It’s happening — at last: Moral awakening in America. But can it be sustained?
Amidst the extreme disruption of these last several years — the ancient Greeks would properly call it Chaos — and amidst the dread of the deadly coronavirus pandemic, it may be hard to parse. But there is meaning coursing through the powerful currents buffeting America at present, and it is meaning that is moral — that is, having to do with the rightness and wrongness of things.
Two constituent blocs — Black Americans and women — are standing up and declaring that the historical and established ways of treating them are wrong, wrong, wrong, and — pardon the cliché but it is universal lingua franca — like the enraged anchorman Howard Beale in the film “Network,” they are saying: “We’re mad as hell and we’re not taking it anymore.”
Getting from wrongness to rightness — getting from disrespect to respect, getting from dismissal and contempt and withstanding deadly force to mattering, mattering as a human being with a Soul — has been, for both Black Americans and women, a moral quest, a righteous one, one lasting centuries.
And now it appears, if yet still dimly, that the struggle may yield that which has been so dearly sought: justice and equality. The questers are within reach of their Grail. And it took the hammer of a mass movement — two of them, in happy fact, cresting together — to bring this New Day.
Make no mistake, this New Day is new. This is not a moral re-awakening, a restoring of lost status or honor. Black lives and women’s lives have never mattered as much as white men’s lives, neither in America nor in the world. No, this is new; this is a moral awakening. Moreover this moral awakening is being achieved without moral argument or language; America lost her moral compass decades ago. (How else could we elect as president the amoral Donald Trump?) Yet: It is out of a profound moral need — the need for justice earnestly sought but long denied — that we have clawed our way, from the ground up and not from on high, to a moral sensibility.
As for racial justice, sadly it took the death of yet another Black man — George Floyd — at the hands of a white police officer to awaken White America to the everyday violence that our Black fellow citizens have abided since slavery. The horror of Mr. Floyd’s killing, and the nonchalance of its commission by a white officer of the law, has galvanized White America into the streets. The ensuing massive protests have been full of white faces — old, middle-aged, young (also here). Young white Americans are especially prominent: They go to school with a diversity of classmates — and they are showing up for them.
#Black Lives Matter was there to meet the moment, to take its rightful place heading the George Floyd protests. Organized in 2013 in the wake of the killing of another innocent Black man, Trayvon Martin, and protesting other subsequent police killings of Black men, #Black Lives Matter has triggered counter-forces — All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter (in support of the police). But the grisliness of George Floyd’s killing makes #BLM’s point: Black lives, especially Black men’s lives, historically have not signified.
And America now takes #BLM’s point: Polls show an enormous rise — by 30 points! — both in the public acknowledgment that Black men suffer unduly at the hands of the police (also here and here) and approval of #BLM (also here). Even Republican pollsters are stunned at the new statistical reality. In a show of respect, Associated Press now capitalizes that which has long been lower-case: Black. Black intellectuals like Jelani Cobb (The New Yorker) and Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Atlantic) express guarded hopefulness that this post-George Floyd moment will lead to lasting change in Black stature. James Baldwin, almost sixty years ago, said: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage….almost all the time.” Ultimately and always, it is about respect.
Particularly sweet is the vindication of Colin Kaepernick, the Black football player who in 2016 took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality against his brothers. For this brave act he was let go and treated as persona non grata both by club owners and the President of the United States. Now National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell apologizes for Kaepernick’s shunning — action which, per The Wall Street Journal, he took in memory of his late father, Senator Charles Goodell, a Republican who lost his seat after marching with Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, Jr. At the English Premier Soccer League’s reopening, all players, whites included, wore “Black Lives Matter” on their jerseys and took a knee — a stirring sight. May the coalition-building continue.
What’s the policy impact? The U.S. House has passed a big police reform bill, but the Republican-controlled Senate still can’t bring itself to outlaw chokeholds or suspend qualified immunity for bad-apple police officers. For their part, police departments could shift from the warrior to guardian model. No doubt white supremacists will force their way back into the debate, threatening violence — their only argument. But: American culture is altering in the most important way — morally. Thanks in big part to #BLM, the culture is embracing a new truth: Black lives do matter.
Likewise, the #MeToo movement has powered a new reality for women. No longer can women in the workplace be subjected — with impunity for the perpetrator — to demeaning behavior or, in too many cases, violent sexual assault, causing emotional trauma and wrecked careers. Founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke, the movement exploded into new life in 2017, with the nauseating revelations of film producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse and assault of dozens of women (also here). Women by the droves chimed in “Me, too” — and brought down a cavalcade of famous men: Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Mark Halperin, Garrison Keillor. Thus #MeToo became a cultural force. (I could have used that force 40 years ago when, as an equal opportunity officer, I adjudicated sexual harassment cases one by one.)
As happens with juggernauts, counter-forces arise (#HimToo) and misuse occurs, as when a woman makes a false allegation. And by now so many allegations, both valid and invalid, have been made, each triggering a media firestorm if the man charged is famous, that a certain weariness with the movement has set in with the public.
But public weariness cannot invalidate the moral point: that sexual abuse and assault are wrong, wrong, wrong, not to be borne any longer, and are no longer a prerogative of male power. The test that this moral point remains powerful, the public weariness notwithstanding, is seen most markedly in the political arena: A valid allegation of abuse can threaten a political campaign like little else, even scuttle it (The allegation against presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden appears, at this posting, to lack substance.)
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Martin Luther King, Jr., cited this truth in relation to racial justice; it relates also to sexual justice. Long a blight on human relations, racial and sexual injustice and abuse have stunted untold numbers of lives, caused untold depths of suffering. But, hard as it may be to perceive amidst the present Chaos, the arc of the moral universe is indeed bending.
It did not help that, in America, the moral universe has long gone missing, ignored, even derided. It would take a book to chart both the hypocrisy of the right in claiming the moral high ground despite its blasphemies (i.e., its embrace of the amoral Donald Trump) and, to be fair in this accounting, the scorn and mockery expressed in quarters on the left of anything “moralistic.” In effect, the moral universe was abandoned by right and left.
But: Even if abandoned, the moral universe still exists. The ultimate test of this reality comes, as it has now, when profoundest moral need — the need for justice — pierces through both the crime (the killing of Blacks) and the decadence (the abuse of women) and declares itself paramount and sacred: that Black lives and women’s lives matter and will be accorded equal justice. By these breakthroughs — let us call them victories — we bid the moral universe back into the public sphere.
There will be fierce reaction — from white supremacists continuing to deny Black humanity, from troglodytic males continuing to deny women theirs. And there are other powerful counter-forces: a pandemic that threatens to get worse and go on indefinitely, an economy that threatens to collapse into another Great Depression, and a presidential election that our president threatens to undermine — all guaranteed to bring out the worst in us and not the best, all working against a generalized moral awakening in America.
But none of it — none of it — negates the moral point achieved, the history achieved: justice for Black Americans and women. Amidst America’s breakdown, this central achievement is a step in America’s grand reckoning.
Now, to protect and defend this most precious prize…