The most important part of the U.S. form of government is not division of power, checks and balances, or rights, but it is good intention. The Constitution provides a framework of powers and restrictions, but we must ask ourselves what we would like to achieve. Fear and self congratulatory language have often led to perceived, fundamental changes that, though dearly wrought, changed the rhetoric but not the reality. Let’s not repeat the same mistakes.
James Baldwin decided to leave Paris in 1957, when he saw the front page headlines with the pictures of Dorothy Courts ridiculed and alone as she attempted to enter high school in Charlotte, North Carolina. He did not miss anything about the United States except for the people who made him who he was. Ms. Courts faced the crowds alone, and he believed he could no longer sit in Paris and talk about the American struggle and the Algerian war. She had deserved someone to be with her.
Ten years later, when asked about the past successes and future perspectives, Baldwin said that he did not have much hope as long as people were asking the wrong questions. He said, “It was not a question of what happens to the Negros or to the black man….It is a question of what happens to this country.” A lowering of racial barriers was obviously insufficient, and a change of intentions was necessary. A better question was “what do we want to achieve together.” The answer should not be the political equivalent let’s serve up some of yesterday’s cake with fresh icing.
Watching police and citizen violence on television, the majority of the country supported an end to legal segregation. Whites in the north and west supported ending legal segregation when it meant pointing the finger somewhere else, but support slowed when change needed to start with themselves and not with someone else. Surprise, “redlining” was segregation. Racism and segregation continued even with the legal basis for discrimination gone. Still, some white supporters congratulated themselves and walked away. They had laughed at Gov. George Wallace in 1954, and voted for him in the presidential election in 1968.
The victories of civil rights did not fundamentally transform the country. Even with court cases and legislation, some questioned why their lives were exactly like they had always been. Young black men being sent to Vietnam told Dr. King that the civil rights movement had been for people like him but not for people such as them. The goal had been reached, but the prize had been boxed up and carted farther way.
Criticism of racism and the resulting economic and social pain were obscured, deflected and defended by the exultation of other “more fundamental values.” Changing rhetoric followed victories, and the resulting laws and strategies recreated racially based economic and social conditions that the victories should have overcome. It was similar to having the rug pulled out from under you again and again. Whenever you stood up the world was explained to you in a different way, but it felt and looked pretty darn similar.
Over all of US American history, few people would step forward and say, “I am racist.” Racism resulted from “more fundamental values.” For example, in the beginning, many more would gladly commit that they were supporters of the unrestricted use of private property and right to contract. After the Civil War, they revelled in now defunct sciences (social darwinism and eugenics). Following WWII, they were anti-communist and admitted that there would always be winners and losers in economic struggles. In the 1990s, safety and security were defended as sources of opportunity, and post-September 11th, security of all forms has ended policy discussions that call it into question.
They were all these things but not racist, because they held whatever fundamental value currently supported their privilege. The world looks and feels the same, but it is explained in ways that are not only different, but with presumptions that should not be challenged. Thus, the need for change seems scary and any inkling of racism should be explained away, since a challenge to the defined values is a challenge to the country. The challenge to the country is what Baldwin said needed to be done.
The United States has a form of government and organization that requires engagement and participation. Unfortunately, the three parts of democracy, popular government, equality, and protection of rights can and have been be wielded as weapons to protect one’s own interest and destroy opposition. Stalemate and delaying are very easy and effective. It seems weak to bring good intentions, and to explain them in ways that further a conversation rather than end it. There is not another choice. Will everyone be willing to let down their rhetorical guards? Can US system of government function without good will and intentions? The answers depend on our intentions.