“We are capable of bearing a great burden once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.” – James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
I fear that America is not capable of this.
This was in stark relief in the aftermath of the South Carolina shooting. A white young man entered a black church, waited a while, then gunned down nine worshipers. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley made this statement on Facebook:
Michael, Rena, Nalin and I are praying for the victims and families touched by tonight’s senseless tragedy at Emanuel AME Church. While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another. Please join us in lifting up the victims and their families with our love and prayers. (emphasis added)
This is touching, but also willfully blind. Based only on the initial reports, racism was a pretty good guess for a motivation. Now it is undeniable. Yet Gov. Haley claimed to be certain that understanding was, and will always be, beyond our reach. This is a line the Republican presidential candidates have continued to riff on, suggesting the shooter’s motives are somehow opaque or the product of incomprehensible madness. But it isn’t just a fault of politicians. They are slow to confront the clear problem before them because (they believe) they can get away with such comments, that no voters in the primary (or later in the general election) will be turned off enough to change their votes. Nor, at heart, is this a Republican issue. Too few Americans are wiling to grapple with this basic reality:
We have a serious, ongoing, violent, and often deadly race problem in this country. And it’s not going to magically get better if we look away.
Race isn’t the only problem we can’t bear to observe directly. Personally, I’d include our war against ISIS, the War on Terror, sexual assault, homelessness, poverty, the growing wealth and income divides, discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation, loss or privacy (to our own government, to corporations, and to hackers), incarceration rates, the failed war on drugs, failing education system, damage to the environment, financial strains on American families, etc. But race would be a wonderful place to begin.
How did we become a nation that can’t face our own shortcomings?
I’m not exactly sure. But I suspect we got too busy congratulating ourselves on being the “land of the free and the home of the brave” – the greatest nation in the world – and stopped checking to see whether it was true anymore. It ceased to be something to aim for, to strive for, becoming instead something to mollify ourselves with.
Abraham Lincoln well understood that the ideal on which this nation was founded was an open question and an invitation. He declared at Gettysburg:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure…
It is … for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Lincoln knew that the new birth of freedom lay in the future and that the we had a long way to go before proving that a nation could succeed when founded on the proposition of equality. But we seem to have forgotten that. And last week a young man who felt proud and confident waving the flag of the other side – the side that fought against Lincoln’s vision, the side represented by the assassin who took that president’s life – assassinated nine worshipers, in their church, just because they happened to be black, in an attempt to restart a race war that was supposed to have ended 150 years ago.
“We are capable of bearing a great burden once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.” I pray that day will come sooner than later and that we can arrive at that recognition without the need for more pointless deaths. I fear that prayer will be in vain.