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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The American paradox

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A paradox occurs when two (or more) factual claims appear to contradict each other — but actually don’t. Literature offers many great examples, including the following from Oscar Wilde: “I can resist anything but temptation.”  

In many ways, America is a living paradox — especially as it regards to race. When racist events occur, well-meaning people (of many races) often are quick to assert “this is not who we are as Americans.” While that oft-repeated proclamation is usually sincere, history has shown that it is categorically false — which is why it is oft-repeated. We heard it after James Byrd Jr.’s unspeakable murder in Jasper, Texas. We heard it after a white supremacist massacred nine parishioners at “Mother Emanuel” AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. We hear it whenever the KKK, Aryan Nation, Skinheads or similar groups hold “rallies.” Irrefutably, this is at least part of who we are. 

The paradox of race — and racism — is codified in our Constitution. The document that is, arguably, the greatest-ever treatise on how to govern a free society is also one that enshrines the legal “right” of human beings to own other human beings. The defense that the Constitution is an “imperfect document” falls immeasurably short of being a meaningful justification for its promotion of slavery in a land in which “all men are created equal.” 

So, when we ask what America stands for, or what our values are, several answers that appear to be contradictory are all true. Are we the nation that has been a global model for democracy, the one that inspires people from around the world to risk life and limb to reach? Are we a nation in which dwell untold numbers of unrepentant racists who believe that this nation was founded with the intention of white men forever ruling it? Obviously, the answer to both questions is “yes.” While people can reasonably debate the extent to which we more closely resemble one reality or the other, to deny the essential veracity of both views is to deny reality itself (which is an increasingly troubling feature of contemporary America).  

In a recent New York Times column, Jamelle Bouie offered the following: “Trump’s indifference to the pandemic is, in the same way, an echo of the Hoover administration, which stood by as the country was crushed by economic depression and the immiseration of millions of Americans. It is impossible (for me at least) to think about child separation without also thinking about chattel slavery and the nation’s vast trade in enslaved people, conducted over decades under three generations of American presidents, including men like James Polk, who — decades removed from planter-politicians like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe — bought and sold human beings from the White House.” 

As Bouie makes clear, this paradox is broader than race. Indeed, the issue is broader than a problem with America. There is an all-too-human tendency to elevate myth above actual history, or at least to elide the less pleasant components with an appeal to blind jingoism. This creates a pseudo-amnesia that devalues the lived experiences of large swaths of the populace of most countries. This sad outcome can be achieved in myriad ways — including by government fiat or through the power of media oligarchs. In short, America is far from alone in this regard. But I am an American, so that is where I place my focus. 

At some point, the overwhelming majority of white Americans will have to decide whether such paradoxes must come to an end. I say “overwhelming majority” because a minority of them — or even a plurality thereof — is insufficient. (There have always been white allies in this fight — just not enough of them to eradicate white supremacy.) And I say “of white Americans” because they currently constitute more than 60% of the population. Thus, while white Americans aren’t the only ones who condone (or at least ignore) such troubling paradoxes, their power — overt and subtle — is necessary to effect a wholesale change in our national narrative. As we are enjoying our Thanksgiving meals — hopefully in relative isolation — we have the opportunity (and obligation) to decide how we can be a stronger, better, and yes, “more perfect union.” 

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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