We find ourselves enraptured in a war for the nation’s soul. This in and of itself is nothing new. From the first clashes between those who wished to abolish slavery and enshrine in our founding documents total and inalienable equality and those with lesser imagination who protected the slave trade and the plantation system in order to preserve the Union; from that later slaughter in which those who fought to preserve the Union and liberate the enslaved died in the fields and in the forests and on the hills alongside their injudicious brothers and cousins; to the marches in which dogs and water hoses and batons were sicced and flushed upon innocent demonstrators exercising their constitutional right to assembly and protest against a fundamentally immoral and unjust system of oppression—America’s original sin has always been slavery.
The metaphor of original sin seems so apt to me. This is the concept in many mainstream Christian denominations that because of Adam and Eve’s moral failure, humanity can only be redeemed through Christ and Christian observance. Wrapped up in that doctrine is the understanding that human beings are not born pure, but rather born in sin. Whatever you make of that, in regard to America and its racial history, the comparison rings true. None of us alive today fought for the Confederacy. None of us alive today owned or traded slaves. None of us alive today established an unjust system or allowed for all the moral compromises bedeviling fugitive slaves that followed. But that is no matter. Until we find redemption, until we achieve some greater and more perfect Union than the one we have at present, it makes no difference our own actions or our own sense of justice or our own moral will. What matters is that a deep corruption lies at the heart of this American experiment and the damned spot just won’t come out.
In our mythology, we have turned Martin Luther King Jr. into a Christ-like figure. We too often as a society imagine that in his death, America was freed from racial injustice. We feel because we teach him and his legacy in our schools, because we have anointed a holiday with his name, because we accent our speeches with platitudinous quotations from his words, that we have effected a moral metamorphosis and escaped the memory of bondage and of racial injustice.
We forget all too often that there are many, many still living who remember segregation. We ignore all too often the evils of sharecropping. We forgive all too often the terrors imposed upon blacks in the North, even after the Civil War. We whitewash across the board the deep and lasting scars that racial injustice left throughout the South and, yes then, in the North as well. I have heard again and again, from people in my life and online, that white people were the ones who freed the slaves, and so black people should be grateful—somehow ignoring who exactly the bastards were that owned said slaves in the first place! We must not disremember that this nation’s original laws were written to protect the slave trade. In the Constitution, indeed, only two things were explicitly made impossible to amend or change: the figure of senators apportioned to the states and the protection given to the slave trade that it could not be abolished until 1808. No act of Congress, nor any constitutional amendment, could have changed that fact. And even once the slave trade was abolished in 1808, slavery flourished for another fifty and some years. These were the priorities of our Founders. However painful it may be to admit, protecting racial injustice was one of two overpowering priorities of our Founders, so important it was made impossible to change. And to act as though we have escaped those realities is disingenuous, nefarious, and downright cold—and something only possible, it seems to me, if you’re white.
It is not right that if a resume is headed by the name Jamal the job candidate will be treated differently than if the name were James. It is not just that voter-ID laws disproportionately affect people of color. And it is unconscionable that a man who refuses to denounce white nationalism lives within the White House today. This is the same building in which Abraham Lincoln plotted the Emancipation Proclamation and planned his fight for the 14th Amendment, acknowledging in manmade law what had already been true in natural law: that African Americans were citizens of the United States and entitled to all the protections and guarantees thereof. This is the same building into which Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington for dinner, the first time any such high-profile racial meeting had taken place. This is the same building from which Harry S Truman desegregated the armed services. This is the same building into which Lyndon Johnson brought reluctant lawmakers in order to cajole them into supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And while we cannot afford to whitewash our own history, forgetting that it is the same building built in part by slaves and the same building that housed generations of actively racist American presidents—culminating in the vitriolic bigotry of Woodrow Wilson and the dog-whistle politics of Richard Nixon—we must not forget the moral bravery we have come to expect from our presidents. Despite the moral cowardice of some, despite the indecent silence of many, the White House has housed within its walls true heroes in the fight toward equality, and that legacy was harmed grievously today. We have known better, we expect better, and we must hold our president to account.
No other president in recent memory has flirted so heavily with, and allowed his positions to be so heavily influenced by, the forces which crowd under the dark clouds of white nationalism. This should leave us with a heavy heart. Because while no American president has been perfect, and while all have had much to answer for as history has judged their sins, no position seems so out of place, no disposition seems so crude or unusual, as our current president’s incestuous attraction to white nationalist and Nazi organizations in 2017. There has never been a moral case for racial oppression. But if there has ever been a time when this has been so well known to be the case, when it is so commonly accepted how inhumane and unwarranted such a position of support would be, I don’t know of it. Racial prejudice has always been morally unjustifiable, but in 2017, it is known to be unjustifiable in a way it has never been before. And yet, despite this knowledge, despite the sum of history at our backs, our president chooses to make his bed with the sheets of moral equivalency and the bedding of honest indifference.
There have been many warriors for the soul of these United States. We had the honor to see some in the streets of Charlottesville, yesterday and today, counterprotestors who refused to fall victim to the call of violence, who eschewed the ideology of white nationalism and the seductive allure of inaction, our brave neighbors who refused to allow Nazis to march through an American city undisturbed. They stand in a line of American champions, from those who marched with King, to those fought and defeated Hitler, to the unsung millions who have agitated for social justice across our history. More than any president, we the people, over the course of our history, have fought against one another regarding race, and regarding sex— regarding the environment, civil liberties, unions, labor, justice, the size of government, the scope and span of religion, the use and pursuit of armed weapons—and regarding so many things. We have fought and died in order to win America’s soul. In this moment, as have so many others before us, we find ourselves with a moral duty to speak out against violence, against hatred, against bigotry. We find ourselves with a moral obligation to stand up to white nationalism, to racism, to prejudice. We must not let our president’s moral indifference pervade this nation, nor can we allow it to define us or to pollute our values. We have come so far on our journey toward racial equality, toward a more perfect Union. The violence in Charlottesville has shown us, yet again, that the arc of moral history may bend toward justice, but the currents of injustice always and ever push us backward toward demons we would prefer to imagine as dead and gone. But our original sin remains within us—for as long as any person of color has any reason to fear the police more than any white person, for as long as real racial gaps in education and wage persist, for as long as a deep kernel of hatred remains in the heart of any lost and deplorable soul.
Our president, God forgive him, has placed his lot on the wrong side of history. But we retain the choice, as a free people, to see and believe the truth for what it is. We retain the right to speak our truth to the public. We retain our responsibility to fight against terror and injustice, wherever it is found. And when the time has come, in God’s good time, we will undo the wreckages left behind our travesty of a president and we will resume our march toward progress. In short, despite the bludgeon of systemic violence, despite the legions of torch-bearing white nationalists who remain among us, despite the torturous road our brothers and sisters and siblings of color continue to march upon, I believe in my heart that in the end we will overcome.