Some Thoughts on America’s Shame

Someday, future Americans will look back on the end of the 21st century’s first decade and feel shame, and perhaps a sense of wonder that such an advanced nation, one of the most free to have ever existed, could be home to such petty prejudice and superstition, that rights we once held thought defined us could be so easily and thoughtlessly trampled.

Just as we look back with shame on our treatment of the African Americans brought to these shores and kept in a state of slavery, future Americans will look back with shame on the treatment meted out to our first African American president, not because of his education or qualifications, but because of the color of his skin.

Thomas Jefferson, though he owned slaves, knew that slavery was wrong; he thought of it as a social contagion that was harmful to all, slave and free. He fully expected slavery to come to an end and took legislative steps to begin the process. He knew that extreme measures in his own day would lead to the fragile new union’s collapse if not outright war. It came to war anyway, of course, and over 600,000 dead and a president with the courage to say “enough.”

The road to true freedom for blacks in America did not come all at once, or even with the Emancipation Proclamation. The process has been long and hard and many battles for civil rights had to be fought and won before racism would yield. But racism did not die and is not dead yet, and some, myself included, were shocked when Obama was elected by the degree of racism still existing in this country, by the waving of Confederate flags under which slavery flourished and was defended.

Everyone is equal, the Founding Fathers said. We all have the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But there are those today who disregard the utopian dreams of the Founding Fathers, people to whom egalitarianism extends only to those like themselves, of the same skin color, or the same religion, or the same political leanings. They live in a land of absolutes, where you are one of the chosen – or one of the damned.

We have seen the reactionary forces of this group of people displayed in all its unsavory rhetoric since Barack Obama announced that he would run for President of the United States. He has been accused of being a “Kenyan anti-colonialist” and a “Muslim” and of not even being an American citizen. Conservatives have danced to “Barack the Magic Negro” and refuse even to call him by his real name while they share pictures of the White House surrounded by a watermelon patch, and then play dumb when called out.

They have even accused the Democrats, those who put Barack Obama in office as the first black president of the United States, of racism and keeping black people down. If by holding them down they mean electing them to the highest office in the land, then I suppose they are right, but that is a strange use of the English language, stranger even then Sarah Palin’s unintentional non sequiturs.

Then there is the belief that the word Muslim is in some sense an insult. Barack Obama is not a Muslim, but according to the Constitution, it would make no difference if he was. The United States was founded on the idea of the separation of church and state, that there would be no state religion to sap our hard-won liberties, and the Constitution (Article 6, Section 3) ensures that there will be no religious test for office. The office-holders religious views are, according to the Constitution, completely irrelevant.

Someday, future Americans will look back and shake their heads sadly, wondering how such low arguments could not only be tolerated but bandied about on a major network and in major print newspapers, that a whole political party could operate on the assumption that the Constitution is irrelevant, for irrelevant it must be if what it says can be so easily disregarded.

Most of us may not expect something as free and open-minded as Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future to come to fruition, but we like to think we were further along than we turned out to be; we like to believe there is some hope yet that we may prove ourselves worthy of the founding documents’ lofty words, that liberty is not only for a few, but for all equally, that even if it could not become true all at once with the signing of a pen, that it would be true someday, that it was meant to be true some day.

That such levels of racism and bigotry could exist in the 21st century is a mark of shame for those alive today. We are not who we were supposed to be, ladies and gentlemen, and we share a responsibility in not having created and nurtured the society that we should have created. We have made advances, but not enough. There are still those who expect the wrath of God to befall us for our sins, or who assign natural disasters to God’s wrath, or who would deprive those they don’t approve of, of their allegedly inalienable rights.

You have no rights because you are black; you have no rights because you are a woman; you have no rights because you are gay; you have no rights because you are an atheist; you have no rights because you are a Muslim; you have no rights because you support what the Founding Fathers promised us: liberty and individual human rights – for all.

The forces of exclusion bring shame on all Americans. And the rest of us will bear that shame if we let them triumph, if we let the great experiment begun in 1776 expire because we do not have the courage to stand up and give a shout for what is right, and to shout down what is wrong. Someday Americans will look back in shame on this era, but it is within our power to bring that era to an end, if only we will do what is right in three weeks, and again in two years, and again in every election that follows.

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