and that the overwhelming majority of our citizens would never even so much as wish harm on those entrusted to protect us. I do not think that the Hispanic customers I serviced today would have been better had they been white, or that their jobs have come at the expense of native born citizens. I do not fault any of these people for going about their own lives and doing the best they can to pursue their own dreams.
When I look down at the stores that fill the strip mall where my store is located I know that they are filled with people not unlike myself, and not unlike most of you who will read this. They are hard working people that struggled like hell just to make ends meet when the economy collapsed and who are simply thankful to have the opportunity to make a respectable wage and enjoy a decent living again. People who are hopeful about our future and what prospects it may bring.
The America I see is one of recovery, of rising wages, and improved outlooks. I look on Facebook and I see it filled with posts of babies and small children who we all hope will enjoy a better life and grow up in a better America than we did. Hopes that they might not have to struggle with the same divisions and partisan fault lines that fracture our society today. I find comfort in the faith I have in the belief that their parents, that being those of you reading this, decided at this moment in history to look past those things which divide us and decide we are better together than apart.
I know deep down that the bonds which bind us together are stronger than the forces which work to tear us apart. I know that we wish to build bridges that span the gaps of misunderstanding in our communities instead of building walls to keep each other out. To attempt to retreat and insulate ourselves from the world today is to ignore the simple facts of life as we know it: that we are entirely too interdependent on each other and other nations to ever go back to the isolationism that slowed progress and sowed seeds of division and misunderstanding in the past.
I know that we are all enriched by the diversity of this great country and the varying backgrounds from which we grew. I know that when people tell us to fear what we don’t know, that we can look at our past, filled with uncertainty and ripe with opportunities for failure and division at numerous junctures, and find not fear in that history but hope in our triumphs and the fact that we have come so far and made so much progress. Is America perfect? No, not by a long shot, but we can always work towards that lofty ideal.
I know that when I got in my car this morning, and went about starting my day-when the sun rose and I drove to the store where I now earn substantially more than the $8.25 an hour I earned 7 years ago, when the doors opened and the customers came, when the police officer stopped to help that lady, when the gas station owner thanked me for my business- that I was not afraid or cynical, that I did not harbor doubt about the future or anger about the past, that the only thing I felt was hope and optimism for the only thing that’s brighter than that morning sun is America’s future. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that we are better off than we were 8, 50, 100, and 200 years ago. Progress is never linear, there are always setbacks, rough patches, and times when almost everything comes in to question, but I still believe, and my belief will be eternal, in the promise and limitless possibilities of the United States of America and I hope you do too.