Frederick Douglass, in his famous “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” wrote the following:
Sydney Smith tells us that men seldom eulogize the wisdom and virtues of their fathers, but to excuse some folly or wickedness of their own. This truth is not a doubtful one. There are illustrations of it near and remote, ancient and modern. It was fashionable, hundreds of years ago, for the children of Jacob to boast, we have “Abraham to our father,” when they had long lost Abraham’s faith and spirit. That people contented themselves under the shadow of Abraham’s great name, while they repudiated the deeds which made his name great. Need I remind you that a similar thing is being done all over this country to-day? Need I tell you that the Jews are not the only people who built the tombs of the prophets, and garnished the sepulchres of the righteous? Washington could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves. Yet his monument is built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men shout — “We have Washington to our father.” — Alas! that it should be so; yet so it is.
The evil that men do, lives after them, The good is oft-interred with their bones.
It seems ubiquitous. People praise their heritage and ancestors, but their actions do not reflect, or even outright contradict the values espoused and embodied by their cherished role models. If there is a nation that has not fallen into this hypocrisy, it is most certainly not America. The most salient case of this incongruity of professed belief and action, is the anti-black racism that has haunted the nation since it’s birth.
The was first seen with slavery, as eloquently recounted by Douglass, and later with the stubborn persistence of Jim Crow in the south. In the case of the latter, it took the incredible courage and amazing determination of (mostly young) men and women, inspired by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., who traversed deep into K.K.K. dominated towns and went on voter registration drives, to secure the basic voting rights of African Americans and the pressure on the Federal government needed to convince them to end segregation. The cost was high for many, but in the end they triumphed, and legal equality and protection from discrimination and the dismantling of racial segregation was realized. By the end of the 20th century, America had crafted for itself a story of moral progress, from racial slavery to racial equality. Eight years later with the election of the first African American president, social commentators celebrated the commencement of a “post-racial society.”
Putting aside the criticisms of the”march of progress” thesis for a moment, and assuming that America has indeed only improved in terms of racial equality, the question should still be asked: Does the United States today live up to this legacy of rolling back anti-black racism? The pundits on all sides may unanimously sing the praises of the 13th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but do the actions of our society and government reflect the rhetoric and professed platitudes?
At a brief glance, two facts about contemporary America stick out: 1)The Police as an institution are biased against African Americans 2)The criminal justice system is biased against African Americans. As an example of the former, the most prominent case study is probably the 2015 “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department” by the Department of Justice which found that “Ferguson law enforcement practices disproportionately harm Ferguson’s African-American residents and are driven in part by racial bias.” As for the latter, in 2010, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, hit bookstores, explaining how “racial caste” wasn’t not abolished but only “redesigned” and reincarnated in the criminal justice system.
These are just the two most salient cases of the continued racial injustices that exist in America at an institutional level. Racism rears it’s ugly head at other levels and in other forms as well. I’m not interested in how we can fight it racial injustice in terms of the logistics or political strategy and tactics; I’ll leave that to the activists. The question I’m interested in exploring is how can we sensibly combat racism today at the *philosophical* level. Frederick Douglass, in the middle of a speech in which he distinguished himself and his people from America and whites, nonetheless hinged his arguments against slavery on the Bible (the American people’s holy text) and the U.S. Constitution (American civil society’s sacred document). He grounded his stance in the American intellectual heritage while denouncing the historical manifestations that accompanied it. But is this attempted divorce of the history of a nation from it’s philosophy truly possible? Judith Shklar, in the introduction to her book American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion, argues that “Whatever the ideological gratifications that the mnemonic evocation of an original and pure citizenry may have, it is unconvincing and ultimately an uninteresting flight from politics if it disregards the history and present actualities of our institutions.” (p. 9).
The picture I’ve painted is admittedly not a bed of roses. The challenge of overcoming systemic racism is both intellectually and realistically tricky. I don’t have the answers. All I know are the questions we need to address for a start. But as Frederick Douglass told that room of abolitionists, a small minority at the time, on July 5, 1852, “Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country.”