I noted in my introduction earlier today that I don’t usually write about politics, that I prefer, especially when things get bad, to retreat into literature and poetry. This was my impulse when news of what happened in Ferguson first flickered across my screen – to my shame, I just wanted to avert my gaze. And I managed to do just that for a day or two, until it couldn’t be ignored, and it shifted from a “local story” to the topic that completely dominated my Twitter feed and Facebook page, almost to the exclusion of everything else. Ferguson, Missouri, was “just a place,” as the New York Times put it, until, suddenly, it wasn’t. That phrase gets more chilling every time I read it.
In what I’ve read about the killing of Michael Brown and its aftermath, certain issues have been front-and-center, with the widespread evils of entrenched racism and the militarization of the police being the most prominent. But I’ve also noticed something else going on, which is that more and more people seem to believe that Ferguson reveals something quite damning about America itself, that it points to deeper, systemic issues that go far beyond one killing in one town – that the disregard for black lives in America is a sin that undermines so much about what we like to believe about our country, and our hopes for its future. James Poulos gets at this well:
Americans—in and out of my Twitter feed—have begun to grasp that hideous possibility: that America has manufactured a violent and predominantly black permanent underclass, subjected to our malignant paranoia about crime, living slow-motion death sentences in ghettos from which no amount of presidential hope, change, or lecturing can release them.
Even more important, Americans have begun to understand that the scourge-ification of this underclass is inseparable from the realization of our worst collective nightmare—the scourging of America itself, the ruin of the promise of America that still strikes us in our gut as providential. The widespread belief, still largely subconscious or at least unspoken, that America is breaking, and that we deserve the suffering ahead.
He then turns to Lincoln to further develop this thought:
“Fondly do we hope,” Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural, “fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
We do not want this to be true. This is what we fear: that America, despite its brilliance and its progress, is inescapably complicit in the sin of slavery and racism, bearing a moral debt that cannot be repaid but in suffering and blood—as such debts are paid so routinely around the world which we pride ourselves, however rationally, on standing so far above.
I think it has to be clear by now that we do bear that moral debt and are complicit in the ongoing sin of racism and white supremacy, even if too few of us are willing to admit it, and what I found compelling about Poulos’ essay is that he points beyond policy questions to the deeper moral issues involved. I certainly hope the killing in Ferguson leads to policy changes, especially when it comes to the militarization of our police forces. With Freddie, I also hope that the protests in Ferguson are the first stirrings of “dragging the police back under community control.” But these reforms won’t really be enough, even if they do help. Ferguson is about more than a few police officers with big guns behaving badly.
What we need, in other words, is what Ta-Nehisi Coates described in his recent essay on reparations:
What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.
Beyond policy fixes is the necessity of a “national reckoning” with the reality of racial injustice in this country. More white people like myself should care about the criminalization of black men apart from when it’s trendy to mention it on Twitter. What I am concerned about is what happens after the situation in Ferguson is “resolved.” And I don’t see how we can really have that national reckoning apart from the ways Coates lays out in his essay, addressing the full breadth of the way blacks have been marginalized, punished, and plundered throughout our history. We can take away the police’s military equipment, but we also need “a revolution of the American consciousness.” The question we face is not just “Why do the police in Ferguson have that equipment?” but “Why did they turn those arms against black people?” Beneath policy debates lurks the problems of the human heart, and the hate and indifference residing there.
All this is another way of saying we need repentance, real repentance. I do not accept that the only way forward is through “suffering and blood.” To invoke the prophetic tradition both Lincoln and Poulos are leaning on, repentance can forestall the anger of the Lord. As the writer of the book of Jonah proclaimed, “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” And so if we’re going to revisit Lincoln, it’s worth mentioning the call that closed his second Inaugural address:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Let us turn from our evil ways and repent, and bind up the nation’s wounds as best we can. Read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay, if you haven’t already, and consider, as TNC suggests, supporting John Conyer’s congressional bill, H.R. 40. Keep tweeting about Ferguson, sure, but when your social media feed reverts to pictures of cats and snarky one-liners, remember what we saw and felt this last week. And one other thing: I want to hear from Dish readers about concrete ways they hope to “finish the work we are in” in the weeks, months, and years ahead. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with ideas and suggestions about how to do this, how you plan on being more than a spectator who simply waits to tweet about the next killing and the next protest.
(Photo: Demonstrators wrote messages while protesting on August 15, 2014, the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. By Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty Images)