You’re 4 years old and can’t read this now, but soon you will be able to, and I hope you do.
We failed you. The grown ups failed to protect you. But more important, I failed you.
I voted, yes, but it was not enough.
I failed because my job is to protect you the best I can from our country’s tendency to openly or tacitly embrace our most immoral traits: the exclusion of immigrants, objectification of women, nativism, racism, torture, police brutality and calls for violence in the face of peaceful protest.
My job is to write about those things. To inform the public as best I can about the abuse of power.
For some time, I’ve had an opportunity to give voice to those who didn’t have a pulpit to announce their suffering and their pain to the world. I’ve had a chance to echo the sentiments of the poor, the dispossessed and the disenfranchised.
And for reasons to numerous to recount here, I too often failed.
Yes, I have written about the poor and the marginalized, but not nearly enough. Too often I chose to chronicle the spectacle of campaigns and engage in the same punditry that does little more than arm partisan camps with the right ammunition for social media temper tantrums.
When I was a poverty reporter in Connecticut, I failed to describe the depth of the state’s industrial decay, the same economic forces which made for fertile ground for Trump to harvest the fruits of racism, nativism and misogyny.
In New York, I didn’t fight hard enough for the stories of everyday parents being pushed around by the school system and actors in education’s political theater.
In Louisiana, I ignored the loose gun laws, the state’s shameful record on incarceration (Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation) and the violence which rips apart families, neighborhoods and cities. I didn’t use my pen to scratch out a single word on the conditions surrounding me in Baton Rouge.
When I lived in Big Bear Lake in California, I spent more time feeling contempt for rural America rather than trying to understand it well enough to write about why so many people had fled the cities for the mountains, and how their lives seemed to be irrelevant to the city folks who shape so much of what we know about America.
Natalie, I am not simply a voter who goes into a booth and fills in a bubble next to a candidate’s name. That is the most basic of your father’s responsibilities.
I am a writer. I am a journalist.
My words are weaponized by my experience and made potent by my curiosity about the lives of others. But I failed to use those weapons as effectively as I could in the years between the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. My words weren’t nearly as potent, and I disarmed my prose, which could have been used to help others navigate the world of the voiceless.
Too often, Natalie, I allowed great ideas, the best of what I could write and report, to die on the page because the challenge seemed too great. Too often, I talked myself out of doing the important work and settled for work that would land in the best outlets and improve my career — I reasoned I could eventually get to the journalism I knew would matter.
I regret those choices.
I chose career over vocation. One day I’ll explain the difference.
I was stuck in the world of institutions and establishment, even as I personally railed against gatekeepers and institutions. It was the height of hypocrisy. And it happens, Natalie — it happens to the best of us.
Natalie, the institutions faltered on Election Day.
The New York Times, the Washington Post, FiveThirtyEight, the pollsters, CNN, MSNBC, the pundits, the Republican establishment and the Democratic Party got their comeuppance. Trump and his coalition won their rebellion against the establishment. It had been coming for some time.
Eight years ago, Barack Obama ran a insurgent campaign. Natalie, you will learn more about insurgency by the time you’re 12 than I learned in the first 40 years of my life. Insurgent campaigns will likely become the norm when you cast your first vote in 2030 midterm elections.
In 2008, Obama defied the Democratic Party establishment and then ripped the support of that very establishment away from the Clinton franchise. He did this by leveraging progressive populist support, a coalition of educated urban white liberals, blacks, Latinos and immigrants.
Trump did much of the same, albeit with a different coalition, and he did so without the explicit support of many in the GOP establishment.
All this is to say: You live in a world where individual actions are ascending, as the influence of the institutions your parents and grandparents relied on, believed in, is waning.
I don’t know if you can save those institutions, but you can do something.
Natalie, you live in a world where BlackLivesMatter and Occupy both used a distributive leadership model to build a big tent movement for all, absent a single leader or central core of leaders—autonomous and virtually immune from the traditional attacks the establishment has long used to destabilize grassroots uprisings. You live in the age where Twitter was the best and in some cases the only news source during the Arab Spring and Iran’s Green Revolution.
The world has told me, I am but one person, one journalist, one peg in a sprawling media apparatus.
And that’s true, but the new revolution will be built one person at a time. And while I hold a minute fraction of culpability in Election Day’s results, my failure to speak truth to power as often as I could, to be a voice to the voiceless every time I had the chance, and to place my principles over my profession is enough of a failure for me to write this mea culpa.
Please remember to speak your truth.
Natalie, I’m afraid, which isn’t new. I am scared of Jeff Sessions leading a Department of Justice bent on force of law rather than the spirit of justice. I am scared too many of us will be stop-and-frisked in Trump’s America. I fear justice will be retributive rather than restorative. I am scared of who will fill our Supreme Court and our federal courts. Will you be able to make decisions about your uterus? I hope you will, but Natalie, I’m no longer sure.
I am scared Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, names you will become too familiar with as you grow up, will take this chance to shred our social contract and tip the scales toward individual liberty and away from broad social justice. Both are important.
Liberty without justice is selfish, aimed squarely at the individual without regard for it’s impact on others. Justice without liberty leads to totalitarianism. As people of color, we need both. But we especially need social justice to protect us from a too-often oppressive majority.
I’m scared of the rage and racism fanned by Trump.
Two years ago on the playground, a boy asked you what you were, black or white. Your answer was, “I’m Natalie.”
As your mother is known to say, “you can’t teach that.”
Your response was an early cue that your mother and I had already taught you how to navigate a world still poisoned by outdated notions of race and identity.
Natalie, you are America. You’re the grandchild of immigrants — black, white, Puerto Rican, Irish, Jewish, Spanish and English. You are a woman. You embody the very things too many of Trump’s supporters despise about the emerging America.
Don’t be ashamed of your identity.
Your father grew up in America where being black was something loaded with shame. I don’t want that for you. And so, I voted for Hillary Clinton on Election Day. Clinton and I don’t share many political views. Her support for some of former President Bill Clinton’s policies left me with pause when watching her candidacy for the White House. But I voted for Hillary Clinton for you.
It was a gift. I hoped you could have grown up in America where the first 12 years of your life would have been lived with a black man and white woman in the White House. I had hoped you would see living examples which could remind you to bust through the historical barriers to your success.
But that wasn’t enough, at least not on Election Day.
From here, Natalie, there is work to do. Not for you yet, but for your parents and the friends and family who love you. The best protection I can offer are my words, my journalism and my council.
I promise more of my writing, if not all of it, will give voice to the voiceless.
I promise to teach you all I can about social justice.
I promise to listen to you when you tell me that the world has shifted so dramatically, that the old paradigms I hold to are no longer relevant.
But I’m going to ask you for one thing. Please fight, please resist.
It’s going to be tough, but I have one spoiler alert: Our side wins.
But we must fight.
em>This story originally appeared in Medium.
J. Brian Charles is a writer and journalist. He has spent a decade chasing tips, writing stories and leading news projects. An associate editor at The Hill newspaper, his work in journalism has been recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publisher’s Association, Best of the West, and Digital First Media, a company where he spent a significant portion of his career, and he is a 2015 recipient of a John Jay College Center on Media, Crime and Justice fellowship. Charles earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and pens short stories and essays. He is currently working on a book about the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the Baltimore Police Department.