The above words, which serve as the Preamble to the Constitution, were written in 1787 by learned men who well understood the term “more perfect,” for they themselves were anything but perfect. Most of them were slave owners and, I suspect, all of them knew that the document they were writing would at some point have to be amended down the road. Their limitations notwithstanding, the republic they built was the first of its kind and has survived, warts and all, through a civil war, two world wars and countless internal strife.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a more perfect union and the demands it makes on all of us. These last five years have been, by far, the most difficult and tumultuous period in our history, with the possible exception of the Civil War itself. I say possible only because the fracture that war created went literally across the mid-section of the Union and was about as complete as any fracture ever before witnessed. The war that is raging today is creating micro fractures throughout the entire fabric of society that are leading to the destruction of entire communities, the ending of long-standing friendships, the straining of family bonds, and the eroding of social and institutional norms and mores that have come to define the nation from the very beginning.
The damage that Donald Trump has done and is doing to America will take years to recover from, assuming that’s even a possibility. He is using the most vile and disgusting rhetoric imaginable to appeal not to, as Lincoln put it in his first inaugural address, “the better angels of our nature,” but to the worst fears of our demons. That he could still win reelection shows just how effective hatred can be in the hands of a master manipulator.
But as I wrote in an earlier piece, “Trump was never the root cause of racism in this country; he’s merely the most egregious example of it.” I prefer to think of him as a skilled surgeon who knows precisely where to apply the scalpel. Like all good snake-oil salesmen, he knows where the pain is, even if the potion he is peddling will only make it worse.
The sad truth is America has never dealt with systemic racism, not entirely, that is. Lincoln may have emancipated the almost four million African Americans who were enslaved, but he did not live long enough to tackle the bigger issue: namely how to integrate them into a still bitterly divided nation that neither wanted, nor knew what to do with them. Slavery may have been outlawed, but Reconstruction has been the albatross around the neck of the nation for well over a century and a half.
Since the 1960s, when both the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were signed into law, the United States has taken the proverbial two steps forward, one step backward approach to racism. Yes, things have improved since then, but in so many ways, the heart of the white population has only grown colder over the last few decades. The election of Barack Obama, by all accounts, should’ve been a seminal moment in American politics. Instead, the first black president ended up becoming a lightning rod for white resentment. Placards depicting Obama being hung harkened back to a time when Jim Crow ruled the South and lynchings were common place.
The North was not much better. As the singer-songwriter Randy Newman observed in his song “Rednecks,” neighborhoods like Roxburry, Watts and Harlem were clearly not part of the South. Indeed, most of the northern suburbs, where I grew up, were as segregated as, if not more so than, their southern counterparts. You can’t have a serious discussion about race if you’re unable or unwilling to look objectively in the mirror.
But that has always been America’s problem: the inability to come to grips with the reality that is staring it right in the face. It’s one thing to be outraged at the injustice that many blacks and, Hispanics for that matter, have had to endure in this system of oppression, but to acknowledge one’s role in that oppression was a bridge many in the white community were unwilling to cross. It’s an axiom that an eight-slice pizza pie cannot feed nine people unless someone gives up their slice. But in this NIMBY culture we have, poverty was always someone else’s problem to deal with.
This moment feels different. The murder of George Floyd has triggered something visceral in the country. The protests that have taken place in dozens of cities have forced white America to, if not have that conversation about race, at least consider broaching the subject, which is encouraging; monuments of Confederate generals are finally being taken down throughout the South; Congress is considering legislation that would, if enacted, outlaw choke holds and no-knock warrants; Mississippi just voted to remove the Confederate cross from its flag; the U.S. military is poised to rename some of its bases like Fort Hood [a base named after] a Confederate general in the Civil War; the NFL’s Washington Redskins could soon follow suit with a name change of their own. Hell, even NASCAR has banned the flying of the Confederate flag at all of its events. For the first time since its inception, a majority of people now hold a favorable view of Blacks Lives Matter. The message is resonating, finally.
Some of these measures are symbolic, I realize, but you have to start somewhere. The real fear, as a friend of mine recently pointed out, is that America might grow tired of the unrest and go back to business as usual. Given the country’s track record, that would not at all be surprising, but it would also be a golden opportunity wasted. We have never come this close to looking under the hood, so to speak. If Trump were to somehow parlay this to his advantage in time for the Fall election, it could set the country back a generation or more.
Absent that, I remain cautiously optimistic. America, for all her flaws, is still a functioning republic, despite Trump’s best efforts to dismantle it. Our founders were likewise flawed men who made it a point to remind all of us that this remarkable experiment would never be completed. We are more perfect now than we were a century a go and, God willing, we will be still more perfect a hundred years from now.
How do I know that? Those young people marching in the streets will see to it, that’s how.