America In Transition

Fort Hancock, Texas.

When you set out with purpose to see, it is important to clear your vision of pre-conceived thoughts and ideas. To stay open, and to do so with humility, is the only way to ensure a degree of accuracy in your conclusions.

I set out from Connecticut toward west Texas in mid-December of last year knowing only that I wanted to see the United States for myself, in the month following a historic election, to get some feel for where the country stood during the period of transition from one presidential administration to the next. I was not completely surprised by what I found, but as I review the work contained in a twelve part series of photo essays I produced as a result of the trip, I am struck by the repetitive cycle of American politics and the stuck nature of our progress on big social issues.

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Economics, the plight of the middle class, and race relations are the obvious dominant themes that appear over and over again in town after town. My first planned stop was in Scranton, Pennsylvania where Joe Biden was born and lived the first few years of his life. It is still how he describes it. A place where people work hard to sustain their families despite the economic forces that have made it more difficult over the generations. It is the kind of place you would want your president to be from if you wanted that president to have a basic understanding of what everyday life is like in this country for people who are not wealthy.

Many of the places I visited in New England, New York state, Pennsylvania and parts of the midwest share similar stories. These were the states and the cities that dominated the first 150 years of American history and the remnants of that power and strength can be seen today in the old mills of New England, the railroads of Pennsylvania, and the steel city of Pittsburgh. As a whole, these regions are made up of pockets of success and incredible wealth, surrounded by millions of others simply trying to get by. Economic disparity is common in America, and repeated itself, no matter how many state lines I crossed.

I had only two places on my list of must-stops for the trip. I wanted to see Tulsa, Oklahoma and I wanted to visit El Paso. I’ve been to El Paso before, but this time I wanted to go to observe the border from the perspective of the immigration debate. I’ve heard Beto O’Rourke, and others from the region, argue that the twin cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico are model international border cities and that concerns over illegal immigration on the U.S.-Mexican border are overblown. This view is at odds with much of the rhetoric coming from national leaders in the Republican Party. Who is telling the truth, I have wondered.

My stop in Tulsa was made to learn more about the 1921 race riot that took hundreds of lives and burned an entire section of the city — the black section — to the ground. It is believed at least 300 people were killed in the rioting that had been set off by a mix of rumors and hate. Both Tulsa and El Paso are symbols of the discussion we have been having since the founding of the country: Who is an American? Who has the right to claim they are American? And who gets to decide?

As I write, the debate over immigration at the Mexican border is presenting the first major crisis of the Biden administration. Perhaps sensing a relaxation of the harsh anti-immigration polices of the Trump administration, there has been a surge of people trying to get into the United States, from Mexico, in the first few months of the year. There is debate over the use of the word crisis, but the common understanding of the word leaves little doubt. Any situation that represents a break with routine operations can be defined as a crisis.

Setting the current surge aside, the daily flow of people back and forth between this country and Mexico is routine. It is how the region works. Another routine is the use of immigration, by both political parties, as a wedge issue meant to divide the electorate. Each side tries to blame the other, but in reality both sides are to blame and both sides are responsible for the heartache and death the absence of a manageable, predictable immigration policy brings with it.

In March, separate groups of Republican and Democratic lawmakers visited the border for dueling media events. Democrats blamed President Trump for the mistreatment of children and Republicans blamed President Biden for failing to stop violent immigrants from crossing the border. One Republican said he saw a dead body floating in the Rio Grande and said it was proof the border is out of control. But let’s be honest, if the border is out of control, if there are bodies in the Rio Grande, it is because the very Democrats and Republicans who pose for the cameras in their khakis and blue work shirts, to score political points, have failed to lead.

The immigration debate is an extension of the long struggle we have had as a country over race. In a country made up mostly of immigrants from Europe, any group of color, whether its members are black, brown, Asian or Native American, are easily categorized by the majority as unlike the rest and somehow less American.

The 1950s and 1960s have been defined in American history as a great period of progress on civil rights. Through the 1980s, and right up to 2020, many Americans lived under the false belief that segregation and discrimination based on race or ethnic background were part of our past, not part of the present. We had, for example, elected a Black president, right on schedule, forty years after Bobby Kennedy said, to the great disdain of James Baldwin, that it might be possible.

In Tulsa, I missed by a few weeks, a controversy over whether a Black Lives Matter mural should be permitted to remain on one of the city’s main streets. It was not. One hundred years after the Tulsa Race Massacre, the mural was removed by the city government when it was decided that a previously scheduled re-surfacing project would be moved up on the calendar. The yellow paint on blacktop was ground up and paved over.

In New Orleans, I was reminded of the Supreme Court doctrine of separate but equal, borne out of an act of civil disobedience in 1892, on a train bound for Covington, Louisiana. In Memphis, I visited the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on the same day a Black preacher from King’s church in Atlanta was being elected to the U.S. Senate. Nearly every city I visited on my two-thousand plus mile trip had a street, boulevard, or avenue named after King. But nearly every other city I visited, had been in the news over the last year, because a local police department had killed an unarmed Black person under questionable circumstances.

Sealed up by a pandemic, the United States in 2020, broke into a roiling debate over race and inequality. People, who hadn’t understood the phrase before, began to understand that the words Black Lives Matter, do not mean Black lives are more important than other lives. It means simply that Black lives are not expendable, or less important than any other life. Beyond the phrase, Black Lives Matter, there came a wider, if not complete understanding, of what systemic racism is and how white privilege, and other privileges, put many Americans at a disadvantage from birth and throughout life. Both concepts are difficult to understand if you are not a victim of the end result of either.

From 2017 until January of this year we were led by a president determined to use the issues that divide us, and scare others of us, to split the country in a manner that kept him in power. Too many people in power, especially in the Republican Party, understood exactly what he was doing and remained silent. Or, when they spoke up, spoke too softly and too late. The same can be said for the management of the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of American lives were lost needlessly, because the president put his own political standing above the health and safety of the American people. As with issues of economic fairness, race, and justice, people in a position to push back, to tell the truth, failed to do so out of misguided loyalty or political courtesy. It all came to a head on January 6, when a mob attacked the U.S. Capitol and tried to overthrow our government in the name of that one man.

Whether you are happy with the outcome of the last presidential election or not, it is evident President Biden is trying as hard as he can to put the nation back together. He has often and forcefully acknowledged where we are falling short and he has promised to work to address the issues head on and with transparency. Early polling on his job performance show the American people approve of his efforts. At places like Fox News, and in certain segments of the Republican Party, there are still those who are trying to make money and seize power by dividing us, but increasingly they look as if they are driving into a dead end. The American people do not want to be at war with each other. They want to move forward in freedom; free to live their own lives and travel their own paths, without their success coming at the expense of their neighbors.

The experience of 2020 has made clear we are far from perfect as a country. The experience of 2020 has popularized a phrase from the preamble of the U.S. Constitution: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…” Commentators and historians have put new emphasis on the goal of forming a more perfect union. The words are no longer read as a claim of perfection; they are read as acknowledgement that the work continues and that it will always continue. A perfect union may be unattainable, but steady progress toward that point is noble in and of itself.

And that is what I saw as I drove back and forth across America during our period of presidential transition. As I passed historical markers in each state, I came to realize each site only marked a moment in time — an occurrence — not necessarily a turning point. In many ways we are still separate and unequal. We still have a dream. We stumble and we fall and we do not always live up to our own high expectations of ourselves But as Americans, the intention is clear. We want to be the America in our mind’s eye, the heroic America of our favorite stories, the America that is consistently on the right side of history and humanity, the America the rest of the world also aspires to be.

The full twelve-part series on America In Transition.

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Dean Pagani

Dean Pagani

Photojournalism for Brands and Ideas.

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