Can America Rise Above Racism & Embrace a Higher Vision of a Common Humanity?
Much like America gave the world democracy in 1776, our experience today may well determine whether the world moves forward or backward in the all-so-human struggle for equality, dignity and peace
Today is the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
At the Founding of America we set two goals: A democratically-run nation and equality for all citizens. We’ve largely put into place the democracy part over the years; now we must make the “equality” part happen.
A white man busted for passing a bad $20 wouldn’t get murdered by the cops — in fact, a white person in America is safe doing pretty much everything else that Black people have been killed by cops for doing just in the past few years (playing, eating, driving, parking, sleeping, walking, standing, selling cigarettes, seeking help, etc.).
Which raises a question that’s both existential and practical: America set the example for democracy in the world; can we now set the example for racial justice and harmony?
Or will the possibility of that dream die if the GOP regains power in 2022 or 2024 and pushes America back into being an openly apartheid white-run ethnostate, as we were pre-1965? Will Republicans gain enough power to revert America back to their “Southern Strategy” 20th century roots?
President Ronald Reagan justified his defense of apartheid South Africa by pointed out that the country was “a democracy,” and even though Black people couldn’t participate in that democracy, it was still all good…just like in much of America at the time. This was the worldview of America just a generation or two ago.
Congress, in 1986, however, overrode Reagan’s veto of an act condemning South African apartheid. Bishop Desmond Tutu, after he won the Nobel prize in 1984 and on a visit to America, referred to Reagan’s policy of supporting apartheid as “immoral, evil and totally un-Christian.”
Tutu was right and Reagan was wrong, and South Africa is now a multiracial democracy. But world and US history — in this regard — have moved with glacial slowness.
South Africa’s apartheid government fell in the years immediately after the end of Reagan’s presidency, and has had both successes and difficulties in building a multiracial society. The same is true of Cuba and, at various times, Malaysia.
But they’re still relatively small countries. Today the world’s greatest superpower, America, is on the verge of living out the ideal that our common humanity is more important that our ethnic, religious, racial or sectarian differences. Of fulfilling the second promise of the Declaration of Independence: that “all men are created equal.”
Nonetheless, it’s still an effort that’s going to require Americans of good will to pitch in to make work. And it has powerful opponents, from MAGA to dozens of countries that are actively defending and promoting racism in America and in cyberspace.
In the beginning, most all countries were ethnostates - countries made up of a single ethnicity. Every nation was what it was because of the genetics of the people who made it up. Nations had evolved out of cities, which had evolved out of racially homogeneous tribes.
Swedes looked like Swedes, Persians looked like Persians and when people did occasionally travel, or armies invaded other lands, you could identify who was who simply by looking at them. Languages and subtleties of appearance were part of the equation as well: Swedes and Italians were identifiably different, and the British, Germans and the French spoke different languages.
The United States was established as a white British-ancestry ethnostate, although our founding documents declared otherwise.
At a time when about half the 13 American colonies held Africans in brutal slavery and all were actively engaged in the largest genocide in history, slaughtering Native Americans, idealists among the Founders and Framers included language in our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, that explicitly proclaimed this country was formed to protect the rights of “all.”
It was also the first national founding document in the history of the world to assert that the purpose of government was to make sure that “all [people]” had equal access to “the pursuit of happiness.”
While that’s what we said, it wasn’t what we did for the first two centuries.
The naturalization act of 1790 only allowed “white people” who had lived in this country two years to qualify for citizenship. In 1924 we began to allow immigration of non-whites as a result of the Johnson-Reed Act (which also created the Border Patrol), but at a rate that couldn’t exceed 2% of their ethnic population in this country as of the 1890 census.
It wasn’t until 1965, with a heavy push from Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, that Congress officially changed the law to make our immigration policy colorblind. Finally, the United States could claim to seriously and legally begin to live up to the ideal that all are “created equal” by explicitly rejecting racism in our nation.
That law, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, is one that many Republicans and virtually the entire white supremacist movement in this country assert must be reversed, because it’s allowed people of color into America as immigrants.
The GOP/rightwing-media/racist argument is that domination by a single race or ethnicity is the “normal” state of humankind, and if white people are “replaced” by Blacks or Hispanics, that new majority will turn the tables and oppress and subjugate the newly-marginalized whites.
It’s just a modern retelling of how racism has dominated nations worldwide over the previous few centuries. Racist domination has a lot of history on its side — racial equality is an ongoing struggle for nations around the world — but in 1776 the idea that a kingdom was the only viable form of government also was “normal” and democracy was a struggle.
Nonetheless, we set it as a goal and we’ve been moving in that direction, slowly and painfully, with every generation since the Founding of the republic.
It’s been a long and torturous road, but, with a lot of help from legislation passed by President Johnson and now elevated again by the Democratic Party, America stands on the verge of becoming one of the first nations in the history of the world to not only proclaim, but actually live out, the idea that we are intentionally bound together by our common humanity, rather than a common immediate ancestry.
The pushback against this has been intense and violent, particularly since the Obama presidency, with the rise of multiple reactive white supremacist groups and the acknowledgment by the FBI that armed white supremacist groups now represent the greatest terror threat to America and Americans.
All the way back in 2008 Trump led the charge for America to cling to its racist roots with his “birther” charges against the legitimacy of President Obama and his assertion that immigrants from Mexico were mostly rapists and killers.
As Chauncey DeVega brilliantly explains:
The Age of Trump was and remains a type of cruel tutelage for the American people on the reality of political monsters and monstrous political movements. These truths cannot be wished away or made to disappear. These anti-democratic, antisocial and anti-human politics must be confronted and defeated.
Had Donald Trump prevailed in stealing the 2020 election, odds are he would’ve institutionalized his temporary racist immigration policies and America would be sliding rapidly back toward white supremacy as federal policy, while increasing the violent persecution of Americans who are not white, and purging the nation of non-white immigrants.
The last thing Trump and his Boys want is racial or religious harmony in America. They thrive on hate and division, which the billionaires and big corporations behind them also appreciate because it takes the focus off issues of economic justice and equality.
The urgency of this issue today is not exclusive to America.
Largely as a consequence of increased international trade and inexpensive travel, but also driven by increasing numbers of refugees across the world fleeing climate change and sectarian violence, numerous other countries have begun shedding their ancient trappings of racist ethnonationalism by taking in refugees who don’t look or pray like their own historic citizenry.
And, like America, countries including England, France, Germany and Sweden are experiencing widespread push-back and white-supremacist political and social crises.
Meanwhile, other nations are doubling down on ethnonationalism. China is actively segregating out and cracking down on their Turkman population of Uighurs, while Myanmar is slaughtering their Rohingya minority. Israel grants a sort of second-class status to their minority Arab-Israeli-citizen population, and holds millions of Palestinians in Gaza in what is often described as the world’s largest open-air prison camp.
Racial and religious minorities fare even more poorly in most other countries of the world; although its roots are ancient, this idea of a truly egalitarian nation that is legally and practically blind to race, religion or ethnicity is shockingly new on the international scene and very much still an experiment.
From 1965 to 2016, America followed the policy of rejecting ethnonationalism and explicitly working to become a truly multiracial, multi-religious society in which all persons are considered equal under the law.
The “browning of America” has been led by that 1965 immigration law and Reagan’s “legalizing” around 4 million Hispanic immigrants; today more than half of the children born in America and those entering the earliest grades of elementary school are non-white.
This is the main driver of white supremacist fears; people arrested for attacking our Capitol on January 6th mostly came from counties where white populations are decreasing relative to non-white populations.
For four years, Donald Trump and his white supremacist movement put that idea of increasing American diversity on hold and in some ways reversed it. But the Biden administration has returned to embracing the vision of America that was first stated by slaveholder and Declaration of Independence author Thomas Jefferson, pushed hard by President John F Kennedy, and brought into actual, legal being by President Lyndon Johnson.
In a period of just two generations, American politics, business and media have gone from being largely whites-only to having an extraordinary diversity of names and faces.
Increasingly, it appears the white nationalists have lost their battle and, barring the 1930s-German-style ethnic-cleansing/genocide dreamed of by several white supremacist terrorist groups here, America will continue on the path to finally become, as Dr. Martin Luther King said, “a nation where [people] will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Can America lead the world again?
In 1776, we were the first nation to “declare” explicitly that “all men are created equal”; we were also the first nation to repudiate theocracy and kingdom as legitimate forms of government and elevate republican democracy to the peak of the political evolutionary spectrum.
Just the “democracy” part of those two promises was a huge experiment, and most of the world thought we were nuts. “The people” running a country instead of a king or queen? It seemed crazy.
But by the 1830s it seemed to be working and Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat, explored our country and wrote what became the world’s best selling book that decade: Democracy in America.
By the 1860s there were nearly a dozen full- or nearly-birthed democracies around the world; as we entered the Civil War they held their collective breath, many convinced that this “great experiment of democracy” was on the edge of failure.
But we made it through, albeit with considerable difficulty, and by the turn of the 21st century 123 of the 192 countries in the world called themselves democracies.
That first and primary idea birthed in America — that citizens can democratically govern themselves through a representative government with elections and respect for the rule of law — has not only gone worldwide but is well-established across the globe.
Which raises one of the most important questions of our era: can that second, concomitant idea declared at the start of our nation — that all people are created equal and entitled to equal rights, privileges and opportunities under law — also become a new international norm?
And, if this ideal of an egalitarian republic establishes itself across the world in future generations as firmly as democracy has in previous ones, and continues as an explicit goal of our nation, how should this guide our relations with other countries?
After all, the ideal of racial, religious and ethnic egalitarianism is built into the Charter of the United Nations and is regularly given lip-service by politicians across the world. We have allies in this effort.
Meanwhile, multiple democratic nations have slid backwards into the icy embrace of ethnonationalism. Victor Orban has made it the cornerstone of his party’s rule in Hungary, Modi is promoting a Hindu state in India, and Bolsonaro has all but declared war on indigenous people in Brazil; at least a dozen democracies are on the verge of failing into ethonationalism.
And, as noted earlier, white supremacist ethnonationalist movements are approaching levels of support in countries like France and Sweden where they represent the possibility of gaining governing power like our GOP did in 2016, making them a genuine threat to the movement of those nations toward fully egalitarian democracy.
This is one of the greatest political and philosophical issues of our day: can humans rise above racism and embrace the higher vision of a common humanity?
America and the European Union are the main testing grounds for this question today, although it also confronts Israel in a way that nation’s hard-rightwing will not be able to ignore much longer.
Most of the world remains stubbornly segregated by race, religion and/or national origin, leaving this very much an open question. But racial harmony in governance is also the next great hope for humankind.
Much like America giving the world democracy in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, our experience in this country today may well determine whether the world moves forward or backward in the all-so-human struggle for equality, dignity and peace.
We did Part 1 of our Declaration's proclamation in 1776, establishing a democracy, but never enacted Part 2 - establishing a government where our common humanity is embraced and racism is rejected.
Does America contain within ourselves the seeds of racial harmony? Can we do it now?
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If you’d like to do a deeper dive on these topics, I’ve written a series of small, quickly-read books breaking them down.
The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment describes that Amendment’s roots in the Southern Slave Patrols and how American policing grew out of that and is used today as a violent system of control against marginalized people.
The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America lays out how a corruptly-stacked Supreme Court is the principal instrument that brought us here.
The Hidden History of the War on Voting describes the processes through which oligarchs corrupted the Republican Party and the American political system.
The Hidden History of Monopolies describes how the oligarchic class, exploiting weaknesses within our political system, managed to seize control of virtually our entire economy, giving them massive political power.
The Hidden History of American Oligarchy reveals the two previous times in this country when we almost tipped over into oligarchy [the Civil War era and the attempts to overthrow Franklin Roosevelt] and exposes oligarch efforts to pull it off again today and how we can stop them.
And The Hidden History of American Healthcare shows how the most important and central function of government — maintaining the health and well-being of its people — has been co-opted and seized by a small group of “healthcare oligarchs” and how a Medicare For All system can overthrow much of their power and end their plunder of the American middle class.
All are available through your favorite bookseller.
High-minded documents and highfalutin rhetoric is the United State's area of expertise. But, the brutal truth is this country has always been a hot mess. For the people at the top or those trying to step on everyone on their way to the top, that's exactly the way they like it. Drama and distraction is the perfect cover for their crimes.
Are Americans growing up at long last? I'm a believer. Look what it took to get us to want to mature! It's tragic. We need to honor the sacrifices people have made. We have to tell and teach the truth in order to do that. All the best intentions enshrined in the greatest documents of all time are worth nothing without the actions to bring them to life.
We can all be activists to work for that harmony.