In these days of pandemic, American democracy lies sick, burning not with fever but with fire. Every illness must come to one end or the other. Will she die, or will she get better?
The death of George Floyd has proved difficult to dismiss: The excruciatingly documented last minutes of a man’s life; the slow, methodical, merciless murder; the act that, if not deliberate, can be judged no less than criminally contemptuous of the sacred value of the human life thus lost. Yet there are many —governors, police chiefs and mayors, but also ordinary, everyday beneficiaries of the bliss of privilege —who have chosen to speak out against it only as an isolated incident, an anomaly, a case of a bad person embedded among good people, a rogue cop gone wrong.
Others, seeing this crime take its place amongst a constellation of recent, high-visibility deaths of black people, too often at the hands of the police, have used this as an opportunity for a belated awakening to the continuing inequities of experience among Americans of different colors.
The yet deeper, and yet more difficult and demanding awakening however, is to the reality that these deaths mark not failures of the system, but the fulfillment of it. Our police force has always had two faces: Polite, helpful and deferential to middle and upper-class white citizens; bullying, abusive, and murderous towards the poor and the darker of skin. This, along with miseducation and mass incarceration, are the three pillars of a system that ensures the maintenance of a permanent, economically-exploited underclass within our supposed meritocracy.
The roots, like so much else in American life, lie in the period immediately following the Civil War, when newly enfranchised black citizens gained accomplishments beyond anyone’s expectations: Advanced educations, successful businesses, and even tenures in Congress. Yet the myth of white superiority cannot long survive without its twinned opposite, the myth of black inferiority. And if that inferiority does not exist, it must be created.
The backlash was swift and severe. White mobs burned black businesses to the ground, government officials disenfranchised black voters with poll taxes and literacy tests, and former slaveholders instituted mass incarceration as the thinly disguised heir of slavery. The Ku Klux Klan began to ride, often hiding beneath their white robes the badges of local law enforcement. The murders-as-entertainment known as lynchings were their favored tool of societal control.
To paraphrase William Faulkner, this past is not dead, nor even is it past. The Republican party actively works to disenfranchise minority voters, today; governors and legislators of both parties reap popularity by filling prisons with black bodies, today. And when black people like Ahmaud Arbery are murdered in full public view, and prosecutors decline to prosecute, and juries decline to convict, then lynchings also are today.
What does feel new is visibility. For many non-black people, the vivid immediacy of on-the-scene video has revealed, to their own eyes and souls, what used to be invisible to all but the victims. But racism is also more visible today because it has abandoned all desire to hide. President Donald Trump is a de facto white nationalist supremacist, by actions and by rhetoric, regardless of what lies in his heart. “Make America Great Again” is a thinly coded invitation to go backwards to the days of the Deconstuctionist South, and to renew its characteristic racial backlash. Lacking any vision to uplift or ennoble his own race, he creates the illusion of forward progress only by pushing all others behind.
What is instructive, however, is not Trump’s own nature, but the fact that such large portions of the country have embraced this vision, and with enthusiasm. Members of his own party have proved willing to sacrifice Christian morality, rule of law, Constitutional principle, economic stability, geopolitical advantage, and even their own health and safety, either because they actively share his attitudes, or because they are afraid to reject them in full view of their followers.
Even his political opponents have responded largely within the usual framework of grandstanding and political gamesmanship. They have thus tacitly legitimized Trump’s approach, even as they have fundraised millions off of their official disagreement with it. People may say “This is not America,” but our actions proclaim “Oh yes, it is.”
This is why protests have reached such a point of intensity, and why they have not yet diminished. The people in the streets recognize this as a fight for the very soul of America –one taking place after legitimate avenues of recourse have visibly failed. Yet protests in the streets are not eternally sustainable. The young people, and the journalists, and the lifelong activists are holding open with their own bodies, at the price of attack with tear gas and batons, and militarized opposition, a moment of opportunity, a last chance for America to get better. But they cannot keep that window open forever.
Awaken you dreamers, you philosophers, you writers, you artists and poets, asleep at your desks. We too must stand and be counted. History has not forgotten us, yet. It is on our shoulders to ensure that the sacrifices others make in the streets will not be in vain. We cannot achieve what we have not dreamt.
If there is a gift of this moment, it is the chance to outgrow the old dream, the American dream. It was always your success, or my success, never both. Farewell to that old narrative of starting from the bottom –or at least the bottom of the top –and scrapping your way to the pinnacle, trampling all others on the path up. We can reject that ambition. We don’t need anyone’s permission.
We can reject the notion that my success is your failure, that my victory is your loss, that my race thrives only at the expense of your race. Let my success be your success; my joys, your joys; my people, your people.
We can reject the idea of going it alone. “Divide and conquer” is our enemy’s baptisimal name. To turn on our allies is to do the devil’s work. Difference may be difficult, but diversity is strength. We can inscribe “stronger together” indelibly upon our own hearts.
We can reject the myth of incremental change. In a time when the world’s largest economies can be shut down or restarted overnight; in a time in which the president has made over all the structures of our democratic government into his own image, in less than a single term of office; in a time in which technological change is quicker than the human ability to respond; then a new world can and will and must be built overnight.
We can reject supposed symbols of hope that have become shackles. We don’t have to stand for a national anthem written in defense of slavery. We don’t have to be grateful for the service and protection of a police force deployed not in defense of all, but in aggression against many. We don’t have to salute a military casually arrogated into an attack against peacefully protesting American citizens. We don’t have to respect a president, a congress, or a judiciary, with no respect for themselves, and contempt for we, the people.
None of these things, these laws, these governments, this culture, these borders, these walls, these economies, this paper money, this digital money, are real beyond the boundaries of our minds. They exist because we believe they exist. Like a dream when one awakes, when you arise, you will despise them as fantasies.
Free your mind, dream louder, dream bigger. Pick up your pen and write. Pick up your brush and paint. Open your mouth and speak, shout, sing. The former things have come to pass, and the time to declare new things is at hand. Flood the airwaves with new voices, the streets with new images, the newspapers, the social media feeds, and the bookshelves with new truths. Unhide your light. Write the vision in letters so large, they can be read, even by one riding at full speed.
People are listening now as never before in our lifetimes. People are listening now as they may never again. We must not miss this chance to be heard.
This fever is breaking, America. Awake from your nightmare. Get up from your sickbed.