Half Slave, Half Free
The two original sins of this nation are the systematic genocide of Native Americans and slavery. Both were the result of overt racism which has become so imbedded in our culture that we’re now left with only this choice: either be racist, or be anti-racist. There is no longer any middle ground. It’s not going to go away by the passage of time or by “tinkering around the edges” of our society.
Why is it so important that we root out racism in our nation? As Martin Luther King, Jr. so correctly observed, “There cannot be justice anywhere unless there is justice everywhere.”
These are times of turmoil and change. Times of unrest. Times of transformation. However by choosing to accept the challenge, these can also become times of rebirth and renewal.
Here is the perfect observation of Abraham Lincoln in his famous “House Divided Speech” which is as starkly relevant today as the day he wrote it: “A house divided against itself, cannot stand. This government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”
We all know what a racist society looks like for people of color, since 1619 when the first black slave arrived at Jamestown to the present day. As Rev. Sharpton so aptly observed at George Floyd’s funeral, blacks have had metaphorically a knee on their necks from our nation’s start.
For people of color the simple truth is that there is no “equal” opportunity yet in education, housing, career advancement, medical care, or any other endeavor. These wonderful fellow citizens can no longer constitute a nation that is “half slave.” Make no mistake about it, people of color are not truly free as equals.
So, if Lincoln is correct, and no doubt he is, the country will become “all one thing or all the other.” What does “the other,” as opposed to slavery, look like? It looks like universal healthcare regardless of skin color. It looks like equal education for all our children regardless of color, gender, or ethnicity. It looks like equal opportunities in housing – no more redlining! It looks like releasing our racist past without rancor or fear, but with a loving embrace of all that we can do when our society is no longer “half slave and half free.” This “other” vision of America is one that would create the only sustainable platform that could permanently endure into the future.
So, how do we get to Lincoln’s enduring vision? It starts where he started: we must observe that we cannot remain half slave and half free. It starts with our actively renouncing racism. It starts with the recognition that the central tenet of every major spiritual tradition is that we must “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” Not only is that Golden Rule a spiritual mandate, it is also very smart.
It turns out the only way we can re-build and innovate to a “new normal” is by leaving the millstone of racism behind us. Half slave, we will not be able to rebuild our overtaxed healthcare system or solve any other major challenge. We need to all pull together, or most assuredly we will all sink together, and the most noble experiment in self-government, the United States of America, shall be lost to the ages.
We are not now, nor will we be in the future, sustainable in any way that really counts. Having a nation of all freed people will give us the resources required to innovate that “new normal” in a way that will leave us better off than we’ve ever been.
Winston Churchill aptly advised us to: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” It appears that this nested series of crises are here to send us a message: We Are At A Crossroads.
Yes, we are at a crossroads. The first path leads toward ever greater bigotry… heightened white nationalism… social dysfunction… a barely livable biosphere… and a total breakdown of legitimate forms of government.
The “other” path leads to dramatic economic rejuvenation… a biosphere that becomes “healed” before it destroys our way of life… racial harmony… a restored commitment to our deepest values… and abundance for all.
We are simply not allowed to go down that incredibly sustainable and supportive path if we drag racism with us. Once you confirm to yourself that you really want to be an anti-racist, an unlimited number of opportunities will show up along your journey that will remind you of your choice, and you’ll get the opportunity to choose again and again which path you want to be on. Just remember, if at any time you fail to be true to your anti-racist commitment, you will lose your balance and stumble away from the path, only to end up where you began.
Because we have all been complicit in racism, we all know that people of color have far less power to create change for themselves. The reparations we need to make are to take up the battle to end racism on behalf of people of color since they have been disproportionally disenfranchised. It is our job to lead this fight with them, not to merely cheer them from the sidelines.
We need to do this not just because we are moral beings, and that is the moral thing to do. We need to do this not just because it is “the right thing” to do, but because it is the smart thing to save this country we love from tearing itself apart. We need to do this not just because a more just economic system is the only way we can increase financial freedom for everyone, but because we know that having peace amongst our citizens is the single best way to create prosperity for all.
Yes, becoming anti-racist isn’t just the right thing… it is the smart thing. In fact, it’s a survival strategy for us all.