Political Divisions Run Deep In Kansas City, But Unity Can't Be Forced — We Have To Work For It
When the yard signs come down and the ballot counts end, we still need to grapple with how to bring our communities together. Here's some perspective.
The contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump in this week's presidential election was so close, in the end, that it took days of painstaking ballot counts to determine a winner, with percentages for both candidates hovering right around 50% in crucial battleground states.
In the course of those uncertain hours and days spent hitting refresh on websites tracking maddeningly stagnant numbers, many Americans — who may have dared to dream of a landslide in favor of the candidate they supported — got a harrowing reminder of how divided we are as a country. Not just in the form of persistently razor-thin margins, but in news of crowds objecting to the counting of ballots as final results drew near.
"It shouldn't be this close," echoed a popular refrain on social media.
But Julie — a south Johnson County resident who requests to be known by her first name only — was well aware of the situation before Tuesday. It's a reality she lives every day. It started at a neighborhood block party where the self-identified Democrat saw a giant Trump 2020 flag in a neighbor's open garage.
"I was like, 'Whoa, that's huge.' And my neighbor said, 'You don't have one?'" The neighbor pointed to one house after another, Julie recalls, saying, They have one and they have one and they have one.
Julie told the neighbor, only half-jokingly, that she might be investing in a sign of her own: a for-sale sign. Months later, she's not joking at all. Ideological divisions over mask-wearing have made the differences more stark. Julie and her family immediately began social distancing when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Their neighbors did not.
"My neighbors were making fun of my kid because she wanted to be safe," Julie told me as we headed into Election Day.
So now, the family has turned inward. "I've just kind of not been hanging out with them like I used to. No matter who wins, there's still going to be a huge divide."
Republicans have articulated a similar feeling of being unable to escape the divisions of politics, even in their personal lives. "It's so separated now," Sheila May-Turner, a Republican voter and Trump supporter, told KCUR in the runup to the election. "You used to be able to see a Democrat and a Republican and, you know, they could walk side by side and you would never know. Well, nowadays it's not like that."
Scholars and op-ed writers are asking, in earnest, whether the United States is inching toward a second Civil War, some even suggesting that we may already be in one.
Against this backdrop, Americans exhausted by hateful rhetoric have been making heartfelt pleas for unity.
But for Americans who are part of a group that's been threatened, excluded or harmed by that rhetoric, a lot needs to happen before coming together will feel safe or authentic.
Last week, Melissa Patterson Hazley changed her Twitter handle to "Vote Like Your Life Depends On It." Hazley is a Black Kansas Citian. She voted against Donald Trump, and for the removal of monuments to Andrew Jackson outside the Jackson County courthouses. But Missouri, the state where she's lived most of her life, voted for Trump. Jackson County, which she calls home, voted against the removal of those statues.
Hazley describes her feelings seeing the results in one word: "heartbreak." To her, the returns aren't just numbers. They feel like outright rejection, because they don't just oppose her ideas. They oppose her.
"A lot of people are saying that they actively don't like you. People are fine with a symbol of U.S. enslavement and Native American genocide being in front of a courthouse, you know, sort of looking over you. The president says openly racist things all the time and it turns out that a lot of people that live in my city and live in my state are fine with that."
"I've talked to friends who want to move to another country; they want to move to maybe a majority Black country," Hazley says. "I don't want to move to another country. I really like it here."
Hazley says that for her, unity isn't an entirely reasonable request just yet. She's at that turning point you reach in an unhealthy relationship where you stop trying to get the other party to like you back and start focusing, instead, on taking care of yourself.
"There's just so much basic, basic stuff that needs to happen that doesn't even require you to like me," she says. "You don't have to like me personally, you know, just don't try to keep me from having access to health care that's not going to bankrupt me or let me die. Like, you don't even have to like me, I'm over here in my own space."
For Hazley, unity will require getting to the point where an apology is possible.
"The first thing in any repair is for you to just say, 'I'm sorry.' You know?"
Kansas filmmaker Kevin Willmott agrees. Now famous for his Oscar-winning collaboration with Spike Lee on the script for BlacKkKlansman, Willmott originally made a name for himself with a 2004 mockumentary called C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, which imagined a different outcome for the Civil War between the American North and South. So he's been thinking about our country's polarization since before it was widely acknowledged.
When Willmott hears calls for unity, he has one big question. "Unity based on what?" he asks.
"Unity based on going back and hiding these biases and prejudices and in many cases hatred from one another? On one level it’s really bad that we see so much visible hatred. On the other hand, it’s kind of good we know where people stand. And that whole thing of knowing where people stand, to me, it’s a far more honest situation. That’s kind of where reconciliation and unity has to start."
Willmott says that over the past four years, he's been hearing more stories from friends and family about being called the n-word than he'd heard in a long, long time. His cousin had it happen in a doctor's office waiting room, where an elderly patient in a wheelchair shouted it. A friend heard it while getting on a city bus.
"The guy in the White House gave people the courage to reveal their biases and prejudices and people have been doing it. A lot," Willmott says. "That’s why it feels like a cold civil war. That’s civil war stuff, not just division."
In the face of eroding norms for civil disagreement, Willmott notes that "senators and congressmen have not stood up and said ‘Hey, wait a minute, you can’t do that.’" He calls that "an unanswered slur."
Willmott says that unity — not just for Black people but also the LGBTQ community, Jews, immigrants and other groups that have been targeted — needs to start with an answer to the slur. And that answer, he clarifies, needs to come from inside the institutions of our democracy, where silence has enabled real harm.
That's where I, too, find myself struggling with calls for unity. It feels bad to be divided. I don't like being judged. I don't like judging others. The hostility is a poison that we all ingest. It would be such a relief, after all we've been through, to come together in our shared humanity. I am willing to work hard for that harmonious state of affairs.
But unity and exclusion just aren't compatible. A kind of unity that asks people to pretend they're not hurting isn't unity at all. It's oppression.
I'm still trying to figure out my place in it all, which probably starts with crafting not just an authentic answer to the call for unity, but also a personal answer to the slur.
Neither answer is ready to go just yet, but I'm working on it.
What I won't do is ask people who have suffered more than I have to shoulder the burden of unity for the sake of my comfort.