White Americans, Whither the Country?
As a Baha'i, I consider voting in civil elections to be a sacred duty, one part of a life of service aimed at fostering justice, peace, and prosperity for all.
As a professor of United States history, I am also acutely aware of the long and twisting tale of voting rights in my country and of contemporary efforts to limit the franchise on the overlapping bases of race, class, and party affiliation.
As I got in line today at my polling place, a local law enforcement officer in front of me was speaking with a woman a couple places ahead. She was complaining in general about immigrants and "cultural Marxists," praising the rise of hard-right movements in Central and Eastern Europe, decrying the role of the media, decrying what she called "police bashing," and pointing with alarm at the caravan of Central American asylum-seekers currently attempting to cross Mexico. The officer was less vocal than she was, but he voiced his agreement, bolstered her points, and noted more than once that people are "starting to wake up" to these issues.
After they stopped talking I spoke to him, indicating that although the woman clearly didn't know better, I would expect more professionalism from him when showing up to a polling place in uniform. The issues they were discussing, I noted, were all essentially on the ballot, and he should be more aware that he has an outsize influence on all those within earshot.
He replied defensively, said that he didn't think his uniform had that much influence these days.
It was a strange comment to say the least, coming just weeks after a horrific, deadly attack on law enforcement officers in our community by a man who seemed almost a caricature of whiteness and patriarchy, and the overwhelming outpouring of public support and grief, cutting across all the social divisions among us, that came in its wake.
Sorry sir, but I think you know very well that if you carry a gun and a badge then you have an enormous influence--and with it, a matching burden of professionalism that includes managing how you speak in public.
The reason you showed your true colors so freely is that all the people in line at that time were as white as you.
As a fellow white man, I have to take every opportunity I see to check those kinds of attitudes, challenge outworn ideas, and point to different principles.
Really, given this country's sordid history it's the very least I can do.
On my way to work afterwards I happened to drive by my house, which is on a rather visible corner on a busy street, and noticed that someone had placed two campaign signs in the front yard. I circled back around the block as fast as I could to yank them down and put them in the trash.
It so happens that those were two of the candidates I had just voted for. But that was beside the point. As a Baha'i, my approach to governance starts with the idea of serving the best interests of the whole body politic, not just a part. So I have to go out of my way not to be associated with any party or candidate--even by mistake, even if it's someone I agree with on one or more policy questions.
It is not an easy row to hoe, attempting to raise the level of our collective discourse while avoiding the spirit and practice of partisanship and division. But it is vital. The United States is passing through a period of intense crisis, when vital questions of who does and does not belong, of what constitutes good government at all levels and how we define prosperity, and of the relationship between our country and the rest of the world press themselves on the public consciousness in an unrelenting torrent.
As one recent work of scholarship pointed out, there is no real historical precedent for a multiracial society where no group is demographically dominant and political power and economic resources are shared equitably. There is no guarantee that our society will become the first. The kind of moral revolution, the kind of personal and collective transformation required to achieve such an outcome political transformation would be colossal. I don't know if the white majority, on whom the burden still largely rests, will wake up in time to avert disaster for the United States and the world.
It depends entirely on the choices we each make, today and every day.