If you happened to watch the recent film Ford v. Ferrari, you can better appreciate how risky the development of race cars was; it was really dangerous! You could die. And, indeed, one of the lead characters depicted in the film (Ken Miles) did perish in a car wreck while testing a racing vehicle. Similarly, if you watch some of the early NASA footage of rockets blasting off for a 250,000-mile journey to the moon, your primary thought is likely, “I can’t believe anyone would get in that thing!”
The common timing of both of these endeavors, and likely many others, was the end of WWII. You had millions of men (and quite a number of women who served in a range of support roles, including often in combat zones) returning home in the mid-1940s. They had faced bullets, bombs, and the sheer brutality of WWII and were now attempting to adapt back to civilian life. This arguably had a massive cultural impact. How were these veterans changed by war? In a society in which it was possible for white men, in particular, to dream big and to do big things, it seems likely that many of these men might have returned with an ability to tolerate significant risk and also with the sense of “blessedness” that comes with feeling like you’ve survived great danger and now have a second chance at life. Survivor’s guilt and PTSD can come with that, too, but I wonder if it was less common in a setting in which everyone was united behind the war effort and around supporting GIs. Since there was a massive draft, virtually every family was engaged/affected, which can ameliorate the potential negative impacts felt, amid a shared sense of “we’re all in this together.” Might all of this have created conditions that prompted many returning veterans to attempt big things?
Both our government and its citizens were feeling proud and emboldened. The United States of America was, indeed, about to face a several decades of massive economic and material success. Citizens believed their government could do big things. Highways expanded, space exploration began in earnest, and cars got faster, safer, and more efficient. Opportunity abounded, especially for white men, as most Rosie the Riveters were returning to the kitchen and all of its avocado-colored appliances and the U.S. remained subject to an apartheid system. Some women and non-white men did enter professions. Most women went into teaching or nursing if they went to college and administrative work if they didn’t, and a few women and non-white men went into much more white, male-dominated spaces. If you watch the Netflix documentary about Bill Gates’s life, you get a great glimpse in Episode 2 of just how very many, many options a young, white teenage male had back then: the episode included a 3-minute montage illustrating how he and his male counterparts imagined all of the many and varied options that they could potentially pursue as a career. These were the children borne amid the Baby Boom that followed the end of the war, which further solidified the wealth and influence of white upper-class but even middle-class families and communities in this country—an influence which has largely persisted, though it has waned markedly within the working-class realms since Reagan ascended and won over many white, working-class voters from traditionally Democrat-dominated, unionized cities. Why might the white working-class have turned to Reagan in 1980 and Trump in 2016? What commonalities characterize these periods?
We must now reckon now with a key legacy of that era: we facilitated our modern development in a largely gender- and race-segregated manner. We are perhaps only now seeing the residues of an unequal expansion of opportunity. The #MeToo movement continues to reveal just how widespread and commonplace sexual abuse and discrimination has been towards women who ventured into male-dominated spaces. Add to this our many black peers who carefully chose careers based upon how well they thought they’d be accepted in a white-dominated society rather than upon how talented they were or how interested they were in a field. When they faced discrimination in workplaces or were denied even the opportunity to work, they often kept silent and accepted that this was “just how it was.” How has the Covid-19 pandemic and reactions to it laid bare the inequities upon which our country has been built.
The current leadership was driven by the sense of marginalization that some white men seem to be having as the nation works to extend opportunity to include more people. How can a society reassure those who think they are losing something that our society need not work from a scarcity or deficit perspective: we can always make more pie if we find ways to work together and promote more inclusion and equity. The reason we saw such growth after World War II was because we included a broad middle class in that expansion. While that expansion excluded many, it also included many more working- and middle-class people than it now does. If one equates change and inclusion with loss, however, one will surely resist it. How could dialogue help change that?
One might also wonder if the black and brown communities that are experiencing the brunt of illness and death from the Covid-19 pandemic might also potentially be places from which we might find some of the skill sets that our society might need right now. An IF colleague recently observed that we may no longer have the logistical talents needed to manage such a national demand as this pandemic requires. Our military has pivoted towards a smaller-scale warfare. It occurs: we absolutely DO have folks with outstanding logistical talents, but we locked up or killed many of them. We labeled them drug dealers, but now we have legal marijuana shops in nearly every state. The O.G.s arguably have the talent and skill set to offer exactly the management we need right now. What happens when you criminalize/marginalize something/some group of people you later really need?
If you’d like to be part of a virtual discussion of how Covid-19 has clarified some of the deepest inequalities in our nation (and world) and how we might address these, please email me at [email protected]. Discussions will be starting soon! Alternatively, if you’d like to be part of a discussion about How Do We All Retire? or The Future of Childhood, please get in touch with me. The Zoom age allows some much broader mixes of people within our discussions, which is great, as the richest discussions spring from conversations that include a wide array of perspectives.