Reading the news when you wake up in the morning, seeing the videos of the night before, is a profoundly traumatic experience right now. We live in a bitterly divided country. This is what things look like when a nation falls apart. The rising anger over continued police brutality and the increasingly violent police reactions to protests are painful to see, especially with this terrifying pandemic that is killing so many people and should be bringing us together. But the truth of the matter is that America was born in contradiction and painful division. We are a great nation on one level, but our greatness is marred by such bitter divisions and hatred, over a non-stop battle about who we are and should be, and how we should be allowed to treat one another. Are we the country that is founded on the doctrine that we are all created equal, with a government of the people, by the people, and for the people? Or are we the country founded on African slavery and indigenous genocide, with a murderous racism inherent in our DNA, where white police officers are allowed to murder black and brown people on videotape and still be treated as if they are above the law? The answer is yes, to both questions simultaneously.
The month that the first elected legislature met in Virginia was the same month that slaves were first brought to that state and our country. The man who wrote the opening words to our nation's founding document, the Declaration of Independence, that all men were created equal and had the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, was a slave owner. The nation that gave millions of acres of free land away to poor people in the Homestead Act took that land from the indigenous people living there before. The most liberal president in American history, FDR, turned away Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis, jailed Japanese-Americans in World War II, and tolerated Jim Crow. We elected our first African-American president, an immigrant's son with an African-Muslim name; and then we elected Donald Trump, the most openly racist president in at least the modern era, if not in all of American history.
Welcome to America.
So we have to choose- in every generation, in every election, in every moment of crisis- which nation do we want to be? The one that lives up our ideals, or the one that wades deep in our river of hypocrisy and hatred? The one that heals and unites, or the one that divides and stokes fear in order to distract people from the fact that a few people at the top have most of the money and power, and the other 90% of us don't have very much of either?
America only works when we choose the first option. The second option is utter folly, and the results are what you see right now on your news feed. Did you see Trevor Noah's brilliant monologue on Friday? It should be required viewing for every political leader who is genuinely trying to bring people together. In it, Noah makes the point that society is a contract, in which people agree to follow certain rules of fair play, mutual respect, and decency. But if the authority figures responsible for enforcing the contract violate it, all hell breaks loose.
Noah wasn't the first person to make this point. The Judeo-Christian bible makes clear in the opening pages of Genesis that the answer to the question, "am I my brother's keeper?" is a resounding yes. The most influential book in the history of political theory was called The Social Contract. And when it comes to this country, one of the earliest Pilgrim leaders, John Winthrop, put it this way:
We must delight in each other, make others conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.
Martin Luther King, Jr talked about the same concept, using the metaphor of a check rather than a contract, in the I Have A Dream speech:
In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Contrast that vision with the glee Donald Trump is taking in dividing us, and with reports from multiple cities of white nationalists going to the protests to try and stir up a race war. We need to rebuild our nation by rebuilding the social contract. We need to understand that everyone in society- those at the top of the economic pyramid as well as all the rest of us, those with authority to enforce the contract, as well as all the rest of us- needs to live by that contract or our nation will come apart. We need to understand deep in our heart that, in King's words, there is no peace without justice.
This is a racial issue, and an economic one as well. From the 1930s to 1970s New Deal dominated era in American politics, corporate CEOs understood that they needed to operate by a social contract. If the company did well, the workers did well. Those workers, along with the consumers who bought their products, the communities where the business headquarters and factories were located, and our entire country were stakeholders in those businesses, as opposed to it being only the people who owned shares in the company. That social contract still allowed for deep discrimination, but even with the flaws in it, the idea of a social contract was a part of our culture that lifted most working families.
All that changed in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan was elected, and when the free market began to be worshipped as the supreme god to be contradicted by no other. The social contract got shredded. The rich got richer, and everyone else- not just the poor- got poorer.
Working families got hurt across the board when the social contract went away, with wages staying close to flat compared to inflation while the top 1% made off with most of the money. Who got hurt the worst? People of color who already on average had lower wages, less in savings, less in wealth than whites.
And now as covid hits, who is most likely to lose their job, to get evicted, to get foreclosed on? Who is more likely to get sick and to die from this plague? People of color. Again. So when they are murdered on video by a cop, like so many before them, the anger will rise.
Watching this pent-up outrage, fed by 400 years of oppression, play out in our country's streets, hearing reports of white supremacists going into black communities this week to set fires and try to incite more violence, seeing the tweets and statements of a president trying to fuel violence and hatred rather than bring people together, I find myself thinking of Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
Every drop drawn by the lash has not been paid by that blood drawn by the sword. We are still paying the price for 400 years of slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, red lining, cop killings, and economic inequality. And we are likely to have to pay for a long time coming.
But if we reject Trump's excited calls for killing more protesters and black people, if we reject the neo-Nazis' call for a race war; if instead we come together as a nation where everyone understands there is a social contract, we can get through this moment and cross over to the other side. We can live up to our ideals as a country and come together again. We can unite and we can heal. It will never happen with Donald Trump as president, but with a better president, we have a chance.
Maybe someday, we can finally say those words that Reverend King quoted from the bible: "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last."