Lincoln, Dr. King, Germans, and the Confederacy

Imagine a Germany in 2018 that refused to let Jews vote. What if 70+ years after the liberation of concentration camps, Jews were being hung by citizen mobs or synagogues were being bombed? Imagine separate drinking fountains, separate toilets, separate schools, restaurants that refused service to Jews. Imagine the systematic oppression of a people 70 years after the costliest war in human history was fought to end such oppression. It’s unthinkable. Yet it’s exactly what happened in the United States post Civil War. Slavery is the United States’ original sin. From the beginning of the constitution with the 3/5 clause and the defense of slavery as an institution, it is clear the United States bares the burden of this great evil.

Nearly eighty years after the constitution was in place, Lincoln knew that waiting for the “better angels” of men’s soul to end the evil practice of slavery would not happen; it would take powder and ball. “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.” The Civil War was not the end of atoning for the evil of slavery—it was the tardy, forced beginning. The brief period of Reconstruction was followed by decades of denial of the sin and perpetuation of the evil notion that one race had higher value to God than another. Jim Crow, Plessy vs. Ferguson,lynching, and the systematic, systemic oppression of black people was full evidence that the United States had not moved beyond slavery or atoned for the sin, they simply changed the way it looked.

What does this have to do with Germany? Fast forward to today when controversy swells about removing confederate monuments and retiring the confederate flag in all its forms. Many voices nationally, some from the highest level of government, decry taking down these monuments as if it will somehow erase our history. If we are worried that we need to preserve our history, let’s do it! Let’s not rewrite it as was the intent of the Daughters of the Confederacy who put up most of the confederate monuments between 1890-1930 . Let’s talk about the history of slavery like the Germans have reconciled the holocaust post WWII. Let’s finally not just admit slavery and the systematic oppression of black people is wrong, let’s reconcile it.

If you want monuments, let’s put a marker every place that had a lynching. A plaque every place a segregated school or business stood. How about a marker for every polling place that denied people the right to vote? These markers would not be designed to inflict guilt for the sins of the past but to take ownership of the evil, reconcile it, remember it and commit to never repeat it. This reconciliation for Germany was not immediate, it was painful and it took time as Joshua Zeitz points out in his Politico piece. “The generation of Germans that came of age in the 1970s and 1980s confronted the country’s Nazi past and forcefully repudiated it. It took several decades of hard self-reflection, but a reunified Germany emerged from the Cold War as one of the great mainstays of democracy and human rights.”

It’s a sad legacy that Dr. King was fighting for equal rights a century after the Civil War. It’s disheartening today that we still can’t fully acknowledge and reconcile our racist past and present. I am drawn to Lincoln’s second inaugural address often for comfort and guidance: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

 

Im not always sure how we bind those wounds today— but I know not talking about it only makes it worse. Ignoring our need for deep reconciliation leaves the wounds to fester. We can do better than that one conversation at a time. Have the Germans arrived to a point where the pain of WWll is swallowed up and healed forever? Of course not. Are they further along than we are? Are there lessons there for us to learn from them? Certainly!

I know I have white male privilege the problem is I don’t know how to use it. 

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You only need to read the news to see the plague of racism and sexism that still exists in the United States.  So, what’s a middle aged, middle income, white, heterosexual male like me supposed to do? Clearly awareness is a crucial first step. Empathy and understanding are essential. But that’s hard to do when you have different lived experience than those who are marginalized, neglected, ignored and abused. I wrote about this with my own experience with race (So, should we even talk about race any more). I am now, and have tried diligently in the past to understand where others are coming from, but that doesn’t help me know how to use the advantages I have to help others.

Two quick anecdotes to illustrate: A couple of years ago I was in D.C. for work walking down a street near the capital with two white colleagues. We were all professionally dressed and engaged in conversation. I notice up the street from us a middle aged black man, casually dressed, hailing a cab. The first cab passed him, then a second, then a third cab was close to him at the same time my group was near him. I had the thought: I could simply step out hail the cab then give it to this man. As I was about to hail the cab, a second thought came to mind, If you hail a cab for this man, you may cause him embarrassment and shame: “Thanks white guy for using your white powers to help me overcome systemic racism today so I can get to work on time.” I hesitated, the third cab went by and my group walked on. My colleagues were unaware of the entire situation (which is how I have lived most of life). Yet here I was, aware of the inequity, yet still unable to make a difference–not knowing if my efforts would have been helpful or hurtful.

Sometime later I discussed this story with a friend of mine. I asked her what she thought I should have done. She was kind with my inquiry (as if her blackness would have been a qualifier to direct the use of my whiteness). Her response surprised me, “Dude it’s cool that you even noticed or cared to think about it.” Of course, she didn’t know any more than I did how that man would have reacted. However, the fact that I thought about it let her know at least there are people outside of her lived experience that are trying to understand her experience.

The second story happened as I was walking down a crowded street when two men asking for money called out to a young woman in front of me: “Hey beautiful, help a homeless vet? Why don’t you let me come to your place and keep you warm? Spent a little time making an old vet happy.” The woman smiled and said, “No thanks.” She did not seem overly affronted by the solicitation. I was thinking: should I call this guy out? Tell him to shut up? Was her smile a defense mechanism? Was she just trying to deescalate an unwanted advance? Or did she find the guy harmless? I like to think if he had moved closer to her I would have intervened. But would that be too little too late? Should I have said something? Or would that have made it worse? As I related this to my wife and my adult daughters, they gave me no direction on what I should have done either, but acknowledged the awkwardness of the whole matter.

So here I am left with the blessings of white male privilege. I never worry if I’ll be followed around in a department store, or if I will be able to hail a cab, or if my Airbnb profile pic might cause me trouble when booking. I can jog, go to Starbucks, wear a hoodie and carry Skittles with no fear.  I never feel unsafe in an elevator with a man or wonder how closely I am being followed in a parking lot. I want to do more than try to understand. I want to help right wrongs, change culture, raise awareness and fight inequality. So, I march I read, I listen, I write, I vote and I am trying to make a difference. Yet here I am day to day still wondering: what’s next? What more? What now? How can I use my privilege, my influence, in a way that won’t just bless me but those around me? I don’t have all the answers. Good grief, I’m pretty sure I’m not even asking the right questions, but I’m committed, I’m determined and I’m trying.