As a professor of American history, I am under no illusions that our country's racial problems are new. Little in the headlines since Charlottesville, or since the acquittal of Philando Castile's murderer, or since the election last fall, or since the Charleston Massacre, or since the murder of Trayvon Martin, or indeed since the first intimations of the "birther" movement has been enough to shock me.
But I can be angry, and often I can feel heartbroken, and through it all I can understand that the people of the United States are facing a reckoning that simply has to take place.
I recall the remarkable wisdom of Lincoln--no superficial believer or easy moralist--in his second inaugural address:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
More than a century and a half later, the principle of divine justice still holds true. And while no fair observer can ignore that a great deal of progress has been made since then in extirpating the cancer at the core of the nation, it is simply a fact that the disease is powerful, and that time and again it has taken on new forms and spread throughout the body politic.
A few days ago a group of young teenagers in a town in New Hampshire taunted an eight-year-old biracial boy with racial epithets, tied a rope around his neck, and hanged him. Somehow the child was able to escape, but not with the help of anyone present.
Here is a clear and passionate exposition of the crime, its treatment by local law enforcement so far, and some of the implications for the country. I pretty much agree with every word of it:
Of course I know there's nothing fundamentally new about this horrible crime: I teach this country's history of racial violence, and I am all too familiar with the gory details.
Maybe it's because my own black boys are so close in age to this child. Maybe it's because in my own lifetime there has never been such an upsurge of overt white supremacist violence, brazenly stoked by a President.
But there is something about this crime perpetrated by children that reminds me of these harrowing words of Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha'i Faith, assessing the dire state of the country in 1954:
No less serious is the stress and strain imposed on the fabric of American society through the fundamental and persistent neglect, by the governed and governors alike, of the supreme, the inescapable and urgent duty—so repeatedly and graphically represented and stressed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in His arraignment of the basic weaknesses in the social fabric of the nation—of remedying, while there is yet time, through a revolutionary change in the concept and attitude of the average white American toward his Negro fellow citizen, a situation which, if allowed to drift, will...cause the streets of American cities to run with blood....
The American nation...stands, indeed, from whichever angle one observes its immediate fortunes, in grave peril. The woes and tribulations which threaten it are partly avoidable, but mostly inevitable and God-sent, for by reason of them a government and people clinging tenaciously to the obsolescent doctrine of absolute sovereignty and upholding a political system, manifestly at variance with the needs of a world already contracted into a neighborhood and crying out for unity, will find itself purged of its anachronistic conceptions..... These same fiery tribulations will not only firmly weld the American nation to its sister nations in both hemispheres, but will through their cleansing effect, purge it thoroughly of the accumulated dross which ingrained racial prejudice, rampant materialism, widespread ungodliness and moral laxity have combined, in the course of successive generations, to produce, and which have prevented her thus far from assuming the role of world spiritual leadership forecast by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s unerring pen—a role which she is bound to fulfill through travail and sorrow.
I don't believe for one second that this country's "travail and sorrow" have come to a climax. This crisis of our own making is essentially "unavoidable," and there is surely more to come.
Since 1954 white Americans have had opportunity after opportunity to embrace a "revolutionary change" in the way we view our black fellow-citizens. Until every white American sees that boy in New Hampshire as his or her own child, until we believe deep down that black and brown lives matter just as much as our own and make individual and collective choices to clearly manifest that truth in our personal lives, our institutions, and our social policies, then I admit, with Lincoln and the psalmist before him, that "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
We can't say nobody warned us.