When Deion Sanders first approached me about helping to tell his story and perspectives, he already had his first topic in mind: how America ended up with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as its two primary presidential nominees. He insisted that these candidates just didn’t emerge out of thin air, but instead, were a reflection of the degradation of the country’s social condition.
For Sanders, Trump and Clinton represent a society that is torn apart by a lack of trust, communication and mutual respect. Our country, he says, has accepted candidates like these because they resemble our own failings, and as such, remind us of why we must heal our nation.
Here’s our first “1-on-1 with Prime.”
Ellen Carmichael: Let’s get to the heart of the problem here. We’re arguably in the best situation humankind has ever found itself in. We’re living longer. We have more mobility. We have more opportunities to pursue happiness. We are probably the most prosperous and free – worldwide – that we’ve ever been. But people are also more unhappy than we’ve ever been. Why is that?
Deion Sanders: Because we don’t understand the definition of we. Who is we? Is it we as a county? Is it we as a particular ethnicity? We as a ZIP code? An area code? A city? Who is we? Because a lot of the people I know are still in the same situation. Do they have the means and awareness to escape and prosper out of the situations they’re in? I don’t know if that’s necessarily true. Oftentimes, you don’t see success in your neighborhood. You see hustle. You see anger. You see hostility.
I don’t see how a kid in North Dallas who has the same math book as a kid in South Dallas, but that kid in North Dallas scores better on his tests. Is it the book? Is it the child? Is it the teacher? Is it the expectations? There has to be something attached to what we’re putting in so we can measure what we’re putting out, before we can assume anything.
“Oftentimes, you don’t see success in your neighborhood. You see hustle. You see anger. You see hostility”
EC: So, to me, it sounds like you’re saying we aren’t using the right measures to quantify success.
Sanders: You’re right. What is success? How do we measure success? Sometimes, success isn’t having a boatload of money, because I feel like my grandmother, who never knew how to drive a car a day in her life, still got everywhere she wanted to go in her life. So I can’t say she’s not successful. She had her own kids go through college. She had other siblings who were prosperous, hardworking working class people who had never been incarcerated or in trouble with the law. So, she is successful to me. But, what society calls success, she’s probably not. Perhaps we are measuring success incorrectly.
EC: How do you balance considering people’s circumstances without insulting them by lowering expectations?
Sanders: It’s not easy. You have to walk a fine line that’s not that easy, because you have the risk of insulting someone’s intelligence and someone’s gifts. And that does happen.
It reminds me of dropping off the kids at school. It’s five to ten minutes of bumper-to-bumper traffic, and I see the other folks who have been stuck in it for an hour. And I think to myself, “If I had to do this every day, I couldn’t.” But when I think about it, if I had to, I really could.
You have to be careful with looking down your nose on someone else’s situation if you don’t know the climb these people must endure.
“You have to be careful with looking down your nose on someone else’s situation if you don’t know the climb these people must endure”
EC: Let’s assume that’s everyone’s got good intentions – the lawmakers, the nonprofits, the teachers, the parents and so on. Where are they going wrong, then? How do we end up with systemic poverty? How do we end up with poor educational choices for kids? Assuming that all of these factors are contributing to the overall negativity of the country right now, no matter an individual’s race or socioeconomic circumstances, how did we get to this point?
Sanders: When it can’t affect you, you don’t open your eyes or your ears or extend a hand. Because when it affects you, it then infects you to do something about it.
Think about all the murders going on in Chicago. If those murders were going on in another side of Chicago, I’m sure that they would have brought in the National Guard to stop it by now. As long as it’s in an isolated area, people don’t like it, but they’re not breaking their necks to stop it. When something doesn’t directly affect you, you tend to overlook or neglect it.
“When it affects you, it then infects you to do something about it”
Honestly, I would venture to say we’re in a somewhat better place, even financially, as a country, than we’ve ever been. I really do feel that way.
Now, the problem is, when we do make it, do we go back in and pull another brother or sister up? Do we give him a hand up instead of a handout, revitalizing our communities?
But, what we have is the propensity to leave and move on up like the Jeffersons to deluxe accommodations in the sky. We don’t want to go back because we are trying to escape.
For many people, it was always thought that, “I’m gonna be rich one day. I’m gonna retire my mama. I’m gonna build her a house and move out of the ‘hood or the city or wherever we came from because it’s not a pleasant place.”
But, if that’s the understanding, things will never change. We want out. We don’t want in. But, we need to reinvest and revitalize, and then we can understand there’s a hustle. We see now how bad it really is, not just from the outside, but from the inside out.
EC: You’ve talked to me a lot about how these social problems you’ve outlined have led to having these presidential choices we have. Polling is showing that many people find themselves miserable. It seems people don’t trust each other. So many seem to think this is the worst we’ve ever had it. How do you think this impacts the election, particularly in the choices of Trump and Clinton as nominees, even as they’re not really liked by most of the public? How do we get to a point where we’re not a better people, but a better behaved people, so we’ll demand better behavior from our candidates?
Sanders: Sooner or later, we’ve got to trust again. The problem is we’ve been abused, lied to, cheated and mistreated so much, that we don’t trust anything. Not only do we not trust anything, we often don’t trust ourselves – that if we were in the same situation, that we would be forthright.
But, it’s been such mayhem that we have a tremendous distrust.
“Sooner or later, we’ve got to trust again”
EC: I look at a pretty frustrating and disappointing election cycle, and I’ll get down, too. And then I think about Urban Specialists and the poverty fighters across the country, and I really feel like that’s the future. What would you say to the tens of millions of Americans who look at the presidential election stage as it is, and wonder if we can’t find ourselves supporting anyone up there, how do we spend our time making our country better?
Sanders: We’ve got to find something we believe in – something that really strengthens or entices our passion. When we find that, don’t let anyone talk you out of it. Don’t let anyone tell you that the authenticity of your heart is lying to you. If you feel it in your spirit, support it with your resources, with your effort, your mind, your intellect. Don’t get weary in well-doing. The only time we’re going to really see change is if it starts with us first. We always want to see change in others, but not ourselves.
In all of the political spheres, we want politicians to change our country. But the change starts with the individual first. The change starts inside the house, not outside the house. It starts inside your mind and inside your heart. That’s where it begins.
EC: When I was growing up, my father used to always tell me, “You can’t put your faith in man. You can only put your faith in God.” Part of the reality TV culture is that individual politicians have become these god-like figures to people, from President Obama to Donald Trump. How do we return politics to being about policies and the things that are good for the country instead of putting all our hopes on flawed individuals, even with good intentions, will sometimes let you down?
Sanders: Your dad is absolutely correct. But, God also uses man to bless you, to motivate you, to encourage you, to get you from one place to another.
It’s not that we believe and trust in so much in these candidates. It’s that we can identify with these candidates.
“The only time we’re going to really see change is if it starts with us first. We always want to see change in others, but not ourselves”
Some people are really saying, “ Man, Hillary is just like me. She might have messed up a little earlier, but she has real qualities.” Some people are saying “Trump is a lot like me” or “Rubio is a lot like me.”
We start to identify with these people, and that’s what makes celebrities actually celebrities. It’s not that we have the gift that they have. It’s that we identify with them.
That’s exactly where we are as a country. We can understand and identify. For all of those people who detest Trump, the truth is, somebody voted for him. Somebody voted for Hillary. The people who voted for them can identify with them.
EC: Ok, well in Trump’s case, how do his voters identify with a billionaire?
Sanders: Because people say, “If I had that kind of money, I’d be the same way. I’d say whatever I want. Forget y’all.” People want to be so rich they can do whatever they want. That’s really people’s thought in this country.
Trump’s support reminds me of when someone says if they’ll win the lottery, they’ll show up to work and curse everybody out. That’s a real thought process. They’re not lying.
EC: So, do we reach our breaking point? When do we make the decision that this mentality has got to stop? When do we decide that we need to go back to what worked for us?
Sanders: The thing about society is that we’re not communicating anymore. Our heads are down on our phone on our computer for the majority of the day. We don’t talk anymore. We text. We’re on Instagram. We’re on Twitter. We’re on Facebook. We’re using all social media to pass time.
We’re using statistics to look at where our country is, instead of really going out there and talking to people. The only time we want to go out there and talk to people is to use them for our advancement.
That’s where we are. We need to get back to communicating with each other.
Deion Sanders is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 2011, having played in the National Football League for the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens over 14 seasons. He also played in Major League Baseball for the New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants. A devoted father and community leader, Sanders resides with his family in Dallas, Texas. You can follow him on Twitter @DeionSanders.
Ellen Carmichael is a senior writer for Opportunity Lives. Follow her on Twitter @ellencarmichael.