There’s no escaping the sense that too many things are moving backwards in America across too many fronts. Democracy is under attack. Those who benefit from discord are dividing us over matters, such as the public heath response to a pandemic, that should bring us together. Inequality continues to grow as the wealthiest take advantage of the global health crisis and the serious economic downturn to further enrich themselves. And another senseless death of a black man and the subsequent unrest it produces points to the setbacks that are too often part of our history in the long struggle for racial equality and justice.
Leadership has clearly failed. But we have to hold ourselves accountable for giving in to fear, hatred, and greed in choosing those leaders and in permitting them to divide the country. The famously acerbic newspaperman and political commentator H.L. Mencken wrote of the presidency in 1920, “As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
The inner soul of the people in 2020 is troubled.
This is not the first time Americans have faced life-threatening crises while in the midst of a leadership vacuum. We’ve seen this sad story far too often in our past. Two of our worst presidents — James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover — lacked a strong, empathetic core and were paralyzed by events taking place around them. Yet history has also shown the positive impact effective leadership brings during times of upheaval. Resilience, reliance on a moral compass, and boldness are certainly important traits to successfully navigate rough waters.
Steven Levingston, the author of Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle over Civil Rights, suggests that when facing violent unrest, presidents also need to be compassionate, flexible and well-informed. In a different era, President John F. Kennedy spoke to the nation following riots in Birmingham. He took to the airwaves to call on his fellow Americans to stop and examine their conscience, saying “The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” Effective presidents understand their place in history and their responsibilities to the larger community.
Facing a global pandemic, economic calamity, and brazen acts of racist violence, we find ourselves far from having the leadership the moment requires.
The U.S. used to be a global leader. We were the country that got things done. We were far from perfect, but the world’s leaders and the world’s poor looked to the U.S. at different times for guidance and support. That status — whether fully deserved or not — has ended under Donald Trump. Our bonds with allies are broken and our word is considered worthless. We pull out of the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization at a time when the twin crises of climate change and worldwide pandemic demand a global response. Because of a botched response to COVID-19 by this administration, 100,000-plus Americans are dead in three short months from the coronavirus. We now lead the world in a statistic where you want to be anything but at the top of the charts. Yet through it all, there has been nary of word of consolation from the person who sits in the office where some of our greatest leaders have shown true, humble empathy for others. Instead, today we get constant lies, wild conspiracy theories, and personal attacks on political enemies.
Donald Trump’s stewardship of this country, supported by the wealthiest Americans and the Republicans who emulate and enable him, is reason enough to call out our failed leadership. However, racists and white supremacists, who feel released from social constraints by this administration, are now escalating an already tragic situation, making it even more dangerous to be black and be anything — birdwatcher, jogger, security guard, EMT personnel, you name it — without the threat of being killed. This past week, that awful fact of life in America exploded.
With the events arising in the past few days out of the Amy Cooper / Christian Cooper white privilege confrontation in Central Park and George Floyd’s murder by police officers in Minneapolis, we’ve seen what happens when the people choose a president utterly devoid of a moral compass and when broader leadership fails in our civic and business life. The impact comes through our news accounts, on our social media, in reflections from our parish priests, from national religious leaders, and in conversations with colleagues, family and friends. On a business site, I read one open letter to CEOs where the writer said,
“…a vast majority of employees of color would say that they work with ‘Amy Cooper.’ Amy Cooper has been our team member. Amy Cooper has been our manager. Amy Cooper has been our customer. And the dishearteningly and dangerous reality is that an Amy Cooper is what leads to a George Floyd who could have been my husband, my father, my son, my brother, my uncle — or better yet, my coworker.”
So many writers and commentators have noted that the pandemic, the economic collapse, and the rising tide of racism affects people of color disproportionately. As a result, one writer noted that she and other people of color, “are exhausted. We can’t breathe. We feel physically and psychologically unsafe both in the world and in the workplace.” To pretend not to see this pain, especially during this past week, “is not only problematic — but it is in itself part of the problem.”
All of us are responsible for where we find ourselves today. So what can we do?
We can begin, as Kennedy called us to do some fifty years ago, by taking the time to seriously examine our conscience. It is past time for white people in America to call ourselves to account, as well as those in position of power, for the racism that is our original sin and continues to wreck this country and its ideals. We need that national reckoning before we can move forward.
Some of the best suggestions I’ve read for how we can respond come from a college president who is an African American woman and a highly regarded scholar of English literature with work reaching into neuroscience and the arts. G. Gabrielle Starr called on her community to tenaciously and peacefully stand up for change. We need to turn to each other and care for our community. We need to listen. Some of us may seek out and test policies that might change the way force is used. Others will intervene in cycles of poverty. Others will be called to use art to motivate us, while others will use “the powerful tools of the law at its most just to bring aid to those who need it.”
In the words of Bishop Michael Curry, we need to move forward with love.
And in November we need to vote as if our lives depend on it. Because — no matter where we live and no matter the color of our skin — they do.
More to come…