ESSAY #17 – 12.27.20 Posted 7.22.21 Why the Time is Now

Why the Time is Now

As Americans, we have been struggling with our racial relationship for 400 years. But never before have our circumstances been so perfect to support the possibility of reconciling our differences, and building a society that provides equal opportunity and equitable justice for all. The time is now for a nationwide conversation that will bring about true progress.

Why the Time Is Now

“The time is now for what?” you might ask, especially if you haven’t read any of my other essays.

The time is now for engaging a conversation, in these United States, about what it would take to bring about true racial reconciliation. The purpose of that conversation would be to create a truly just society where every child would have equal access to the resources needed to grow, learn, and participate in a productive and satisfying life. By “every child,” I mean every single one, regardless of sex, color, race, ethnicity or intellectual or physical ability.

By the people, for the people

It was that germ of an idea that was planted by our forefathers when they first announced their intention to create a nation managed by the people, for the people—the people who they declared were inherently equal, and thereby deserved equal opportunity.

In our history, since that day in 1776, we have slowly inched our way along toward manifesting that ideal, and we have made considerable progress—progress never imagined by the signers of that declaration, yet inspired by their words. Some of the progress has come in spontaneous movements by the citizenry, some of it has been hard-fought-for by specific segments of our society, and some of it has come only by the spilling of blood. What we have seen, over time, is that the power originally granted only to white male property owners has oozed from their tight grip, and is now more generously shared with women, and with people of color and other non-European ethnicities. That power has never been surrendered easily or without a struggle, and those who have resisted almost always predict dangerous calamity and the end of reason—neither of which has ever happened.

“Oh,” you say, “we are too politically divided for that type of conversation right now. It will never succeed.” And with my intellect fully intact, I respond, “Oh, piffle paffle!” Of course, you have been watching cable news, hearing the talking heads say, “We have never been so politically divided!” And I say to those talking heads, “Will you please shuuuut uuup?!?!? You are creating division in the population that wouldn’t otherwise exist!!!”

Okay, I grant you that control of the houses of government is closely divided, but isn’t that the way it is supposed to be in a democratic republic, or in the world itself? When your political system is divided between two opposing sides, it is likely that half are going to be on one side or the other. Isn’t that human nature? Since Reagan’s landslide win over Mondale in 1984, only two presidents have had a wider popular vote percentage spread than Biden’s over Trump. Self-interested politicians have aggravated our differences, and the media hasn’t helped. However, as individuals, as citizens, we are still able to engage each other.

Leave it to the citizens

I’m not saying that our aging political system isn’t in trauma right now. I think it is, and it has been for about 30 years, and that is another huge and important conversation, but it does not need to keep the rest of us from being engaged in making improvements to our society. I suspect we can more effectively move toward a more just and equitable society by not expecting major movement from national political leadership. I am not saying they don’t have a role to play, or that down the road, their involvement will not be quite beneficial. I am saying that, at this point in time, the best way to bog down a conversation about racial and ethnic justice and equity is to involve the Congress of the United States. As of late, what is apparent is that they are really good at not making things happen—many of them, in fact, see obstruction as their role.

Here’s the thing you have to be aware of: People who vote have two choices, and they will vote, usually from an emotional perspective, for the candidate and/or party that they perceive best represents their views on a myriad of issues that they rank in importance. We call that self-interest. By the nature of that process, people vote for candidates that may have very different views from their own on particular issues, and the voters may or may not be aware of those differences.

When you are forced into a binary decision (which is what voting in the US is), you are going to pick A or B, and regardless of the reason you pick A or B, you are also picking all the things you don’t know about your selection. So, for example, we can have polls that tell us 63% of voters believe in social and racial equity. However, 20% of those same voters voted for a candidate because of their position on law and order. “Law and order” is one of those amorphous terms that most of us believe in and support without actually knowing what it means. It is often used by politicians to stoke racial fears, and to conflate the peaceful demonstrations of the many with the rioting of a few. This conflation gives the impression that social justice is the opposite of law and order, creating a false dichotomy. It is a broadly used, cynical, and destructive approach to political campaigning, and though it doesn’t fool everyone, it does motivate those whose fear of violence is greater than their motivation or understanding of social and racial equity to vote against social justice issues.

So, for the time being, let’s keep the politicians out of the conversation. Instead, let’s invite that portion of the citizenry who are interested in a conversation about the world they wish to create for their children and grandchildren.

Progress without Congress

When we leave words like “Democrat,” “Republican,” “socialist,” and “racist” out of the conversation, there are suddenly a lot more topics that Americans agree on than they disagree on. As long as we are in reaction mode because of something we found on the internet or a cable news network, we will be stuck arguing narrow points about things that really aren’t generative, and mire us in the muck. And very likely, we’ll also be arguing about things that are not true. A couple of things that have happened in the last 30 years, while Congress has been a source of divisiveness, are actually quite constructive.

Attitudes regarding the LGBTQ community have shifted significantly and, where just ten years ago it was unimaginable, marriage between persons of the same sex is legal and accepted across the nation. It happened—it was, for most of us, unexpected, and it was, in the final hour, a result of action in the courts. However, you cannot ignore that the growing level of acceptance in society was a serious contributing factor to its coming to be. After all, judges are people, too. It was an open conversation—taking place in many settings, among a lot of individuals, over many years—that brought about the change. Those conversations were informative and instructive inquiries by people who weren’t yet sure of their positions.

Many of us in the Baby Boomer generation have thought for 40 years that cannabis should be and would be legalized. But it got caught up in the “War on Drugs,” and in the spread of popular myth of political movements, was thought to be the gateway drug to cocaine, heroin, and a bunch of other scary crap circulating out there. (I know a lot of people who’d say that beer and wine are the true gateway drugs. Personally, I have always thought it was coffee.) But then, someone discovered that cannabis had wonderful medicinal properties, and a process of legalization began—first for medicinal purposes only, and then for personal recreational use—and close to two thirds of US states have now legalized it for one or both of these purposes. Something that scared the bejesus out of a large segment of the population has seen a wave of legalization cross the country, in the last ten years, but the US Congress has yet to give it their blessing.

Part of the genius of Abraham Lincoln, it has been said, is that as a leader, he never got too far out in front of the people. At a time when there were no polls to blame, Abe was able to feel the pulse of the people, and be in step with them. Great politicians can do that, which is probably why it is so difficult to name the elected officials who brought about these recent great changes—they weren’t leading, but following the people.

100,000 conversations

It has been said that there were 10,000 battles in the American Civil War. I think I even have a book that says who was fighting where on each day of the war. But though there were in the neighborhood of 25 huge memorable battles that affected the outcome, the war was for the most part engaged on a small scale, in minor battles everywhere, mostly in the South. I don’t like to use war analogies, because we don’t need to conduct a war to bring about racial reconciliation and equitable participation in our society, but the parallel here is that the conversation has to take place in 100,000 communities, cities, counties, and states. And it has to be an open conversation that recognizes the difference between facts and myths.

Why now? Because, with the help of cell phones and social media, what Blacks have been experiencing for decades at the hands of law enforcement has finally been brought into the living rooms of white people across the country. Though not everyone is yet on board, a large number of people, close to critical mass, are ready for meaningful change. It is hard to deny this particular problem, and it has the potential to be leveraged into a larger conversation that includes broader justice issues, and barriers to educational and economic progress. There are a lot of white folk out there who will support fairness in our society and will react positively to resolve issues where they see injustice and unfairness. They want change to happen, but they don’t know what to do or how to make it happen. Many Whites are aware of the disparity, and many of those same Whites are busy trying to hold on to what they have—they, too, are struggling.

Even more importantly, they are weary and frustrated with racial issues—they just want them to go away, and they are waiting for someone to come up with a plan that will alleviate the guilt and frustration they are experiencing. As I have said before, a truly equitable society will make life easier for everyone, not only Blacks. All of us have something to gain from it.

When I first started talking to people about “reparations,” the response was consistent across the political and racial spectrum: There was little interest in sending checks to people based on ancestry, but there was a willingness to engage in a process to reconcile racial differences, and to spend money when necessary.

As a people, we are ready. The time is now. It’s not that the resistance won’t be great, but our belief that all people are created equally, and so all people should have equal opportunity, will prevail.

Just give it some thought.