Leaning on the arc of history

Society can evolve. It can also devolve.

We believe that the United States of America, since its founding over two centuries ago, has evolved.

Our Founding Fathers were white men who started a bold experiment in government — democracy.

In the years since our country’s founding, amendments to our Constitution have given Blacks and women the right to vote. The right to vote, of course, does not mean equal standing in a society or equal justice.

Change happens, sometimes in fits and starts, when people push for it. Pete Seeger, who sang songs of the common folk, once told us, “One of the extraordinary parts of America, which is usually skipped or skimmed over in American history courses, is the way American history has been formed, not always by the presidents and officials but by rank and file people who kept pushing.”

Seeger cited President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation as an example: “He could not have done that it it hadn’t been for Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison and hundreds, thousands of unknown people who risked their lives …. The politician can only go so far as people will follow him.”

We find ourselves in a time right now when the pandemic and the resulting economic shutdown has laid bare the chasm between the haves and the have-nots, when when a racial reckoning spurred by a video of a Black man murdered beneath the knee of a white police officer has brought hundreds of thousands to the streets to protest, when fires ravaging one coast and hurricanes the other has made clear that ignoring science won’t save us.

One thread in this bleak tapestry where local institutions and individuals can make a difference is with the racial reckoning.

If we look back to the beginnings of our nation, we can trace our evolution from George Washington, who is often called the father of our country.

Oney Judge, one of the enslaved people in the President’s House in Philadelphia, absconded in 1796 at the age of 20. She escaped after Martha Washington told Oney Judge she was to be given, as a wedding gift, to Martha Washingtn’s granddaughter who was known to be ill-tempered.

“I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington’s house while they were eating dinner,” Judge said in an 1845 interview published in the The Granite Freeman, a newspaper in Concord, New Hampshire, where she had settled, having married a sailor, a free Black man.

Soon after her escape, when she had been recognized in the streets of Portsmouth, George Washington wrote to have Judge captured and returned to the Washingtons by ship.

Portsmouth’s collector of customs, Joseph Whipple, advised that capturing Judge could cause abolitionists to riot on the docks. Whipple would not put Judge on a ship against her will and relayed her message that she would voluntarily return to the Washingtons if they would agree to free her following their deaths.

Whipple wrote that her only motive for absconding had been “a thirst for compleat freedom.”

George Washington responded that Judge’s conduct would “be forgiven by her Mistress” if she would “return to her former Service.” He went on, instructing Whipple, “If she will not, you would oblige me, by pursuing such measures as are proper, to put her on board a Vessel” to be returned to slavery.

Washington went on about practical, political concerns, “I do not mean however, by this request, that such violent measures should be used as would excite a mob or riot, which might be the case if she has adherents, or even uneasy sensations in the minds of well disposed Citizens.”

Washington posited that Judge had been seduced by a Frenchman and took umbrage at Whipple’s message that what Judge sought was freedom. He wrote: “I regret that the attempt you made to restore the girl (Oney Judge as she called herself while with us, and who, without the least provocation absconded from her Mistress) should have been attended with so little success.

“To enter into such a compromise, as she has suggested to you, is totally inadmissible, for reasons that must strike at first view: for however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this Moment) it would neither be politic or just, to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference [of freedom]; and thereby discontent, beforehand, the minds of all her fellow Servants; who by their steady adherence, are far more deserving than herself, of favor.”

A modern reader of this letter, of course, will feel outrage. Freedom isn’t a favor to be granted to deserving human beings; it’s a right.

The outrage we feel in reading this is a sign of how our society has evolved.

We felt a similar outrage when we watched the presidential debate on Sept. 29. Much notice has been paid to Donald Trump’s response, when asked if he would condemn white supremacy, and he said to the Proud Boys, “Stand down and stand by.” White supremacists of course took the president’s words as an endorsement, a rallying cry.

Trump’s rhetoric throughout his tenure has inspired both divisiveness and hatred.

But the phrase we found most troublesome in the Sept. 29 debate was the statement Trump made in defense of his Sept. 22 executive order barring federal agencies, branches of the armed forces, and federal contractors from conducting diversity and inclusion training. 

Trump said that such initiatives are “teaching people to hate our country.”

That statement can only be true if you believe “our country” is made up solely of wealthy white men. But we have evolved since the day our founding fathers — land-owning white men who didn’t recognize the rights of all the people who built our nation.

Courses that teach about diversity — the worth of varied cultures — and inclusion — the embrace of a common humanity — enrich our country. It is hard work to look clearly at ourselves and understand our biases. But it is essential work if we are to move forward.

We need to recognize the worth and rights of people like Oney Judge, of the Native Americans whose lands Europeans settlers subsumed, of all the many waves of immigrants who have settled here and added to our wealth — and not just our economic wealth but our cultural richness as well.

Even if the federal government is going to ban such all-important training at a time when we most need it, we, on the local level, can embrace inclusiveness and diversity.

We commend, for example, the leaders in the Guilderland schools who are planning to create a social-justice task force and to change school practices and curricula accordingly.

We commend, too, the citizens in Rensselaerville, who recently spoke up to their town board, asking for a resolution that would condemn displaying the Northern Virginia battle flag, which has become a symbol of white supremacy, now commonly called the Confederate flag.

Of course the town board cannot ban the display of symbols. We all hold dear our First Amendment right to free speech. Every week, on the pages of this newspaper, we print letters with which we disagree because we believe in the worth of civilized discussion to solve problems.

But certainly local government boards could take stances condemning the display of symbols of white supremacy or of any symbol that is used to inspire hate and fear.

We, the people, need to work — each of us in any way we can — to eschew practices that set apart one group of people as superior to others.

If we want our society to continue to evolve, we need to work toward a tolerance, an understanding of those who are different than ourselves. Otherwise, we run the very real risk of devolving into a nation of hatred and fear.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Now is the time — in the midst of such upheaval as the grand experiment of democracy teeters in the balance — for each of us to help that arc bend toward justice.

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