The America I Love Needs to Do Better

Patriotism isn’t just the blind love of our flag. It is the work we do to improve our country for every American.

Mark Peterson / Redux

I immigrated to America in 1968. I had dreamed about coming here from the moment I saw images of the United States in elementary school. To me, the photos and film of towering skyscrapers, huge bridges, wide freeways, and Hollywood represented a land of limitless opportunity. I decided that this was where I belonged.

America was in the middle of a race to the moon, and at the end of 1968, we watched brave astronauts launch into the skies above in the first manned Apollo flight. Their mission seemed to prove that this was truly a country without limits.

But in 1968, as a new immigrant, I was shocked to learn that the country I had dreamed about since childhood wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t even close.

Protesters took to the streets to raise their voices about the disastrous Vietnam War, about racist policies all over the country, about women’s inequality. A racist lunatic, George Wallace, ran for president on a platform of keeping many Americans down, segregated from the opportunities that brought me here. Two great voices of hope, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, were silenced by evil assassins.

On Saturday, we watched brave astronauts launch into space once again. And once again, our streets are filled with protesters who are fighting a system that limits them.

The past few days have brought another brutal reminder that America isn’t perfect. I still believe that we are the greatest country in the world, but we are at our best when we look in the mirror, face our demons, and cast them away to become a little bit better every day.

The protesters we see in the streets don’t hate America. They are asking us to be better. They are asking on behalf of our fellow Americans who no longer have a voice: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and many others.

When I watched the horrible video of Floyd’s death, the first thing that I thought of was the video of Eric Garner losing his life for the crime of selling cigarettes. These weren’t dangerous criminals on the “most wanted” list, but these incidents are not nearly as rare as they should be.

It has to stop. It will take all of us standing up. It will take better training for police officers. It will take the majority of police officers, who are good, pushing for change. But it has to stop.

This isn’t an attack on police officers. It is a criticism of a broken system. My father was a police officer. I have always rooted for police officers. But you can be a fan of something and still see the wrong within it. And it is clear that something is very wrong.

My friend Erroll Southers, who has spent his career in law enforcement and served in my administration’s homeland-security department, wrote today: “I still get nervous when I receive the unexpected phone call at an odd hour, hoping my son, brother or relative has not become the next hashtag.”

Think about that. Erroll Southers is a professor at USC, a former FBI agent, an upstanding man in every sense of the word, and because of the color of his skin, when his phone rings in the middle of the night, his first thought is that his son or brother might be the reason for the next march.

I can’t even fathom that experience. If my kids FaceTime me late at night, it brings me joy, or maybe if they’ve been at a party, a laugh. It is completely unjust that for much of our population, those family calls bring anxiety.

It’s wrong, it’s unfair—and that’s why people are marching today.

It is our duty to listen to them. We can’t ignore the issues of inequality in this country. No one can claim with a straight face that black and brown kids in the inner cities get an education equal to what kids in the suburbs receive. No one can deny that minorities find themselves on the wrong end of our justice system in unequal numbers. No one with a heart can watch these murders and not feel deep sadness, anger, and even guilt.

It is very easy to see the burning buildings and destroyed businesses and look away from the meaning of the protests, or discount them entirely. Believe me, I hate riots as much as anyone, and the violence needs to stop now. Burning businesses and cars didn’t bring meaningful change after Watts or 1968 or the 1992 riots, and it won’t bring change today. These vandals only distract from the important message of the protests.

But we as Americans can’t let the smoke obscure the very real issues we must confront.

It isn’t easy work, looking in the mirror. As patriotic Americans, we want to believe that our nation is beyond racism. As individuals, we don’t want to believe that we harbor subtle stereotypes and prejudices. But it is important work, because the greatness of America doesn’t come from the status quo; it comes from our constant struggle to live up to our promise.

This, to me, is not a political issue. It is a patriotic issue. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal,” our country certainly didn’t live up to that promise. But generations since have pushed the boundaries, bringing equality closer and closer to reality. That is the American story, and we must remember that it’s a painful story for anyone left out of the promise.

When I moved here in 1968, I thought I was coming to the greatest country in the world. I was. I didn’t know much about the nation’s inequality then, but I’ve learned a great deal since. That knowledge doesn’t make me love America any less, but it does make me want to fight for our country even more. I’ve tried to do my own small part, supporting after-school programs in our inner cities and, when I was governor, settling a long-standing lawsuit, to ensure that all students had qualified teachers, textbooks, and safe, clean, and functional schools. But today, I know that we can all do more.

“Whenever a building is constructed, you usually have an architect who draws a blueprint, and that blueprint serves as the pattern, as the guide, and a building is not well erected without a good, sound, and solid blueprint,” Martin Luther King Jr. told a group of graduating students in 1967. We need a proper, a solid, and a sound blueprint for fixing our country.

We didn’t get here in one administration, and we can’t fix things in one administration. When we built the interstate highway system, we made a plan. We knew the work would take decades, we knew it would be hard, but we did it anyway. If we can do it to make our roads better, we can do it to make our society more equal.

Patriotism isn’t just the blind love of our flag. It is the work we do to improve our country for every American. I want the unlimited opportunity that drew me here in 1968 to exist for every American, regardless of skin color.

And the next time we send a rocket into space, showing the world that we can soar past the limits of our atmosphere, I want every kid in an inner-city school to see it as a symbol of the possibility that lies ahead for them, instead of a symbol of an America that doesn’t belong to them.

We can do better. We have to be willing to listen, to learn, to look in the mirror and see that none of us is perfect. We have to be willing to see one another as Americans, and not as enemies. We have to be willing to sit down and do the hard work of reform without worrying about stupid party lines.

I’m ready to listen and work to make America better every day. Are you?