The year of the pandemic will be defined by two protest movements: one motivated by anger that this nation failed to live up to its promise, and one driven by rage that it did. And so America’s future lies in one of two directions: one in which it matures into something closer to the ideal and faith that its Founders (here I mean Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and W.E.B. Du Bois as much as Washington and Jefferson) maintained that the arc of history, though it may be long, bends toward justice; the other in which it follows the great, corrupt, and bankrupt empires of history into what will seem to later generations its inevitable decadence and decline.
If the sack of the Capitol was the beginning of the end it will be a fitting end, echoing that of Rome, from which America takes so much of its inspiration. They’ll say, Of course, it had to end this way: the debt for racism, America’s original sin, had finally come due. America’s enemies have always known our fatal flaw: Soviet Russia constantly tried to exploit it, to radicalize black people in the United States and use the spectacle of Jim Crow as propaganda in what we used to call the Third World. In the cold calculations of the Cold War, both East and West thought the oppressed race threatened to rise up and destroy the theater of their oppression, like Karl Marx’s immiserated proles. It was only after the Soviets lost the war that they figured out it would be the privileged race that would burn the country down the instant its privilege was threatened.
James Baldwin, the prophet of Harlem, warned of the fire next time, but he also knew that black people love America more than America loves itself. The pandemic’s two protest movements prove him right: one inspired by the brute fact of murder under color of law, fueled by righteous anger but conducted peacefully, in the steadfast belief that persuasion and democracy provide the answer to injustice; the other provoked by lies and resentment and the temper tantrum of a septuagenarian toddler who insisted that no contest could be fair unless he won—a grievance that resonated with a faction just beginning to lose in the contest for social esteem and respect that had always been rigged in its favor.
These days optimism seems not only delusional but almost irresponsible. But people who knew darker times than even these—whether the acute horrors and deprivations of war and depression or the chronic injustices of slavery and Jim Crow—refuse to abandon hope. When the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., insisted that the arc of history bends toward justice, he did not express the naive sentiment of a Pollyanna but the stubborn, time-worn conviction of a people who knew that pessimism was an indulgence they could not afford. He knew there is no Promised Land other than what we create by fulfilling our own promise. Faith is just another word for perseverance. Our best days are still ahead of us—if we keep the faith.
Richard Thompson Ford, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is George E. Osborne Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. He is author of the forthcoming book, Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History (February 2021).
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