Monday, June 1, 2020


It is time to break the glass and pull the fire alarm. Our country is on fire literally and figuratively. This is an emergency and the future of America is at stake. There is no other realistic way to view what is happening. We are in the presence of a perfect storm of natural and man-made crises that, combined, have the likelihood of changing America profoundly, either for the worse or the better. 

First, let us look at what is happening. Suddenly, two disasters befell us. Just last January, a little more than four months ago, a new virus appeared in the United States. Since then, that virus has infected nearly two millions Americans and killed over one hundred thousand of us. This is the worst public health crisis in the country since the great influenza pandemic of 1918. There is no cure, not even a treatment, for COVID-19. Until a vaccine appears we are at the mercy of this miniscule organism. For the foreseeable future, the coronavirus will dominate and disrupt our lives. Over forty million Americans have lost their jobs. People are going hungry. The economy is reeling. On top of all of this, the poor and disadvantaged among us are suffering the ravages of the virus disproportionately.

Then, just last week, a white police officer knelt on the neck of a black man until the man was dead. Caught on video, it was an apparent act of unjustifiable homicide. Black protests against the historic police and judicial systematic unequal treatment of African Americans exploded across the country in a wave of violent demonstrations in virtually every big city in the U.S. Shocking physical attacks, burnings, lootings, and vandalism have become ubiquitous in America in the past few days. As of this moment, there seems to be no letting up in the strongest wave of civic unrest since 1968. The country seems to be on the edge of chaos. The root factor in all of this is racism.

Thus, we have a double crisis of the coronavirus and mass violence, a combination potentially lethal to the cohesion of our civic society. The country that we have known is in trouble. The problem now is---How should we respond to this double crisis of sickness/death and racism? We are being put to the test, and how we answer the test will determine the future of our country.

Part of our problem is a lack of national unity. From the Second World War to 1990 there was an external threat, the USSR, that forced a cohesion on the country. This papered over the internal divisions that had always been a part of America, an increasingly diverse society of national backgrounds, races, and religions. At the same time, under this umbrella of unity, America was carrying out a great democratic revolution extending rights of equality and inclusion to long neglected elements as African Americans, women, the disabled, and homosexuals. However, there were elements that saw this democratic revolution as a threat to their own real or perceived power, namely the white man who had largely won the Seond World War and had enjoyed the benefits of this thereafter. 

After the Cold War ended in 1990, the United States increasingly fractured along racial, economic, and cultural lines putting to test the democratic reforms of the 1950s-60s. Blacks, who had won political rights after the overthrow of Jim Crow, found that social, cultural and economic equality did not follow. In ways, the continuing racial inequalities were even more painful because of the failure of political reform to bring true equality. Blacks still felt as beleaguered second-class citizens in their own country. The most visible aspect of this was the power that the police had over the lives of urban minorities. The relationship between African Americans and the police remained the flash point in the interface between racism and the power structure.

To make matters worse, too often politicians exploited the fault lines in America for their own benefit. President Trump ran on, and was elected on, a motto that was a dog whistle of racism. Since 2016, social divisions have worsened in America and not just against blacks. Jews have come under increasing attacks. White supremacists are experiencing a resurgence. The divisions that were always there became more and more apparent and dangerous.

What to do?

There are two big issues and they have to be treated differently. The coronaviruas is a natural crisis that can only be treated in a natural way, to find a chemical concoction to stop the spread of the disease. This is a matter of science, for the scientists. However, they must have massive public support to do this. Until a vaccine arrives, the only good approach to the virus is social distancing. We can conquer the virus. Can we conquer racism?

Our bigger problem is racism. This is America's original sin, the one that we have never accepted, let alone tried to treat. The coronavirus will be relatively easy to beat. Racism will not. 

It is possible for a great nation state to recognize the sins of the past, address them, atone for them, and reform itself for a better future. Our example is Germany. After the Second World War, the common cry in Germany was "we were only following orders." In other words, German society refused to accept responsibility for the monumental horrors of Nazism. Then they got busy rebuilding their devastated country into a great economic machine. All the while, the question of guilt lingered over the German people. Finally, in 2015, on the seventieth anniversary of the end of the War, Germany as a nation publicly came to terms with its past. Chancellor Merkel and her entire cabinet went to the Reichstag and conducted a national service of repentance. In the name of the German people, they accepted guilt for Nazism, for the war and the catastrophic crimes against humanity the Nazis perpetrated. They begged the world for forgiveness as they promised to build a greater and more egalitarian society. (Meanwhile, Germany has been giving Israel billions of dollars.) So, it is possible for a nation to repent of its sins and correct the wrongdoing of the past. If Germany could do it for Nazism, America can do it for racism. 

The question is how we do it. One idea floating around is reparations, that is, that African Americans today should be paid for the slave labor of their antebellum ancestors. In principle this is a good idea, but the practicalities are hugely problematical. How are we to determine which blacks are descendants of slaves? Some African Americans are and some are not. Then too, what is the lifetime work a slave worth? 

So, here are my ideas, for whatever they are worth:

Set up a special national commission devoted to the issue of racism. I would put Val Demings in charge. No one is better qualified to combine the African American experience and the police. I would make the commission as diverse as America. I would ask it to do three things, oversee a study of racism in America, arrange a national time of repentence for the sin of racism, and present specific recommendations for the healing of racism in America. This will not end racism but it will set national standards of how we move to a more equitable and just society.

The first part would be setting up a study of racism in America. I would invite a broad range of experts to contribute their experiences and recommendations: people such as historians, sociologists, psychologists, economists, police chiefs, public prosecutors, public defenders, judges, and community activists. I would set up a several day session when these experts would present their papers on live television.

The second part would be a ceremony of public repentance. I would have a service at the Washington National Cathedral led by the presiding bishop and attended by all the political powers of Washington. In the service, the liturgy would recognize and repent of the sin of racism, as well as call for atonement. This would set the moral and ethical stage for the next part, the political reforms to correct the sins of the past.

The third part would be a state-of-the-union type gathering in the House of Representatives chamber in which specific reforms would be spelled out and presented to the people. By this time, there should be sufficient public pressure on the president, Senate, and House to join in enacting these reforms. 

I know, this is idealistic and will probably never happen, but that does not mean it should not happen. Something has to happen. Something is happening. Something is going to happen. Let's channel that happening in a constructive way to bring the country together and build a better future for our children and grandchildren. 

Two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson called slavery the fire bell in the night. He was right. All these years later, the fire of racism is still raging, still threatening to consume our country which is, after all, a fragile experiment. The Founding Fathers believed they could set up something that had never happened in the history of the world, a republic of diverse people governing themselves under lofty principles of human rights. 

So, I say it is time to pull the fire alarm. Let's put out the fire that has been smoldering for four hundred years and will consume us all unless we do something about it. Let's save the greatest democratic republic in the history of the world. If any nation-state in human history has ever been worth saving, I say it is ours. How about you? What do you say?