One of my favorite quotes is by Thurgood Marshall, a former U.S. Supreme Court Justice and civil rights attorney:
“Nor do I find the wisdom, foresight and sense of justice exhibited by the Framers particularly profound. To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today.”
Our nation, pre- and post-founding, enslaved an estimated 10 million Black people. In the name of “Manifest Destiny” and “Westward Expansion,” our government, militias and ordinary people engaged in actions that led to the genocide of millions of Indigenous people.
We have a long history of disenfranchisement. We had to amend our constitution multiple times to try to guarantee the right to vote for Black men, women of all races and people ages 18 and up. Despite the plain language of many of the amendments, we had to engage in a civil rights movement, pass the Voting Rights Act and amend our constitution to prohibit poll taxes to finally begin to remove the barriers to voting.
Given how truly undemocratic and inhumane our democracy has been, it can feel hyperbolic to be overly concerned with the state of politics, race relations or democracy today. More than once, my outrage at the injustice of police not being held accountable for killing a Black person has been met with the sentiment that “outrage is a symbol,” and I “do not understand our nation’s history, or its present.”
My outrage is not about my ignorance. Yes, I have so much more to learn, but outrage at injustice and inhumanity is a core part of our American ancestry. I am in awe of abolitionists and suffragists and all the people who risked death, violence, incarceration, ostracism, and more, but kept fighting. How many people fought for, but never witnessed, the end of enslaving human beings? Who fought for the right to vote but never got to vote? Yet, their willingness to fight impossible odds means our current battle is fighting against losing the hard-earned victories.
We cannot dampen our outrage or quell our hope. We cannot fail our ancestors by failing to stop this awful trend towards white supremacy and disenfranchisement. Our democracy is, and always has been, imperfect, but we must honor our ancestors and each other by believing that justice, what love looks like in public, is possible. We must honor ourselves, our ancestors and future generations by believing it is possible to live in a world free from the violence of the state or our neighbor.
Read more of the Feb. 16-22, 2022 issue.