I lived on the campus of Pomfret School for 24 of my 46 years on this earth. When I choose to write about my Pomfret moments they are, as they should be, moments of success and failure, pleasure and pain. I made lifelong friends there as a student and as a faculty member, and I am sure in the eyes of some, I have made some enemies. It was far from perfect in my time there, and neither was I. I own all of my moments because good or bad I always took something away. For me, the good so outweighed the bad because of good people who tried to do good things.
The Little Red House
In the summer of 2008, I moved into the little red house (formerly blue-green and currently tan) at the edge of campus. It was a significant move for me in that I had spent so much time in that house when I was a student. For my entire four years, Ginny and Marshall Eaton had opened their home, this home, to me and countless others who needed to be seen and heard. Their home was sanctuary. It was a sanctuary from otherness. It was a place that no matter what happened, we would be okay. I had lots of good friends on campus, but when I went to that little red house, I had family. The generosity of the Eaton’s is my model for what a boarding school faculty member should be. And while their house was home base, it was their complete presence that provided us, in the fullest sense, a home away from home. When the opportunity came for me to move into a house on campus, I lobbied for and was granted residence in “my” old home.
Left Photo: A group of us on any given Sunday at Ginny and Marshall's. Right Photo: My advisee group in the same house 20 years later.
“It’s been a long, long time coming, but I know, change gon’ come”
- Sam Cooke
On Tuesday, November 4th, 2008, I was in a solemn mood; I was hopeful but nervous. No matter what happened, I was going to be okay, but I thought that I needed to be alone. A good friend, Allison Aldrich (Dinardo), called and asked if she could come by and watch the election results with me, and I said yes. Alone was good but together had to be better. We watched, and we chatted. And as the states turned blue, we smiled with our hearts and our eyes. It wasn't about politics, it was about hope. At just after 11:00 pm, two African-American boys ran down to my house and screamed, “We did it.” Allison was tearing up, I was tearing up, and they were full of joy; full of hope. Obama received, what is still a record 69 million votes. We all embraced, Allison went home, and I sent the boys back to their dorm. My fiance, now wife, called me from her trip to China. My dad called me crying, hooping, and hollering. My siblings called and friends called. On that night, America said, relatively loudly, “Not all presidents have to be white.” Change.
In what the media, and politicians, constantly reminds us is a very polarized country, one thing that we can all agree on is the fact that America is changing. She just celebrated her 244th birthday on July 4th as many of her citizens were literally struggling for their lives, liberties, and their desire to pursue happiness. This is an important struggle, and important struggles typically lead to important changes. These kinds of changes are often hindered, both innocently and deliberately, by a lack of clear direction, calculated stagnation, and fear. Change is inherently scary for most of us, so the people who blindly and aggressively want to preserve the systems, and the status quo, that are serving them well often rely on agitational and persuasive fear-mongering. They create a Frankenstein’s monster of partial truths, strawmen, and outright lies and suggest that the monster is coming to get us. They feign populism and manipulate and misdirect the “masses” to ignore their actual pain (lack of equitable economic opportunity for all, lack of quality education for their children, greater health care, etc.) and join the hunt for the monster.
This brand of demagoguery was literally on stage on America’s most recent birthday. As a country in desperate need of healing, physically and socially, got to hear from their President. But instead of trying to bring all of us together with hope and a plan, our top leader decided to sow seeds of greater division. He, more eloquently than usual, warned us that we are witnessing a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.” With incendiary language and a covert and yet somehow blatant advocacy for white supremacy, he kept using the word “our.” I wonder who is his “our?” And also what values are getting erased?
I do not believe that taking down statues erase history, but I am not in favor of haphazardly tearing them down. I am, however, very much in favor of having hard and real conversations, especially at the local level, about why every monument exists and then making a thoughtful decision about where they belong. That is the core of our democracy. If we know the full truth about Christopher Columbus and, as a nation, still choose to celebrate him on October 12th, that says a lot about who we currently are, as a nation.
I also fully agree that it is important to say that Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln are great leaders and tremendously important to our Country and the idea of America. However, it is also important to recognize, and say, that they were flawed men. It is not wiping out “our” history to say that; it is just telling our full history while paying homage to a greater sense of truth. To me saying that they said and did racist things, at a time of State-sanctioned and rampant racism only defames those heroes if those facts were untrue. Washington and Jefferson enslaved men and women, and though they may have struggled with the institution of slavery, they never struggled enough to grant those women and men their full humanity, and that is and should be, a part of their legacy as well. Lincoln for most of his life never felt that blacks and whites could live together and wanted to send the enslaved back to Africa, despite the fact that at that point most of the enslaved were American-born. That is not a part of Lincoln that most of us would want to celebrate, but that is a part of who he was. In his terrific book, Just Mercy, author and activist Bryan Stevenson said, “we are all more than the worst thing we have ever done.” That applies to those we choose to criminalize as well as those we choose to revere. Lincoln’s lack of progressive thinking, especially in the time he lived, doesn’t disqualify him as one of our greatest presidents and leaders, it just humanizes him.
Hiding the truth about our fabled leaders perpetuates the myth of perfection that is destructive to all future leaders. It is destructive for us to keep our former leaders in perpetual eulogy. Great leaders are not superhuman, they are just humans who typically work harder and smarter to accomplish great things for the greater good. They are human, and by that very nature, they are flawed. JFK and MLK were great leaders for their accomplishments, but neither adequately championed women’s rights and both allegedly had extramarital affairs. We can, however, still honor them and be honest about them at the same time. In his July 4th speech, Trump warns us against “indoctrination,” but as a nation, who and what we choose to honor and celebrate is what indoctrinates our children and teaches them what we stand for. The least that we can do is tell them the whole truth. All of us, and our children, have been subjected to a white-washed brand of history for generations. Maybe now it is a good time to honestly unpack that history. If seeking the truth is indoctrination, I support it fully.
Nonetheless, instead of tearing down statues from the past, I wish people, on both sides of the issue, would use that energy and passion to demand that their local leaders invest in creating fairer statutes for the present and the future. Statutes that empower the disempowered, statutes that help all Americans better chase the idea of the American Dream. I do recognize that in this conversation, I am privileged to not have to walk to work in front of “heroes” like Nathan Bedford Forest or Alexander Stephens, but destroying property is a distraction that allows our President and his sycophants and minions, to hide behind rhetoric rather than taking accountability for his increasingly corrupt and failing presidency.
First Rule of the Ameritocracy; Don't Talk About the Ameritocracy.
The phrase white supremacy is so obviously and historically connected to hate that it can be hard for people, especially those who don’t overtly hate others based on race (or other identifiers) to see their complicity in perpetuating it and it’s structures. So many people, much smarter than I am, have eloquently and thoroughly defined white supremacy and what it means in our current times. However, people, mainly unbigoted white people, ignore the more nuanced definition. They need to distance themselves from the David Dukes, Richard Spencers, Dylan Roofs, and El Paso shooter, Patrick Crusius of the world. And with good reason, these men aren’t just complicit with white supremacy they are explicit about it. These men aren’t the cause of white supremacy in America, they are the virulent and undisguised symptoms of a system that is so embedded in our very existence that it has become the air that we all breathe. As you think about the air that we breathe, I want you to think about a similar concept that David Foster Wallace introduced during his commencement address to the Kenyon College graduating class of 2005. At the beginning of his speech he told the following story:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"
So as we swim along together I ask that we ponder the question, “What the hell is white supremacy?” To make this conversation a little more accessible, I suggest we create a new word that temporarily frees the minds of those who struggle with seeing our country as one built on and powered by such an ugly concept. I present a new word that I hope at least brings us closer in understanding what I believe is white supremacy: “Ameritocracy.”
Second Rule of the Ameritocracy; Don’t Talk About the Ameritocracy!
Ameritocracy is central to the founding of this country. Our founding fathers were courageous and brilliant leaders for their time. They were the original patriots who demanded their freedom from an oppressive rule in the most violent of protests, war. They also, while deliberately subjugating others, discussed beautiful ideas of fairness and freedom, and wrote these brilliant words:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
They were indeed speaking about just Men. White, land-owning men, mainly of the Protestant sect of Christianity; this was the Ameritocracy. These were the men who could hold office, rise to power, and perpetuate wealth. Other white men, if they worked really hard, married well, had a special gift, and/or made the most of the welfare programs (Manifest Destiny, The Homestead Act, The New Deal, The GI Bill etc.) that were not fairly afforded to all Americans, could also join the Ameritocracy. And even in their greatest moment, these men were aware of the hypocrisy of their words but pressed forward anyway. According to the website of the History Channel, History.com, Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of The Declaration of Independence initially wrote a 168-word passage that listed the perpetuation of chattel slavery as one of the grievances against King George. Jefferson wrote, “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.” Jefferson, and the other founders, swallowed those words because they knew that slavery at that time was, and would continue to be, the engine of our burgeoning economy; the strength of our new country. It was a powerful engine that was created by white supremacy to maintain white supremacy and in turn produced emissions that still poison all of us to this very day. Those poisonous emissions and their vast pollution killed giants like Lincoln, John and Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. They also killed nine people in a church in 2015, Sandra Bland and George Floyd. And while it only took eight minutes and forty-six seconds to kill Floyd, it has been choking the potential growth and destroying the health of this country for centuries.
It Is Good To Be Normed
Ameritocracy needs to sustain itself. It needs to remain undetected, so it demands a hierarchical structure that protects it, rarely questions it, and it demands it not be discussed. It paints a picture (or builds monuments) to what success looks like and then writes the rules for how it can be achieved. It creates and celebrates heroes and punishes “dissidents” who try to point out the flaws in the structure. We eventually celebrate courageous people (Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, Frank Kameny, Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali, etc.) who challenge the laws that protect the Ameritocracy, but not until they have paid a price for pointing out what is wrong with the system. Ameritocracy explicitly says that everyone can achieve “success” by following some explicitly stated rules (some of which are, work hard, respect the flag, and follow the laws). It also says that “all men are created equal” but, to borrow from Orwell, “some men are created more equal.” It is in the small print of Ameritocracy, that we find a list of valued norms that we mustn’t talk fully about. The more of these norms or identities that you possess, the more boxes you can check, the greater chance you have for success in the United States. These valued norms don’t guarantee success, they just make the path easier.
Imagine if you were born a dark-skinned, poor, Jewish, lesbian, woman with parents who spoke English as a second language. What would your chances of success be in this country? You could potentially transcend your lack of “normalness” at birth, but you’d have to be pretty damn impressive in terms of talent and hard work. Now imagine being Donald Trump Jr. What would he have to do to not at least appear successful? I am not picking on Jr., as I don’t know him at all, but he checks every box in the top two Tiers, and I wonder if he would have gotten into the University of Pennsylvania on his own merits. Would Jr. have a better shot at becoming President or even a congressman over the aforementioned woman? Is that fair if they are equally hardworking and intelligent? Is it fair if she is much more intelligent and hardworking?
Take Me To Your Leaders
And though we are a nation that seems driven by wealth, the people who achieve the highest regard are our elected and chosen officials. The ones who serve the country the best, eventually get statues. The middle group gets remembered in history books, and even the failed ones get book deals, speaking engagements, and parlay their years of “service” into more wealth. In the history of the United States, there have only been 45 presidents, while according to Forbes, there are currently 623 billionaires in the United States. There are in fact more billionaires currently than the current members of The US Congress, the US Supreme Court, and the President and his Cabinet combined. Wealth is clearly a great thing if you can get it, but being granted the power to lead a nation is a gift bestowed on very few. These are the elites of our Ameritocracy.
The table below shows the history of the highest levels of the federal government in our country. There have been a total of 13,231 people to serve at the highest level of our three branches of government. 386 (3.0%) have been women and 388 (3.0%) have been people of color (some of which have obviously been women).
More important than even the numbers, is the question that asks why? Women have always been roughly 50% of the population, why have we not seen them as national leaders? Are they less capable than men? Are people of color less capable as leaders to white people? The numbers above are obviously skewed by centuries of Ameritocracy, or white, male supremacy.
“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equity feels like oppression.”
The following table shows a more current depiction of the leadership of our country.
As a country, through marches, demonstrations, and the sacrifice of many, we have made strides for equity, and it’s making a difference. But one person’s equity is another person’s oppression. During the 2016 Presidential race, I overheard a white male colleague “joking” that if Hillary Clinton won, and earned a second term, that there would be “young men voting in the 2024 election who had never really known a white male president.” I reminded him that there would be young women voting as well. His statement, even in “jest,” spoke many truths; America was trying to become more equitable, and for him, and others like him, that meant loss.
In his acceptance speech that Tuesday night, Barack Obama said, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” He went on to further his answer. He said, “It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled. Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and always will be, the United States of America.” Obama's speech deemphasized the Ameritocracy, and the Ameritocracy always strikes back.
Donald Trump’s election was a backlash to Barack Obama’s hope, and his audacity to challenge the Ameritocracy. Obama’s election was a signal that change was possible, but his agenda of “diversity” was, as Tucker Carlson said similarly about immigration, “more change than any American was designed to ingest.” Over his two terms, he had (the most ever) 18 female cabinet members, and diversified the Supreme Court by appointing another Jewish woman and a Puerto Rican and Catholic woman. He championed marriage equality and LGBTQ+ Rights. He tried to make sure that every American could get health care. He created Open Doors, the nation’s first federal strategic plan to end homelessness and in the process significantly reduced veteran homelessness. He challenged us to truly embrace our constitutional demand of religious freedom, and said: “an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths.” He commuted thousands of unjust drug sentences. Through strategy, national partnerships, and important regulation he worked to ensure that generations beyond us would have a world that is liveable and more just. The Ameritocracy has spent the last three and a half years trying to “Make America Great Again.”
I was more emotional on election night 2016 than I was on that Tuesday evening in 2008. I began the day with the hope that millions of girls would be able to believe that they could aspire to the highest office in this country, despite that Hillary Clinton wasn’t a “perfect” candidate. I was hoping that America would say loudly that “Misogyny is dying.” I went to bed at 11:00 pm despondent with a pit in my stomach. I woke up at 7:00 am and stared at my ceiling afraid to look at my phone and look at the final results. I felt like progress had run into the roadblock of Ameritocracy. People are angry with Trump for winning. It’s not his fault, he didn’t create the system. He just took advantage of it. He entered the game, played within the rules, checked all the right boxes, and won. He won and he surrounded himself with a cabinet that is more male, and whiter than any president since Ronald Reagan.
We want to believe that it is true that our current America is built on principles of equity, fairness, and hard work. That “truth” would help us sleep better, knowing that all of our successes must be merited by our talent and hard work. And if we believe that, we must also believe the corollary, that those who fail to achieve at the same level are either less capable or just not working as hard. We need to investigate that truth. And then we need to ask ourselves, why giving another group equal rights and opportunities might feel oppressive to us?
One of the reasons this issue is so hard is that in our discussions we freely fluctuate from the individual to the group; we have to look deeper. We will likely never solve the issues of individual hatred, bigotry, or prejudice based on things people have no control over. Freedom to think is also the freedom to think poorly. However, if we are a nation that aspires to be the best version of itself, we have to make sure that our institutions and systems aren’t perpetuating advantages and disadvantages based on anything that another American cannot control. With love for in our hearts, we must decide to tackle what it means to be an American and celebrate our shared values, beliefs, and cultures. And at the same time, we must engage in open and honest conversations about our differences and how that diversity makes us thrive. And when we do have those conversations, we have to, as author Susan Scott says, “Come out from behind your real self in the conversation and make it real." The future of our country depends on it.