America is Burning
These are the worst of times.
Police brutality in Minneapolis murdered a black man who allegedly used a fake $20 bill. Petty crimes are adjudicated in a court of law. Police do not have the authority or right to use lethal force when confronting an unarmed person. After a long string of similar incidents where black people were unjustly murdered, the killing of George Floyd ignited protests across the nation. Some of the protests turned violent, and fires were burning in widely scattered cities in the midst of confrontations between police and protestors.
Racism is America’s deepest, most intractable sin.
The explosion of protest is unlikely to lead to any productive change until the racists in the White House are ousted and replaced by people who are determined to fight racism. We currently have a government of old white men who have used their words and deeds to stoke the fires that are now burning. Trump has no credibility to calm the situation or to offer solace or to promise meaningful change. He has spent many years expressing the anger of racists, repeatedly claiming that President Obama was not born in the U.S., demanding the death penalty for the Central Park Five (who were ultimately found innocent), pretending never to have heard of David Duke when Duke offered his endorsement of Trump, referring to the white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville as “very fine people,” appealing again and again to the gun-toting, violent people who thronged to his rallies and praising them. No need to point out that Trump has stoked the fires that are now burning. We have all seen it with our own eyes. He is like a boy who plays with matches and eventually burns down his own house.
Last night on CNN, the Reverend William Barber referred to the protests as an expression of “national mourning.” The protestors are reacting, he said, not only to the death of George Floyd, but to poverty, joblessness, unequal treatment, hunger, injustice—to systematic racism and inequity that have been ignored for too long. For too long, our nation has been on a trajectory that creates and enriches billionaires while millions of people of all races, but especially black Americans, are expected to live a life of want and need and hopelessness without complaint.
Last night, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center released the text of a speech that Dr. King gave in 1967 in which he said that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” He said, prophetically, “And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt laid out an “economic bill of rights” in 1944, which has since been forgotten as a small number of extraordinarily wealthy people rig the system to intensify economic inequality, abetted by willing allies like Mitch McConnell. Even a huge multi-trillion dollar bill to relieve those suffering from the effects of the coronavirus turned out to be a package of goodies for big corporations.
Trump did not create racism, but he has used it and exploited it for his political benefit. He has ignored it, belittled its consequences, and courted the support of racists. He has made plain his contempt for his predecessor, our nation’s first black president. When Obama was elected president, many commentators declared that America was finally a post-racial society. With a man of African descent in the presidency, with a racially integrated Cabinet, with a black man leading the Justice Department, the stain of racism would at last be abolished.
The commentators were wrong. Racism is thriving. It will destroy our nation until we assure equal justice to every citizen, until we guarantee that everyone has the same rights and privileges, until we provide every man, woman, and child with decent health care, housing, education, and a decent standard of living.
We can’t eliminate racism entirely, but we can remove its adherents from the seats of power, we can stigmatize it. We can choose leaders who fight for freedom, justice, and a decent standard of living for all people. Unless we do so, our tattered democracy will not survive. We can’t let that happen. We must be willing and able to pursue genuine change, a social democracy in which every one of us is protected equally by the law and has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
NPE Action, President