First in a series, Bending the Moral Arc
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., quoting a 19th-century clergyman, often cited this truth — a truth hopeful in its promise, but also reflective of prodigious labor and suffering.
With the verdict of “Guilty” on all three counts handed down yesterday against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd (also here and here), that moral arc just got bent a bit more toward Dr. King’s dream and the dream of all Black America — toward Justice.
Of course, if true justice prevailed in America, George Floyd would still be alive, as many Black Americans said through their tears upon hearing the “Guilty” verdict. The names of other Black Americans killed by police were invoked in this historic moment — Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Philandro Castile, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown. Dr. King himself might also still be alive, had this champion of justice not been felled by a white supremacist.
This moment is bittersweet: With so much Black suffering exacted — the egregiousness of Mr. Floyd’s killing: the life in him ground out over a near-ten-minute eternity, by a knee to the neck exerted by an officer of the law — rather than fireworks celebrating the “Guilty” verdict, there is subdued cheering and a profound relief that the verdict went the “right way.” One cannot fathom the upheaval if an acquittal had been handed down….
But this is also a redemptive moment, a moment of enormous possibility.
Whether we acknowledge it or not in a largely secular America, there is a moral universe: It is the larger universe where the rightness and wrongness of things are measured and held out as ideals for us mortals; its ultimate truths are revealed in moments like now, with this verdict righting a terrible wrong. This moral universe, this “more perfect union,” was the objective set forth by the Founding Fathers in the Preamble to the Constitution: to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” That the Founding Fathers countenanced slavery, and some were slave-owners themselves, means we now, in this historically fluid moment, have the chance to course-correct our Founding Fathers. There is so much meaning and possibility aswirl right now, that one almost tips over!
But the moral universe does not alter on its own. As Dr. King noted time and again, the arc of the moral universe is something that must be bent, it must be acted upon by an external force. In the American version of this scenario, it is human beings, not gods, who bend that arc, who must exert purposeful effort. Conscientious America understands this and, now, with this historic verdict, Conscientious America can press forward to a New Day.
Without the benefit of the long view, but expressing the heart’s first impressions, I think of the many things this historic moment means:
For Black America: This moment (if I may) means Justice is now expressly instituted as the precept of existence in a nation that, at one time, unjustly enslaved Black Americans. I am continually struck how so much expression from Black writers and artists is the elemental demand for justice, dignity, respect. Enough with the deaths of innocent Black Americans at the hands of police or white supremacists, enough with perpetrators going free, some not even going to trial. That many Black Americans are immediately calling on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act bespeaks the Black community’s prime goal — of Justice — and its insistence on moving immediately on policy. (The Act has passed the House; next, the Senate.)
For policing in America: This “Guilty” verdict means that reform — root and branch — is imperative and will now, to judge by the declarations of many law enforcement leaders across the country, be implemented. Yes, we have been at such inflection point before, but again speaking impressionistically, this moment feels different. The moral universe and its alteration yesterday also applies to police: As agents of the state who exercise lethal force, they now bear the moral imperative to reform their methods and, importantly, their hearts. Shifting from warrior to guardian model would help.
For White America: I believe the reactions are two. For the conscientious in White America, this “Guilty” verdict feels profoundly right, not only in the long context of history but in the context of these last four years of a President who “othered” non-white Americans and scapegoated them for the nation’s ills. Conscientious White America is not comfortable with the mantle of privilege it was granted since the nation’s inception and, being conscientious, it does not exploit its privilege. We understand it is simply no good to wield privilege, or the whip-hand, over another people, most especially our countrymen; doing so makes us oppressors, which in the moral universe is wrong. The solidarity coalescing between conscientious White America and Black America, marching together, is beautiful to see.
For white supremacists, or those in White America who abide the othering of countrymen who don’t look like themselves but say nothing, thus are complicit in injustice: This “Guilty” verdict must register as a big No to their way of life and ideology, that is, if in their blinding anger they can read the moment. For conscientious White America, Chauvin’s nonchalance executing his heinous act, clearly anticipating no criminal accountability, was the personification of the evil and obscenity of white supremacy. Tellingly, there is little public reaction from the supremacists’ quarter right now; no doubt the anger at their “lost cause” will manifest itself in a reactionary wave to come. But for now, History says No to white supremacy.
For America’s standing in the world: America, once upon a time a moral beacon and champion of human rights, has much work to do to “get right” with the world after four years of an amoral President wreaking havoc abroad and here at home. With this verdict recommitting America to Justice, and with a good human being now in the White House, perhaps America can begin to redeem itself with the world. At the same time, the world has not much to teach America about race relations, to judge by the world’s own rancorous history; the world’s oppressed will be watching us.
For humanity in general: Yesterday’s “Guilty” verdict was a big Yes for humanity, for the sanctity of life, no matter color or creed; for the yearning for Justice. Once again, a salute to the humanity of the witnesses to George Floyd’s killing, who not only bore that witness but bravely testified in court on his behalf, reliving their trauma; may they now feel rewarded. Amidst a general moral relativism, these witnesses knew, absolutely, what they were witnessing was wrong. And the speeches of President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris upon announcement of the verdict were expressions of deep humanity, beyond usual political speech.
Now to build on this moment, not waste or abuse it. To secure Justice, securely, for all Americans, at long, long last. To continue bending the arc of the moral universe toward a New Day. Possibility, momentum, rule of law — all are with us now. The work before us is immense, but do-able. Shoulder to the arc, everybody.