Thursday, August 17, 2017

A More Perfect Union

The Charlottesville white supremacist march was a horrifying escalation of recent racial tensions. Confronting overt racism is necessary, but far more challenging is dismantling entrenched policies propping up racial inequities.

"in Order to form a more perfect Union..."
The first step is admitting that ours is an imperfect country, with flawed institutions, including our military, law enforcement, government, media, and more. Without acknowledging that, there is no way to move forward to account for the sins of the past and the continuing inequities of the present. But without believing, as I do, that all of these institutions are redeemable – and that with mindful striving, they can be continuously improved in pursuit of an unattainable perfection – there is no reason to try.

This is a critical point to convey to those who would retort "America, love it or leave it!" That, despite a history that includes the displacement of indigenous people, the chattel slavery of blacks, legalized segregation, and the internment of Japanese-Americans, America's professed ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity are worth fighting for. Progress can feel slow, but over two centuries this country has vastly expanded whom it covers under the protective cloak of its ideals.

And to those who want to cling to the legacy of the Confederacy under the mantle of "heritage" – isn't it well past time to let go of that? There is no need to feel so defensive about the sins of distant ancestors. Yes, as President Trump on Tuesday disappointingly tried to create an equivalence for, slavery extended back to the era of revered Founding Fathers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. For all their admirable qualities, those men were imperfect, and as slaveholders were not unremarkable among their contemporaries. It was the Confederacy, though, that very literally went to war against this country – actual treason, not the "treason" that passes as an insult nowadays against anyone's political opponents – and did so in defense of the institution of slavery which the Union had by then evolved from.

In what other war are monuments to the losers erected, tolerated, celebrated? After the Civil War, the South knew this. Robert E. Lee, whose statue's removal took place in a town just a couple hours' drive from my hometown, knew this, saying "I think it wiser... to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered." Only a generation later, in the 20th century, and as a direct response to the threat of an ascendant, empowered black populace, did the South turn toward the widespread memorialization of the Confederacy's "Lost Cause". It was a calculated decision then and indefensible now.

White supremacists, neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, or whatever other label one ascribes them – they remain a tiny percentage of the American population. That is why, to everyone's collective relief, denunciation of the Charlottesville racists has come from across the political spectrum, with leading Republican congressmen, presidential candidates (McCain, Romney), and past presidents (both Bushes) forcefully speaking out. That's not nothing. It's good... but it's also not enough, because there are a host of laws and societal structures that were enacted to accommodate bigots at a time when they were not so distinctly in the minority, and which remain in place due to natural inertia and people's automatic deference to the status quo.

As the inimitable Lindy West wrote:
It is easy to denounce Nazis. Republican lawmakers, if you truly repudiate this march and this violence, then repudiate voter-ID laws. Repudiate gerrymandering. Repudiate police brutality. Repudiate mass incarceration and private prisons. Repudiate the war on drugs. Repudiate the fact that black Americans have still not been compensated for the unpaid forced labor that was foundational to white financial stability. Repudiate gun control obstructionism. Repudiate the Muslim ban. Repudiate the wall. Repudiate anti-abortion legislation. Repudiate abstinence-only education. Repudiate environmental deregulation. Repudiate birtherism. Repudiate homophobia and transphobia. Repudiate your own health care bill, which would have led to the deaths of thousands more people than a Dodge Challenger driven into a crowd. Repudiate your president.
We can quibble over individual items on West's list, but the greater point remains that it is insufficient for any good American to just express the natural disgust most people feel with white supremacists. Politicians have to think beyond their standard scandal-response playbook and influential business leaders (like those that fled the president's advisory councils in a mass exodus) have to think beyond their photo ops and access. Real profiles in courage are evident not in tweets and PR statements, but actions that boldly convey there is no quarter for bigotry antithetical to American ideals. Differences of opinion over, say, the optimal rate of taxation and level of regulation pale in comparison.

Finally, us ordinary citizens have to think beyond our narrow self-interest! (Would I vote for an elected official under whom I'd pay a little more in taxes, if it meant meaningful action took place to correct injustice in this country? To me that's a no-brainer.) Let's not be mealy-mouthed when it comes to defending those who are trying to affect positive change. (Among others, looking at Pete Carroll, whose commentary on Colin Kaepernick – "I support the heck out of his concerns and issues and all that... But I think we should all be standing up when they play the national anthem." – went wrong as soon as he said "but". Beyond making your own individual decision with how to behave during the anthem, if you accept Kaepernick's right to peacefully protest, that's the end of story!)

All decent people can agree to imperfect compromises on non-existential topics; that is an inherent part of the democratic process. But there is no compromising when it comes to foundational rights and basic decency.

No comments: