One wants not to allow that the color of a person’s skin ranks one in American society. Yet as Curtis Mayfield, America’s greatest poet of the past 60 years, wrote, “if you had a choice of colors, which one would you choose, my brothers ?”
Mayfield was not wrong to write that line, or to sing it in that plaintive voice of moral force. He was an American; and here, in America, the federal republic framed upon the equality of all, the color of a person’s skin has more often than not been an exception to foundational principles. I do not talk of slavery, an obvious derogation — one which occupies the minds of far too many reformers who prefer basking in past wrongs to a hard-fought future — because slavery was abolished for good 155 years ago. I speak of the situation since that time. The equality of all is written into the Fourteenth Amendment, a covenant affirmed by the Civil War deaths of hundreds of thousands of us. Either we keep our solemn promises, or we fail ourselves and those to whom these promises were made. That the Fourteenth’s promises were made 153 years ago, by our great-great-great grandfathers who we never knew, is no excuse for evasion now. The Constitution continues to exist, and all who seek office under it, or to be licensed as a lawyer, swear an oath to uphold those promises. I get that honoring Constitutional promises is constant work, every minute of every day, because the Constitution provides no time-outs. Its promises can’t take a bye week. Understandably some of us slack, just as the Jews of Biblical times, so we read in the Bible, constantly backslid on their covenants with God. Covenants of any kind are hard to keep.
And so I come to the question asked in my headline. It is one that Black friends of mine often pose in online discussions. “Black Americans have so often done the grunt work of lifting America up. We love this country. We prove it every day. Why doesn’t it love us back ?”
Why, indeed. My own view is that the honor roll, of heroes who have dark skin is long, very long, very honorable, very inspiring; just last week we saw a Black Capitol policeman, Eugene Goodman, face down a mob — a vulgar racist mob — all by himself and thereby saved our democracy. I would place him high on that honor roll, alongside tens of thousands of Black veterans and political leaders, thousands of pillars of society despite every obstacle, indeed just about every Black American, including those who toil for inadequate wages or who risk their lives as health care workers; because every Black American either has been disrespected — often — or knows that he or she, even if never yet disrespected, can be disrespected at any time, in any place. We see it happen, and brutally, now that online brings daily wrongs against Black Americans virally into every news feed. Were these sorts of loveless encounter to happen to the rest of us, we would rise up in anger, and justifiably. Crap is crap, and if you lay crap on another, do not be surprised if you get a face full of spit in return. And if you nod agreement with what I wrote, why is a Black American not fully entitled to the same degree of anger at being dissed ?
That said, of course we cannot go around, not any of us, wreaking anger upon one another. That does no one any good. We have to tough it out; to bear the unbearable, using the vote to oust from power those who abet or tolerate violations of Constitutional promises.
All of the above is easy to write. The actual situation is far from easy. In an America harshly polarized by political party, 85 to 90 percent of Black voters choose one party, a majority of white Americans the other. And so partisan politics segregates despite the written promises we have made to each other. Observers accused Trump supporters of trying to void the votes of Black voters, but what they were seeking to void was the votes of Democratic voters. Trump people were, I am sure, quite happy to have Black voters vote for Trump, and some in fact did so. Party polarization is the new segregation.
Can we surmount this last bar to the equality we have promised to one another ? I think we can. I think we are doing it. The election of Ralph Warnock as a Georgia Senator, with the votes of at least 38 percent of white voters is one such kept promise. so has been the election and re-election of Tim Scott as a South Carolina Senator — in his case, winning majority of white voters. Here, too, we see that the actual division is not skin color but political party. (The same was true of Barack Obama’s wins as President.) I do not expect angry political division to weaken any time soon; yet as ever more Black public persons win major elections, perhaps more and more Americans will become accustomed to respecting, even loving, more and more Black Americans, regardless of partisan axes to grind.
We are very close now to fulfilling our equality promises. I see no reason why with tons of conclusive effort we cannot win the final battle over skin color disrespects.
— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere