President-Elect Joe Biden referred to his and Kamala Harris’s campaign as “a battle for the soul of the nation.” My first reaction is to pump my fist and shout ‘Yeah! I can relate to a leader who speaks to our soul’ –- especially since the man he’s replacing doesn’t seem to have one.
But, forging ahead with what this election has taught us about the American people, we need to quit making comparisons like this. We need to put Trump behind us. We must focus on finding our own soul. If we, as a nation, still have one, or ever had one.
In his essay ‘The Over-Soul’ Ralph Waldo Emerson offered this definition of the soul. It is “the perceiver and revealer of truth,” he said.
Ah yes, truth – the most battered and maligned word of the last four years, underscored again and again by accusations of ‘fake news,’ and by the reality that some of it is fake. While many of us have come to rely on Snopes or PolitiFact to verify facts and dispute Trump’s lies, we have arrived no closer to agreeing on the truth. Trump has gerrymandered the boundaries that separate truth from lies, trashing all sense of decorum for an American president along the way.
Emerson went on to say, “Foolish people ask you, when you have spoken what they do not wish to hear, ‘How do you know it is truth, and not an error of your own?’ We know truth when we see it, as we know when we are awake that we are awake.’”
In my heart I believe that if we aim for truth, overcoming our own eagerness for a version of it that suits us politically, we can agree on it. Is it wrong to kneel on someone’s neck until they’re dead? If asked to give a simple yes or no answer to this question – no qualifications, no context, no what if’s – I think 90% of Americas would unequivocally say, ‘yes.’
And they would agree that shooting a kid who was playing with a toy gun is wrong, that shooting a jogger in the back because he fit the description (‘young black man’) of a robbery suspect is wrong and that shooting into someone’s car because the license plate is missing is wrong. Wrong, we would agree, if all these victims were white.
George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice and Samuel DuBose, victims of racism.
When white people counter the ‘Black Lives Matter’ statement with ‘all lives matter’, they are not just missing the point. They are being too defensive to admit that the declaration ‘Black Lives Matter’ is a necessary response to their own unexamined racism.
And when asked to consider America’s centuries long history of native genocide, slavery, segregation, Jim Crow lynchings, denial of equal rights for women and racist immigration laws, they will say ‘that’s all ancient history.’ They will even take it a step further, speaking of America’s noble history, insisting that to describe it in any other terms is unpatriotic. But what they are most defensive about is what’s been happening right in front of them –- kids in cages, family separation, the Muslim ban, sending Federal troops into cities to break up peaceful Black Lives Matter protests –- Trump administration policies aimed at protecting white America from people of the ‘wrong ethnicity.’
In her Senate confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court, when asked what policies she would use to combat systemic racism Amy Coney Barrett replied that it was ‘kind of beyond what I’m capable of doing as a judge.’ Like those insisting that my life matters too, Barrett was sidestepping the truth. She was saying, ‘don’t make me admit that I have not fully examined my own prejudices or owned up to my white privilege.’
The 72 million Americans who just voted for Trump are guilty of that same lack of self-examination and an honest reckoning with our history. Even if you say you choose to overlook Trump’s racist statements, his demonization of minority groups from ‘shithole countries’, his touting the ‘good people’ among the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville (2017) because you think he’s been good for the economy and you like his ‘America first’ pledge, you are still supporting a racist. By definition if you actively support a racist, you are a racist.
In his book STAMPED: Racism, Antiracism, and You, Ibram X. Kendi — professor at American University and one of Time magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People of 2020’ takes it a step further. He says that “not being a racist is about being anti-racist.” If you do not actively oppose racism, you are a racist.
After 49% of Americans voters opted for another four years of Trump, NBC News anchor Joy Reid said, “I just wonder what all of this says about us – I think it raises real questions about what America is at the end of the day and whether Trump is more like what the American character is than people ever, ever wanted to admit.”
She was referring, of course, to America’s 72 million self-proclaimed racists. How do we reckon that reality when sizing up the soul of America? The fact that 77 million Americans voted against Trump makes a good counterpoint. But, that’s just 51% of those who voted. And, 38% of eligible voters chose not to vote at all. By Kendi’s definition they too, because they did not care enough to stop a racist in his tracks, are racist.
Two weeks before the election a New York Times editorial titled ‘Trump’s Last Stand for White America’ said, “We face a choice between a true renewal and a warped fantasy of the past.”
A week after the election Brittney Cooper wrote in Time magazine, “Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is the fault of white people. His rise is a direct result of white people’s collective rejection of the progress that the Obama era signaled.”
As white America moves closer to losing its majority status (by 2045 is the latest projection) it seems unlikely that the 72 million who voted for Trump will suddenly embrace America’s cultural plurality, decry its systemic racism or wake up to a new, more just, more enlightened democracy. But we cannot abandon hope. Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out that, “the long arc of progress bends toward justice.”
And, the progress we’ve made is not insignificant. In 1980 who would have believed that 21stCentury America would legalize gay marriage, vote in a two-term black president, then vote in a black female vice-president? Sure, we can cite all the failures that mitigate our progress –- women still struggling to break the glass ceiling, the Supreme Court’s ‘Citizens United’ giving citizenship rights to corporations, an unarmed black man still 3.5 times more likely to be shot by cops than an unarmed white man, the top 1% owning half the wealth in America, and despite migrant workers’ well-documented contributions to our economy, they are still without the rights they deserve.
As Dr. King implied, ‘the long arc of progress’ demands both patience and hope.
In an excerpt from his forthcoming biography published in The Atlantic, Barack Obama spoke of his hope for “the only great power in history made up of people from every corner of the planet, comprising every race and faith and cultural practice.”
“If I remain hopeful about the future,” he said, “It’s in large part because I’ve learned to place my faith in my fellow citizens, especially those of the next generation, whose conviction in the equal worth of all people seems to come as second nature.”
I second Obama’s faith in the next generation. But, as the young people in my life can attest, I implore them to learn from history. Let it guide them along a more enlightened path. The alternative is that they will continue to stumble along on the same tortured path we’ve followed for centuries.
Along with Biden’s pledge to ‘fight for the soul of America’ he also promised to be a president for all Americans, not just for those who voted for him. If we choose to follow his lead, we need to forgive — no not forgive or forget but find a way to see that those who have opposed progress are not entirely defined by their racism.
I have family members and friends who voted for Trump. Despite that, and despite the fact that they are racists, I still love them. I can’t cast them aside any more than Democrats can ignore Republicans. I hope to teach them. But, if I can’t reach them, I will try like hell to stop them from passing their racism along to the next generation.
I will try, for example, to get them to see the progress and hope represented by this 2021 montage of America’s Vice Presidents.