Penny Smith

Penny Smith

Ask not why people are rioting, but rather ponder why it took them so long to take to the streets.

We have been slowly moving toward a national reckoning for decades. Wages stagnated, but the prices of food, shelter and health care rose. Families require two working adults to maintain a middle-class standard of living. They depend on childcare and public schools to make that possible, yet the former is sometimes barely affordable and the latter under attack.

Small towns have lost their children, because jobs that could have kept them home have gone missing. Local hospitals close; church pews are no longer full. Institutions that sustained community struggle to survive. Rural America ages; urban America gets younger. College graduates, debt-burdened as never before, work in a gig economy that provides no sick days, no regular hours and no stability. Our modern leveler, the Internet, fails to deliver fast, reliable service.

We have become not only the least able of the world’s developed democracies to care for its citizens, but the most likely to incarcerate them. We are also most likely to lose people to drugs, suicides, homelessness, hunger, medical emergencies and a pandemic. Our social safety net is beyond frayed; it is failing.

And we have become angry, almost rabid in our madness. Entrenched in our chosen information silos, our righteousness is reinforced on cable television, by talk radio and from America’s pulpits. We circle and snarl at each other, barely able to register that the causes of much of our discontent are systemic, designed by special, decidedly rich interests to benefit themselves. They are happy to have our attention elsewhere.

Into that mixture of economic and political turmoil, Americans contend with a troubled history of appropriation. We took this country from its indigenous people. We built it on the backs of people we took from Africa. We expanded it through the cheap labor of the Chinese, the Irish, and seasonal workers from Latin America. In so many ways our diversity is a strength, but we have consciously, and for the economic gain of a few, used it to betray the ideals which bring people willingly to our shores. The most pernicious of the legacies from that appropriation is a set of “isms,” of which racism is the most lingering and unjust.

We do not love one another. We no longer even listen to one another. So much of the evil we enact comes from ignorance of other people and of the system in which we live. There is great promise in the American Experiment. It is not our aspirations that are flawed so much as our enactment of them. And when someone suggests we stop and question a path we’ve ostensibly chosen as a nation that person is all too often labeled, condemned and told to leave.

Rioting in streets is political and social theatre. It is also a cry for help: A cry from Flint for clean water, from Minneapolis for trustworthy policing, from San Francisco for affordable housing, from kitchen tables throughout our land for livable wages.

Nationally, we now sit at the edge of an economic disaster that will require a vast majority of us working in concert to avert. Our task is obvious; our willingness to leave our comfortable tribes lags. Yet, if we are to move forward as a country we must commit ourselves to learn from each other, to hear and consider hard truths, to acknowledge fairness will come at a cost and to accept that the price is worth the prize. If not now, when?

Penny Smith lives in Dillsboro.