Day 42: Determined on Equality

Underneath all the other issues of election 2020, is this essential choice: Will the US continue to advance toward becoming a fully equal society, or will its citizens turn from that, imagining that a nation of white privilege will mean happier times? To an unusual degree, this presidential contest boils down to whether the nation will resist change or realize its destiny as a place where people of all complexions can coexist, enjoy full equality, and thrive.

Our politics is unusually nasty because the nation is moving with some determination toward this goal. The election of the first black president, Barack Obama, was a 21st-century “fire bell” to white America. In response, whites who imagine themselves to be “patriots” have dusted off their rebel regalia and clustered around the monuments valorizing “the Lost Cause.” They have puffed up with pride, hearing president Trump call them “fine people.”

In the view of these “fine people,” much of what is wrong with the US has to do with the Democrats and their incomprehensible loyalty to the cause of black equality. Trump supporters can’t accept that Obama won office (twice!) on the basis of his merits. There must have been some trick, some fraud involved.

Trump is incapable of leading a nation experiencing a new birth of interracial solidarity. A majority of the US has grown accustomed to integration. Equality is the norm in our neighborhoods, workplaces, domiciles, universities, public institutions, regiments, and playing fields. Smart phones have shattered our innocence, making the reality of police brutality against blacks impossible to tolerate, ignore, or deny. Even as people of color fall ill and die of COVID disproportionately, Trump’s White House sees in their sad plight only political gain. He would rebrand as “terrorists” and “enemies” Americans who protest peacefully for equality.

Time and again, the prospect of black equality has triggered crises in our political system. When the black race stands to gain, presidential elections tend to get tumultuous, and federalism itself threatens to break under the strain. Slavery was perpetuated for decades because white Americans could not imagine coexisting with a free black population. Even radical Republicans of Abraham Lincoln’s generation balked at the idea that white and black people were equally capable of freedom, equally suited to being citizens of a republic, even as Republicans were certain that black slavery was wrong.

After the Civil War, blacks languished as an oppressed and segregated population, despite new Constitutional amendments supposedly securing their full civil rights. It was “nothing but freedom,” and in the more than one-hundred-and-fifty years since, Americans have struggled with all that becoming a truly fair and tolerant society involves. We’re getting closer!

The United States is getting nearer to accomplishing a rare feat, becoming a nation that is not tribal but abides by a color-blind code of equality. In the context of this determined movement, Trump’s reelection would be aberrant indeed.

Image: from this source.

Safety Bubbles

My husband and I were on a Zoom visit with our children last night. Our kids are spread across the United States. Our daughter lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and their son. Our older son, who is the middle child, and his wife live in Los Angeles. Our youngest and his wife and their two sons live in Orlando. We live in a rural area in the north Florida panhandle. Our home is in a sparsely populated area on a beautiful piece of land, nine acres in size. In other words, we, unlike our children and grandsons, do not live on top of our neighbors.  We haven’t had to isolate as much as our kids, but I realized last night that we are significantly more isolated than they, during this time that I early on termed “the current unpleasantness.”

Our kids were discussing how, now that the pandemic is past the two-month mark of social distancing, they are beginning to expand their small family-unit groupings into wider “bubbles” of trusted friends who have also been isolating and whom they consider “safe” to associate with. The Californians’ expanded circle is not haphazardly arranged. Their bubble has specific quarantine rules that all members must observe to belong to the group.  Our household has not expanded beyond ourselves and our two dogs. The majority of people with whom we socialize are among the CDC-identified vulnerable population and are uncomfortable spending time with those with whom they don’t reside.

It was interesting to listen to the kids talk about how so many features of life that we all took for granted when they were growing up are now unknowns, things like summer vacations, playing with friends, outdoor get-togethers, eating out, and going back to school in the fall.  At least now they feel freer to associate with a wider, though tiny and carefully controlled, community.  I was happy for them and proud of their ability to calmly navigate their separate ways through this unprecedented time.

Also happening out there, in the wider country, are protests—peaceful expressions of frustration which too often transition into violent expositions of rage— along with out-and-out riots more bent upon destruction than facilitating change.  These actions are occurring because, once again, a white police officer killed a black man during an arrest.  This particular incident took place in Minneapolis.  Yet again, race is dividing the United States.  I don’t know all the facts in this case, but I am certain that the facts don’t matter as much to the protesters and rioters as the truth that this type of situation has occurred too often.  Tragedies such as this are less about race than about power and control.  They are about having and not having.  They are about fear of others and fear of outsiders—suspicion and the lack of trust between varied groups of people.

Police, in theory at least, are supposed to protect the interests of the innocent. Their very presence is designed to deter crime and injustice.  But in poor communities, law enforcement has become the “predator” class. This perception automatically groups others as “prey.” It’s not a good dynamic for fostering trust and/or cooperation.  I suspect this fact has exacerbated the present situation: that the very community most hurt by the viral pandemic is the same one protesting ruthless treatment at the hands of police.

All of us have become too pent-up inside. We don’t have our usual outlets of sports and our myriad outside activities. Our kids cannot go to school. Most of us can’t even gather to worship. We are told to stay home, and I believe too many people are tired of being restricted. I suspect that the numbers of those who are simply sick of what they cannot do vastly outnumber the ones who have contracted the novel corona virus.

People are more isolated from one another, suspicious of one another everywhere. The mask-wearers of the pandemic consider those who don’t cover their faces to be selfish, inconsiderate, and dangerous. People outside of our self-imposed bubbles of protection are unsafe and untrusted. People who still have employment during this time of social and economic shutdown are divided from those whose jobs have been furloughed.  I suspect that too many of those waiting for their salaries to reappear will discover that they don’t, and they will become victims of yet another financial downturn.

Too many of these people will join the ranks of the invisible masses whom the employed don’t know how to help and will eventually fail to notice over time. Like the homeless, the undocumented, the ones who slip between the ever widening cracks of society, they will become more and more those whose situation is so difficult a problem to solve that society forgets about them, not out of lack of compassion but out of the guilt of helplessness. The invisible won’t be fortunate enough to find refuge inside the safe bubbles that shelter our loved ones.  I fear that fear will eventually pit the prey against the prey in an ill-fated attempt to protect themselves against a predator who seems impenetrable.

All this is challenging my hope. It’s running up against my desire to believe that we are all beloved children of the same God who breathed life into being. It’s Pentecost today.  Our priest reminded me this morning that God sent all of us an Advocate, in the form of the Holy Spirit.  Pentecost marks the epoch when our risen Lord appeared to a gathering of his apostles and disciples and imbued them with the Holy Spirit by breathing on them.

How are communities going to allow themselves to feel protected when they fear those sent to keep them from harm?  How are we to believe that we are all in this together when we are expected to isolate ourselves from everyone else?  How are we supposed to be advocates for each other when we live in terror that someone whom we are afraid to trust might breathe on us?  And how can we expect people to trust an authority who repressed the desperate pleas of one who whispered, “I can’t breathe”?

Linda Tysall Ricke
31 May 2020

Guest contributor Linda Tysall Ricke holds a Master’s Certificate in Spiritual Direction
and writes about faith and politics from her home in rural Florida.

Image © 2020 American Inquiry.

How wonderful it would be

Man cutting out stars in a flag factory (Courtesy Library of Congress)

“It would just be so wonderful if the answers could actually come from the South itself,” Isabella Wilkerson said.  She was talking about the Charleston shootings, the Confederate flag, and the influence the South’s slave-holding past continues to have on the region.  The race hatred that motivated a young white gunman to kill nine African-Americans in their own church is an extreme manifestation of the bitterness and resentment still lingering in some hearts after the Civil War—a conflict whose one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary the nation has just observed.

That long-ago conflict determined the superior power of the federal government over the states, while putting an end to Southern slavery.  The citizens of the sections warred against one another, one side sold on the merits of federalism, the other desiring to preserve states’ autonomy.  The South went to war over the right to pass and uphold whatever laws it pleased—specifically those that sanction chattel slavery.

The Union’s victory invalidated the rebels’ arguments, while setting up an asymmetrical dynamic vis-à-vis the South that persists.  In the wake of this rebuke, the federal government (in the so-called “Reconstruction” era) ruled Southern state governments for ten years, fearing that, if given political autonomy, the states would use it to resurrect slavery.  Later in the century, Southern states achieved something approximate through the Jim Crow laws.  During the civil rights era of the 1960s, the federal government again intervened to help secure and uphold black Southerners’ claims to legal and civil equality.  This legacy of intervention achieved progress by coercion–an achievement very different than that of racial reconciliation and political healing from inside.

When I traveled to Mississippi in the early 1990s, I was shocked to encounter whites who felt they couldn’t ‘win’ because of the weights the Civil War had placed on them.  They still felt diminished and beaten, and still resented and feared the state’s large black population, which could attain hegemony if empowered.  Enmeshed in an archaic social paradigm, they still regarded their black brethren as something other than Southern and equal.

The Southern tendency to predicate the present on this past is a baleful impediment to Southern progress.  It is, moreover, a baleful impediment to the vitality and strength of the entire country.  People of all sections are affected by the conditions prevailing in this one region.  Just imagine the transforming effects upon the entire nation if the South were finally to heal its own historical wounds!

Above: A man cuts out stars for a flag with a machine, in a photograph probably taken in 1909.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.