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Human Rights

The Story of “Us”

by Jason Q. Purnell
People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.

James Baldwin

"Stranger in the Village"

I teach a course called “Social Justice & Human Diversity” for mostly first-year social work master’s students in the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. It’s been my contention that in order to understand these broad topics, my students must confront history in ways that complicate common narratives about this nation and the broader world, including contradictions between espoused values and actual outcomes for marginalized individuals and groups. 

Two texts have guided us through this historical exploration: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari and A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki. The first is as comprehensive as its subtitle suggests, taking readers back to the dawn of our species on this planet and bringing us up to the present day. Harari argues that the distinctive characteristic of homo sapiens is our ability to cooperate in massively large groups through the telling of shared stories. He notes that our early human hunter-gatherer ancestors probably couldn’t cooperate in bands of larger than about 150 individuals. It was only after the Cognitive Revolution, during which this special storytelling skill of our species emerged, that we began to see cities and then societies and then entire civilizations take form, all undergirded by a common story allowing thousands and then millions of human beings to cooperate across vast and complex networks. Money, religion, empires, nation-states, hierarchy, and human rights—all are stories that we have told and continue to tell. And in so doing, homo sapiens have come to dominate the world. This can sound triumphant until you recognize that all of this cooperation need not be harmonious or healthy. As Harari notes, “Most cooperation networks have been geared toward oppression and exploitation.” Think of the cooperation behind the Atlantic Slave Trade, Native reservations, Japanese internment, and mass incarceration. In short, think of America.

Thinking about America is precisely what Ronald Takaki does through A Different Mirror. It is not the children’s book version of our history, with pilgrims coming to America’s shores in search of religious freedom and starting a new nation of striving white people who will subdue its wilderness and increase its industry. It is the much fuller rendering of our history that includes the voices and stories of Africans imported as property, Mexicans made strangers in their own land, Chinese searching for better fortunes, and the Irish, Polish, Muslim, Russian Jews, and countless other groups who make up the actual America. Not the two-dimensional characters of Master Narratives or sanctioned national stories, but the very real men, women, and children who populate a diverse, messy, complex, and ultimately beautiful tapestry of humanity within two shores. Some of these people will become “white”—another relatively new but momentous fiction—and therefore truly American. Others will always be “other.” Squaring the story of a nation founded on “liberty and justice for all” with Indian wars and massacres, slavery and Jim Crow, Chinese exclusion, anti-Semitism, and initial anti-Irish sentiment—to say nothing of the present-day manifestations of these historical examples—has been the central tension of this young nation.

And at the heart of this tension is not just who gets included in our history, but who gets to be human. Social psychologists Michael Hogg and Dominic Abrams tell us that “intergroup behavior tends to be competitive and ethnocentric.” We categorize ourselves into what social psychologists call ingroups and outgroups. As Harari says, “Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘we’ and ‘they.’ We are people like you and me, who share our language, religion and customs. We are all responsible for each other, but not . . . for them. . . . They are barely even human.” There is perhaps no more powerful story than that. We have seen the horror that it has wrought. 

And yet, being the master storytellers that we are, we can tell a new story. On this point the history and the social psychology seem to converge. The only way we escape the meaner parts of this trap of human history is by becoming a bigger “us.” The social psychologists might call this enlarging the boundaries of the ingroup. It appears to be the best way to break down the barriers that exist between groups. There’s nothing simple about it, but it may be our only hope. It will require us to think of work that we can do together—ways that we can cooperate—and to state a common reason why. It will mean honoring the unique contributions of our pasts and our particular communities but contributing to a story that is bigger than any one of them. It will challenge many of us to rethink what it means both to be human and to be American and who gets counted as each. Without such a reckoning at this critical moment in our history, when so many things seem to be falling apart, it is unclear how the center holds.

Jason Q. Purnell is an associate professor in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. He teaches in both the social work and public health programs at the Brown School and conducts community-engaged research on health disparities and the social determinants of health.