Life, Liberty, and The Pursuit of Happiness
The 2020 Election Declaration
By CSJ President, Pharoah Sutton-Jackson
I sat with the news of the election for 30 minutes. The only overwhelming emotion I felt was relief. As if some more-than-marginal but less-than-significant weight had been lifted. I could exhale, but I was not happy, not overcome with joy. I knew that cynicism was not the source of my placation. As much as I have my critiques of the President and Vice President Elects, and as much as I plan to hold them accountable, I recognize there is legitimate cause for some to celebrate. I, however, could not escape the recognition of all the work that was - and is - still to be done. The streets of my hometown borough were filled with jubilant exclamations, friends and loved ones relayed their tears, and yet I had not even cracked a smile.
Then, in my scrolling, I came across CNN correspondent Van Jones’ reaction to the news. He was emotional. He spoke as a father. “It’s easier to tell your kids character matters.” This resonated with me. Leading up to today I was not someone who had deeply internalized the narrative that this was an election for the soul of our country, mostly because I did not believe this country’s soul was so easily redeemable. The social injustices that have occurred over the past 4 years are neither unique nor novel. Thus, a change in administration will not be the sole remedy to our societal ills. Our issues are entrenched, sewn throughout the fabric of our history. As Eddie Glaude noted on MSNBC a few days ago, “This is us.” One of our strongest impediments to progress as a nation is our refusal to acknowledge our collective transgressions, or more accurately, the consistent transgressions of ALL those who have been in power. Not just the 45th President. Therefore, regardless of the election results, we as a people still have to confront our country’s dirty little secret, that was really only a secret to those who, every generation, have the privilege of sustaining willful ignorance. I have spent so much time thinking about what this election could not do, yet Van Jones made me realize I was overlooking the significance it did have.
When I watched him speak and fight back tears, I reflected on the work he has done these past four years. Where the election of Donald Trump has eroded many people’s faith in the system, and in this country, it did not appear that way for Van. He still pursued his policy objectives in a bipartisan manner. Despite immense criticism, he in fact worked with the Trump Administration to achieve some significant accomplishments within criminal justice reform. He kept faith in the system and in the people of this country. He kept fighting for change and never viewed this country, or democracy, as a lost cause, despite all its flaws. I can imagine, for him, this election is a vindication of his commitment and belief.
For all others who constantly fight for progress and justice in this country, I imagine this is a similar affirmation. I think of public interest employees. I think of volunteers, like all the election workers who have had the pressure of the entire country on them for the better of five straight days. I think of all the grassroots organizers, like Stacey Abrams, who spurred 800,000 new voter registrations in Georgia and was instrumental in flipping a state that has not elected a Democratic candidate since 1992. I think of lobbyists and philanthropists. I think of advocates, like the lawyers who mentor me, and like I and all my peers will soon be. All these factions operate from a fundamental belief that change in this country is possible. Despite all the hate and ignorance that pervades this country, ever more evident to some in recent years, they believe there is an equal and opposite collective of Americans who believe in equality and justice and are willing to fight for it.
As I reflected on that, I was reminded of one of my favorite film scenes. It is from the film Pursuit of Happiness, where Will Smith portrays Chris Gardner, depicting Gardner’s nearly one-year struggle being homeless. The film is based on Gardner’s true story. Smith’s character lands a position as one of twenty unpaid interns, competing for a single paid position as a stockbroker. Concluding his six-month-internship, Gardner is told that he has won the position. Smith, in his portrayal, fights back tears as he shakes hands with his now employers. He then ironically walks down Wall Street jubilantly clapping his hands. The film uses Gardner’s story as an allegory or example of the prototypical “American Dream.”
We know that rugged individualism is problematic, and the “boot-strap” theory is a false narrative that ignores privilege and systemic oppression. Yet, in a way, today is a similar moment for our country. Many viewed the election of Donald Trump as the inevitable response to the trajectory of our country. A radical reaction to the Obama presidency from the bigots at the core of our nation who sensed their power and privilege slipping away. This may still be true. But, for many, a re-election of Trump would have signaled a confirmation that this country was beyond reproach. It would have meant that bigotry no longer resided just at this country’s core, present in its veins, but had fully reclaimed its face. The 74 million plus votes for Joe Biden, the most ever for a presidential candidate, may signal that, just maybe, this country is worth fighting for. 74 million plus voters showed they are willing to fight for change. A four million plus differential majority expressed that they do believe in some fundamental core values of decency and respect. Of truth, and science. This country may have just collectively said, character matters.
Chris Gardner getting that job was not an immediate cure to his homelessness. There was still so much more for him to do in order to provide for himself and his son. The same is the case here. With this election we are not cured of institutional racism. We are not cured of the patriarchy. We are not cured of bigotry and hatred. We are not cured of our wealth gap. We are not cured of mass incarceration. We still have not found a cure for COVID with numbers reaching record heights. Yet, just like Gardner, we’ve given ourselves an opportunity. That is why this moment is celebratory. We’ve given ourselves an opportunity to continue to push for change. As Americans, it's appropriate for us to celebrate every time we give ourselves a legitimate opportunity to continue to fight for our lives, liberty, and pursuits of happiness.
However, I’d be remiss if I did not close with this assertion. Today, we celebrate. But then we get to work. While we may have proved that the 2016 election was not our damnation, we must not let the 2020 election become another one of, as Glaude put it, “the legends and myths we tell of our inherent goodness.” We made that mistake in 2008, and again in 2012. So yes celebrate. But celebrate not that the battle is won. Celebrate that we may faithfully fight another day with the belief that there are at least as many that fight for good as those that fight for bad, if not more.