Two decades in, how are you enjoying the 21st century so far? A few generations from today, say, in a hundred years, when America’s school children are studying U.S. history, what will they think of our turn at running things?
When I was in history class during my school days, I often wondered what it must have been like for those generations before me living through two world wars and the Great Depression. Our parents and grandparents would have lived much of that history. As a baby boomer growing up in the 1960s, World War II seemed recent to me. My father fought in that war and shared with us firsthand his war stories. For today’s students though, WWII must seem like ancient times.
Today’s present is tomorrow’s history, so we’re living through history every day. One thing’s for sure, tomorrow’s history books (if books still exist then) are going to have a heck of a time looking back at us and the early days of 21st century America. These first two decades have been a mixed bag.
In its own way, the 21st century “began” in the late 1990s, when the world was panicking over Y2K. Remember?
New Year’s Eve 1999, before the clocks struck midnight, we held our breath anticipating the apocalypse. We feared our newly automated society would fall victim to a computer glitch as Dec. 31, 1999, turned to Jan. 1, 2000. Some thought the world’s computers wouldn’t recognize the transition between years beginning with “20,” instead of “19.” Supposedly, computer systems worldwide would be “confused” and collapse with global chaos to follow. Everything from airliners to banking systems to the world’s power grids would fall into chaos. Oh, the humanity! Would it be the end of civilization as we knew it? Nope.
In fact, a few years before the new century began, computer scientists were already working on the solution and global catastrophe was averted. Whew. Once again, science helped save the day.
With Y2K behind us, the history of the 21st century was only getting started, though. During the new century’s first decade, who would have thought the United States would elect its first African American president? Not me. I cried tears of happiness when Barack Obama was elected in 2008, overjoyed that my mother lived to see that day. As a young adult, I’d seen her suffer through Mississippi’s Jim Crow era.
Could it be? Could my Pollyanna’s view of the future, nurtured since childhood, have finally arrived … an era I’d dreamed of, where race no longer mattered and ours would become a more inclusive, less prejudicial United States? I wasn’t the only one with that warm-and-fuzzy feeling. Many of us believed it to be so. I remember my Newsweek magazine proclaiming Obama’s victory the beginning of a new “post-racial America.” Boy, did we ever get that one wrong.
I believe President Obama went out of his way to keep from coming off as “too Black” so as not to appear Afrocentric in his governing. (In fact, I think he tried a little too hard.) He didn’t realize, however, it wouldn’t matter to some of those voters who opposed him. Sadly, a measurable percentage of Americans remained uncomfortable with the idea of a Black man serving as U.S. president. Post-racial? Far from it, we were soon to find out just how far America had to go in the arena of race relations with the election of Donald Trump.
President Trump’s path to victory was aided by two things, a flawed Democratic candidate in Hillary Clinton, and the peculiar workings of our Electoral College system, which allows candidates to win the presidency without a popular vote majority. In effect, we end up with minority rule.
History will have plenty to cover with President Trump’s one term in office. We had the Charlottesville protests of 2017 attended by “good people on both sides,” where one person was killed. Three years later, during a summer of civil unrest, more lives were lost following the killing of Minneapolis resident, George Floyd, under the knee of a city police officer.
And, if those things weren’t enough for a president to contend with, 2020 tossed in a worldwide pandemic, the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease it causes, adding fuel to the fire of a year already burning out of control.
But wait, things were to get worse with the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the most controversial and, arguably, most dangerous in American history. Many will agree, or disagree, on the way President Trump handled this series of crises. But, one thing is for sure, they required Herculean responses from a sitting president. That, we didn’t get.
It’s a safe bet, had it not been for the pandemic, President Trump may well have been able to win a second term. But that’s where the next historic twist enters the picture. President Trump claimed he did not lose the election, that it was rigged and a “landslide” victory was stolen from him. This helped lead to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. American history books may now add Jan. 6, 2021, to Dec. 7, 1945, as a day that will “live in infamy.”
So, here we wander through the 21st year of the new century, history daily recording the state of our union. I’ll end on the same note I began. What will tomorrow’s school children think as they read about those men and, by then we hope, women, who have occupied the office of president? What will they think of the foundation our generation has laid for their future?
My conclusion? History will not remember ours as one of the “greatest generations.”
Elijah Jones is a proud Hattiesburg native who enjoys writing. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.