By SUSAN K. SMITH
Crazy Faith Ministries
My mother used to say, when talking about relationships, that “the way you begin is the way you will be.” Her point was that it was fruitless and dangerous to try to be who you thought the person you were after wanted you to be, just to secure and cement the relationship. Sooner or later, she said, your true colors will come out. All that you hid or disguised will come full out, and trust me, your relationship will suffer, even if it doesn’t fail.”
Those words resonate today as America’s true self keeps seeping out. The title of an article by George Packer which recently appeared in The Atlantic caught my attention, We Are Living in a Failed State: The coronavirus didn’t break America: it revealed what was already broken.
Packer labels the pandemic as the third major crisis in America in the 21st century. The first was the attack on the World Trade Center, Sept. 11, 2001. The second was the economic breakdown – the great recession – in 2008, and now the country is facing the COVID-19 pandemic.
And America is not faring well.
We want to say that the partisan divide, the racial and religious enmity, and the dismantling of the American government is a new thing, but sadly, it is not. From the beginning, America’s democracy was an infant which was born with birth defects which were never addressed or corrected. The rank bigotry and the weddedness to economic gain at the expense of human beings was baked into and accepted by the people who wrote the Constitution, and like this virus, it has not died but has jumped into a reliable “living” host – the American government. It has spread like wildfire, made all the worse because few to none have been willing to address it head on.
We as a nation have claimed to be exceptional, and we are – in that we have been perfectly at odds with the principles which we espoused and claimed to represent.
Our history of being at odds with our ideals is consistent. From the Civil War to Reconstruction to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement to now, our weak link – racism – has gotten ever weaker, compounded by growth of a class divide based on an economic system which was never intended to make all people capable of living comfortably. We see now the conversation about “essential” versus “non-essential” workers, and it is daunting as we understand what it means. According to Packer, “essential” workers are “mostly those in low-paying jobs that require their physical presence and put their health directly at risk,” and non-essential workers are those who derive their wealth off the work of the “essential” workers, including people like Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who in anticipation of the pandemic, sold off stocks that made her more wealthy.
Over the years, America has been defensive about the contradiction about who she really is as opposed to how she has been portrayed. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King bemoaned that the bill had not changed who America was. In Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? King said that the bill “that lay on the polished mahogany desk was born in violence in Selma, Alabama,” as law enforcement officers sought to kill the quest for “liberty and justice” for African Americans who fought non-violently for the right to vote. He wrote about the White backlash that had resulted, about Black leaders who had lost their political officers, about the rise of White bigots to political office whose major purpose was to preserve the power of White people.
Nothing had changed then … and our weaknesses, caused by the way we began, are yet again showing. The current president is distasteful, but he is not, by far, the only political leader who has used race even as he has done all he can to preserve his own wealth and the wealth of major corporations, at the expense of the “essential workers.”
Equality, he wrote in that book, is “assiduously avoided.” He asked why America deluded itself, and that question could be asked today.
The answer is because our beginning as a nation was born in and wrapped in the delusion that we were a democracy, touting freedom and justice for all people. It was never true. Our opening paragraph has determined the progression of the chapters of American history. And it is clear that our legacy of racism, bigotry and inequality will always be with us.
Rev. Dr. Susan K. Smith is the founder and director of Crazy Faith Ministries. Her latest book, Rest for the Justice-Seeking Soul, is now available through Barnes and Noble and Amazon. She is available for speaking. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.