In 1859, Abraham Lincoln laid out the racial paradox embodied in the United States of America. In a letter to a Massachusetts congressman, he wrote: “All honor” to Thomas Jefferson, who had the wisdom to introduce into the Declaration of Independence “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”
That truth? “All men are created equal.”
Of course, Lincoln was praising a man who, despite his protestations against slavery, enslaved some 600 people over his lifetime and, in his 1781-82 “Notes on the State of Virginia,” stated that Black people are inferior to whites.
This is the struggle so dramatically captured by the upheaval of recent weeks. America is a nation of ideals, promising its ceaseless rebuke to the harbingers of reappearing oppression, as Lincoln so eloquently said. But it is also a nation expressly founded on white supremacy, which allowed the systemic codification of prejudice against its Black citizens for a century after the end of slavery, and is only now beginning to come to terms with how deeply those generations of oppression have shaped modern society.
How is that embalmed rebuke in the Declaration of Independence turned inward? How does one even begin to address the continuing effects of that vast legacy of systemic prejudice?
This week’s cover story is the beginnings of an answer. As Martin Kuz writes, “defund the police” is a potent rallying cry, if inexact. It is about a different vision for public safety. But it is also about something larger. Martin notes that the movement to defund the police represents nothing less than a chance to begin to redefine the social contract. Police policy is just one part of “addressing systemic oppression and historical racism,” says Brett Grant of Voices for Racial Justice.
This desire to recognize and address the deeper foundations of racial prejudice is seen in other seismic conversations coming to the surface, such as the debate about reparations for slavery. Big change forces big conversations.
Yet there is also something at work behind the policy proposals. Looking at this moment, historian Rebecca Solnit harks back to America’s original revolution. In an article for Literary Hub, she quotes John Adams: “The revolution was in the minds of the people, and in the union of the colonies, both of which were accomplished before hostilities commenced.” Essentially, she says, “the revolution was in consciousness; the war with Britain was just an outcome of it.”
Commentators have noted that laws and regulations have pecked at America’s racist underpinnings with little success. Rates of police violence are unchanged, as are levels of Black net worth compared with white net worth. The call of this moment, evoked in the push to defund police, is something more revolutionary – for an equality not just spoken but committed to and demonstrated. And it is fueled by a change in thought.