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The Lies We Tell Ourselves About Race

Demonstrators attempt to breach the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. The insurrection was just the latest chapter in America's ongoing battle over race, writes NPR host Sam Sanders.
Demonstrators attempt to breach the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. The insurrection was just the latest chapter in America's ongoing battle over race, writes NPR host Sam Sanders.

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 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 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, Donald 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 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 show that they actually want 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 podcastIt's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders. The show's latest episode, "The Capitol, Mobbed," is available forstreaming here.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.