It is difficult for an old white guy to write about racism in America when so many who look more or less like myself are Trumpeting views that are odious to sensible humans of any age. The screaming headlines, however, demand that the conscientious denounce the nascent viral hatred threatening to consume centuries of human rights progress.
If you have not noticed yet, this is getting out of hand.
Though the current intellectual conflagration is certainly nothing new, it does freshly greave the soul. I honestly thought in my youth that when my generation finally died off, we would take most of this hate with us. Turns out that I was fantastically optimistic about the human condition.
It is understandable that many Millennials fail to appreciate America’s history of dalliance at the edges of fascist thought. If you did not grow up around active Ku Klux Klan dens and John Birch Society displays at the state fair, it is hard to fathom the grasp that hate holds on the minds of some who walk our streets in the guise of ordinary Americans.
Sadly, such things, while considered extreme by most, are well within the memory of the living. Before David Duke, there was George Lincoln Rockwell. Before Alt-Right, there was White Power. Before Trump, there was Woodrow Wilson. Like our ancestors who waged Civil Rights Wars, our posterity is calling for us to respond.
This means you and me.
But, at the risk of exposing my chronic naïveté, I do still see signs of hope. It is clear that Millennials are far more engaged on this crucial conversation than any generation before. As the old school white nationalists die off, the Confederate flags are finally coming down, as are the white supremacist websites. Amidst the conflict and outrage, the energy in the air instills optimism that America will navigate back to its historic progressive track.
Yet while so much of this response to evil is encouraging, I fear that the wholesale rush to expunge our nation of historic artifacts is a misguided overreaction. While we have long recognized “flag waiving” to be an overt act in celebration of the ideas symbolized by the flag, memorials established in a time past are qualitatively different. Often, these memories carved in granite are just enough remembrance to provide reproof and instruction to today.
Of course, we cannot ignore the obvious truth that many of these monuments where placed with overt racist intent. Monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest erected sufficiently long after the Civil War as to have no possible melancholic content come immediately to mind.
As much as the removal of monuments to klansmen is to be celebrated, I am afraid that in classic American style we are already overreacting. In the wake of the tragic events in Charlottesville last weekend, the Maryland Governor has announced an effort to remove a statue of Roger B. Taney from the grounds of the State House in Annapolis. While Taney’s infamous opinion in the Dred Scott decision informs our outrage, it is important to realize that Taney’s tenure as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was more nuanced than this single decision. Contemporary ardent critics of the Dred Scott decision took a different view of the man who was a southerner who freed his own slaves.
Even adjusting for context, tolerating a memorial to Roger B. Taney, or perhaps even Jefferson Davis, is far different than enduring the waiving of a Nazi flag.
Amid the fever pitch of Twitter bomb excesses, it is important to remember too that none of us are free from the stain of the misdeeds of our ancestors. Travel far enough back in your family tree and even the recently oppressed will find ancestry on the wrong side of the oppression table. Though some people do not have to traverse that tree as far as others, it is time for Americans to agree to be something different while still recognizing both the gifts and burdens bequeathed by history.
Moving past those burdens is, of course, difficult. Are we to remove the monuments to my hero George Washington because he owned slaves and thereby ignore his singular role in advancing human rights? What about those honoring Benjamin Franklin? Should they be cast down because he owned two slaves before freeing them and becoming a founder of the abolition movement? Should we shutter the doors of the Genghis Grill because so many Chinese Americans are quite understandably offended by the reference to the Great Khan?
These questions are not easy.
Fortunately, however, identifying the general principles to guide us in answering these difficult questions is easy. Variations on the golden rule wander the breadth of philosophy from East to West and the breadth of respectability from Jesus to Bill and Ted. The golden rule is as profound as it is simple and has obvious application in our discordant discourse.
A uniquely relevant expression of this universal golden axiom can be found in the writings of one of my other heroes. After escaping slavery and becoming an important leader in the American abolition movement, Frederick Douglass penned a public letter to his former master that should be required reading for all Americans. It is worth reading in its entirety both because of its profound content and its eloquent articulation of the approach we desperately need today. In his famous letter, after extensively critiquing slavery and his former master’s role in that peculiar institution, Douglass said:
I will now bring this letter to a close, you shall hear from me again unless you let me hear from you. I intend to make use of you as a weapon with which to assail the system of slavery—as a means of concentrating public attention on the system, and deepening their horror of trafficking in the souls and bodies of men… In doing this I entertain no malice towards you personally. There is no roof under which you would be more safe than mine, and there is nothing in my house which you might need for your comfort, which I would not readily grant. Indeed, I should esteem it a privilege, to set you an example as to how mankind ought to treat each other.
I am your fellow man, but not your slave,
Douglass wrote such words to a man who had laid stripes to his back.
Given the complete lack of effective leadership and abundant political posturing during this media maelstrom, the words of Douglass ring true. Do not get caught up in the hate gentle readers. Instead, set an example as to how mankind ought to treat each other. Instead, find a way forward together rather than wielding the past to drive us apart.
Instead, be excellent to each other.