Unlike some who may be wildly confident about the future of the United States in light of President-elect Joe Biden clawing out a victory over Donald Trump in the 2020 election—and the historic ascension of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris—I am cautiously optimistic.

You see, a cancer has been festering right under the skin of this nation. Some of us have felt the lumps and aches and pains and experienced the unexplained bruises, while others of us have been able to carry on without the slightest inclination that we are dying on the inside—even as the first group sounds the alarm of our symptoms. But ignorant or not about the state of our nation, the prognosis is the same for us all.

If Americans aren’t willing to take a look at all the ways we are being eaten alive by a disease of hate, then there will be no one left standing. This land, that has been simultaneous refuge and captor for so many, will be no more. 

And that is wildly alarming. 

Like many immigrant families that have called the United States home for decades, my family came here in search of a better life. Economic instability, the Duvalier era, corruption, American occupation and racist policies that prevented Haiti from ever establishing sound economic footing—penance for Black people who had been enslaved having the audacity to claim freedom—made for a perfect storm of government collapse. Many Haitians fled. We ran, swam and flew straight into the arms of the U.S. Yes, the very culprit of so many historic atrocities faced by the island nation.

And America wasn’t waiting for us with her arms open wide. We had to pry those clamped fingers gripping tightly into the fleshy part of either arm open just long enough to slip through—even as others from a nearby island nation were welcomed, feet wet or dry from their escape. But this is the story of the United States. A country of conundrum. Land of the free and home of the brave with an asterisk. 

*Only if you’re white.

As we watched Trump lie blatantly in our faces only to later refuse to concede defeat, and folks in Michigan and Arizona chant “stop the count,” I could not comprehend this mind-boggling phenomenon. This couldn’t possibly be happening in the United States—a democratic republic that is ruled by the people, if the definitions are to be believed. How fragile is democracy in this country that so many people, who consider themselves to be true patriots, would call for the very undemocratic silencing of their fellow citizens? And if the United States doesn’t have its democracy, what does it have? Our governing principle has been touted as superior above all else; some have even called it exceptional. It’s been used as a way to make other countries subservient to almighty America, particularly as we occupy other nations, claiming that we know best. We know democracy. Justice. Peace. All that is good.

Still, we have lost face to the entire world. 

But this is far from surprising. While immigrants vying for American citizenship are quizzed on the intricacies of the United States’s system of government, colonial history, geography, flag symbolism, and more, two-thirds of American citizens would fail the same exam. And when we are empowered with knowledge about the fundamentals of the country we inhabit, our textbooks are revised to paint a wholly inaccurate picture. I am a firm believer of the adage if you don’t know where you’ve been, you won’t know where you’re headed. And as folks cheer Black people as a prime factor in the redemption of America’s soul this election, they forget that African-Americans have always been the guardians of this country’s democracy.

George Floyd Protests
People hold up their fists after protesting near the spot where George Floyd died while in custody of the Minneapolis Police, on May 26, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images)

Those unalienable rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” for all, were just words on parchment until Black Americans rallied for their freedom as human beings.

But here we are today watching this nation fail an open-book test. History is repeating itself and some people—and let’s be specific here, some White people—are determined to fail it with flying colors. Look how countless White people have aligned themselves with the disenfranchisement of even more marginalized groups. The hard-won dignity that Black people fought to establish, the foundational blocks of many social justice movements, is under constant duress. Don’t folks see how this relentless persecution of people undermines the democracy they claim to love and instead ushers in its demise?

The United States is failing an open-book test.

I remember the days of my youth when I so naively thought racism would come to an end once the older generations died out. But nearly half of young White voters between the ages of 18-29 chose an undisputed bigot for president. White Americans’ refusal to acknowledge the lasting impact of slavery and the insidious ways racism continues to manifest in today’s world is at the root. Of course, we could take a look at the 8 percent of Black, 28 percent of Asian, or 35 percent of Latinx voters respectively who voted for Trump. But when the total amount of people from these groups who voted for Biden andTrump only accounts for 23 percent of the total share of votes, we would be better served focusing on the majority…and save them for another essay. 

Those unalienable rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” for all, were just words on parchment until Black Americans rallied for their freedom as human beings.

Yet, the question remains. Where do we go from here? We must commit to viewing the United States with a critical eye. Not because we wish her harm or want to sow division. But because we love her. Because we are here. Because we want the better future that remains possible for some but eternally elusive for others. And that requires uncomfortable conversations that have too long been avoided. We need White people who claim to be allies to hold their family, friends and loved ones accountable and not expect a pat on the back from Black people for doing the right thing. We need to reclaim our humanity and decency. This country should not be united in name only. 

So what does the 2020 election reveal about America’s democracy? What we’ve known along. It is fragile and delicate and we must watch over it with extreme care. Safeguarding it will require us to take a look at ourselves and recognize the dips and cracks in our flawed society. It’s not too late to create the change we so desperately need.

Maybe I’m more optimistic than I realized.

Maika Moulite is co-author of ONE OF THE GOOD ONES—a young adult novel that tackles generational racial trauma, allyship, and sisterhood—and a Communication, Culture, and Media Studies PhD student at Howard University. ONE OF THE GOOD ONES is out January 5, 2021 from HarperCollins imprint Inkyard Press.