The Lies We Tell Ourselves About Race

Jan 12, 2021
Originally published on January 12, 2021 5:44 am

There is a lie some Americans tell themselves when America is on its worst behavior: "This isn't America!" or "This isn't who we are!" or "We're better than this!"

You heard versions of this lie again this past week after armed insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol on urging from President Trump, attempting to undo the results of last November's election.

Even in the halls of Congress, after the broken glass was cleared and U.S. senators and representatives were allowed back into their chambers from undisclosed locations, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska came back to this refrain: "Our kids need to know that this isn't what America is."

We are a country built on fabrication, nostalgia and euphemism. And every time America shows the worst of itself, all the contradictions collapse into the lie I've heard nonstop for the last several years: "This isn't who we are."

In the final weeks of Donald Trump's presidency, we are still collectively struggling over whether to treat his term and the reaction to it as an aberration or as a continuation of an American way of life. So much of it feels unprecedented: the emergence of the Trump-led Twitter news cycle, the abandonment of political norms we thought were etched in stone, the seemingly never-ending protest movements sprouting up in reaction to it all.

It all feels new. But it is not.

The images from the Capitol this past week made that clear: a noose hanging outside the building. Inside, insurrectionists carrying a Confederate flag. Members of the mob wearing T-shirts that read "Civil War."

Our current troubles — and our current administration — are both just the latest chapters in America's ongoing battle over race.

Trump's presidency has always been about race and reacting to a nation more diverse than it has ever been. We've been reminded of that time and again since he announced his candidacy. So how can anyone still say, "This is not who we are"? Why do we continue to hear that same lie as the worst of America rears its head? -

Once you see it as such, it all makes a lot more sense. Remember, Trump began his ascent to political power on a racist lie: birtherism. He launched his campaign for the presidency calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists. His first major policy initiative was travel restrictions on Muslim-majority nations that felt a lot like a travel ban on people with darker skin. His supporters cited "economic anxiety" as their motivation, but they were driven by racial animus. Former KKK leader David Duke endorsed Trump twice for president.

Trump's presidency has always been about race and reacting to a nation more diverse than it has ever been. We've been reminded of that time and again since he announced his candidacy. So how can anyone still say, "This is not who we are"? Why do we continue to hear that same lie as the worst of America rears its head?

I see glimpses of who we are every day and, at the same time, a deep discomfort with that reality. That lie permeates my industry, the media. There would have been a time, several years ago, where if I had attempted to write this essay using words like "racist" or "lie," I would have been told to rewrite it. Urged to soften the tone. To maybe not make it all about race. This is not an indictment of NPR; the entire industry did it. Much of the industry still does.

Even this past week, there was hand-wringing about what to call the rioters storming the U.S. Capitol and how to describe their insurrection.

But I'd be wrong to say it's only the media that nurtures the lie. Our audiences do as well.

As a Black NPR host, I am often talking to mostly white audiences about race. By and large, listeners are happy to go where those conversations lead, but regularly, a loud minority shows that it actually wants no part of such discussions. Listeners send emails wondering whether I ever talk about anything but race. Others suggest I may actually have it all wrong, invoking some version of "not all white people."

A recent example came after an interview with an Asian American author, tracing the long history of discrimination against Asians in this country. Several white listeners wondered why other groups just didn't "work hard" the way their own white ancestors did. And then another listener wrote they didn't consider themselves "the least bit racist," but called all Asians "manipulative and dishonest."

The lie is all around us. So when weeks like the one we just experienced happen, some yell the lie even louder, to our detriment. What would happen if we decided to be more honest about race the next time our nation found itself at a racial flashpoint? What might be lost? What might be gained?

It's hard to know, because I've never seen us, collectively, do it before. But I know that history only yells louder each time we refuse to listen. And no lie, no matter how often it's told, can keep the truth at bay.

Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of the NPR podcast It's Been a Minute With Sam Sanders. The show's latest episode, "The Capitol, Mobbed," is available for streaming here.

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There's been a lot of talk over the last few days about just what that attack on the Capitol says about America. We heard the same words over and over again - this is not who we are. But our next guest says it is. NPR's Sam Sanders, host of It's Been A Minute, wrote a piece about this on, and he joins us now. Hey, Sam.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Hey. How are you, Tonya?

MOSLEY: I am well. Thanks. So Republican Ben Sasse of Nebraska actually said, our kids need to know this isn't what America is. And you called that sentiment a lie.

SANDERS: I think it is a lie. Yes, I do.

MOSLEY: Say more.

SANDERS: You know, I think that since this country's founding, America has been a country built on racial hierarchy and exploitation and subjugation. And a lot of that history is still present, and we don't want to talk about it or examine just how big of a factor race is in American life still in 2021. And flashpoints like the insurrection last week are just the latest chapter in a book that we've been writing for decades and centuries now. When I look at those images from last week, one of the protesters was trotting a Confederate flag through the Capitol. There was a noose outside of the Capitol, and some of those folks had on T-shirts that read civil war. It's not new. It's with us. And it is who we are. It's who we have been.

MOSLEY: You know what's also interesting is the perspective. Your piece was shared on Twitter more than 5,000 times, and there are different reactions based on race. So Black people responded as if you were basically preaching to the choir, and others feel taken aback by this idea. How does this lie that you write about play out every day for you?

SANDERS: You know, the lie plays out, in the field that I'm in, constantly finding ways to speak truth through my work. You know? We talked about the insurrection on my show last weekend. And I got some emails from some listeners basically saying, well, it's not that bad. It's not really about this, particularly from white listeners, from white readers. I think some of them might feel that if they really speak to the reality of race in this country, it implicates them, too, to which I say, yeah, it does. It implicates all of us. But how do we move past it and get better until we acknowledge that?

MOSLEY: That's the big question. If this attack represents an element of who we are and some people can see it while others cannot, how do we actually move forward?

SANDERS: I think there's a few things. I think we have to start drawing some throughlines through the things that are happening in this country - Charlottesville, the church shooting in Charleston, the synagogue shooting in Pennsylvania. These are events that are about race, and it is racial violence. This is a throughline and a pattern that stretches back through our history. So one, we've got to do that. And two, I think that when these racial flashpoints arise, we have to fight the urge to do things that would keep us from speaking truth.

A thing that I notice a lot when there is racial trauma that happens in America - a lot of good-hearted folks, a lot of good-hearted white folks, they want to absorb a community's pain. And I think a lot of white people think that once they see that pain, they feel like they've done something. But they actually haven't done anything. There is no action. And so what I wanted to do with this piece was to not just perform Black grief again, but to challenge the, quote-unquote, "good white people" out there, to start asking themselves how they perpetuate lies about race that continue to allow racism to run this society.

MOSLEY: Well, you can read Sam's essay at And Sam, thank you so much for this article.

SANDERS: Oh, thank you, Tonya. I appreciate it.

MOSLEY: Sam Sanders is host of NPR's It's Been A Minute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.