America recently passed the 400th anniversary of our nation’s two defining, and contradictory, character traits.
It was in July and August 1619 the first democratic assembly convened in what would become the United States. And, it was this week in August 1619 the first shipment of slaves arrived on American shores.
The first event was the inaugural meeting of the Virginia House of Burgesses — a cornerstone institution in the foundation of what would become our Constitution. The second was the arrival of a captured Dutch ship carrying “20 and odd Negroes, which the governor and cape merchant bought,” according to a letter written at the time to Sir Edwin Sandys, of the Virginia Company.
In the ensuing four centuries, America’s identity has been defined by the friction between these two incompatible endeavors – to create a free and egalitarian society, governed by the rule of law and representative government, on one hand; while, on the other hand, subjugating, exploiting and denying freedom to children of God for the purpose of corporate profit and political capital.
In essence, America’s identity, since 1619, has been a case of multiple personality disorder – seeking freedom and democracy for some, while simultaneously holding others to one form of chattel exploitation or another.
This rift between the two Americas — between the haves and have-nots, the protected and exploited — did not disappear after the abolition of slavery in 1865. It did not end with Jim Crow, or the end of segregation, or the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Today, black Americans are sent to prison at more than five times the rate of whites, and the median black family, according to a 2016 Institute for Policy Studies report, owns just 2% of the wealth of the median white family. Put differently, by being born white, I statistically have one-fifth the chance of being sent to prison and, at the median, will accumulate 42 times the family wealth I would have, had I been born black.
Those are real and lasting impacts that started on the plantation. But, if we look deeper, we see slavery was a symptom with a root cause that persists in our society today. That root is the dehumanization of segments of the population, to be sacrificed on our American altar of greed. Slavery was born of the determination to place profit above the inherent worth of human beings, and that failing continues every bit as strong in America 2019 as it did in America 1619.
If you are an average American worker, you’ve seen the buying power of your wages remain flat since 1973, while earners in the top 10% have seen their wages grow at five times the rate of those in the bottom half. Since 1978, in actual dollars (not inflation-adjusted), the average American worker has seen wages increase by just 12%. CEOs, meanwhile, have seen their compensation grow by 940% in the same period, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Those disparities have yielded a new feudal system, which would have been anathema to our Founders, in which the top 1% of households make 25 times what families in the bottom 99 percent earn.
It may be a stretch to call the state of American capitalism a new form of slavery, but our entire economy and lifestyle of consumerism does rely on modern day slavery. Today, there are as many as 40 million people enslaved in the world, according to the 2018 Walk Free Foundation World Slavery Index, including an estimated 403,000 in the United States. That’s far more people living in bondage today than the estimated 12 million souls brought to the Americas prior to Emancipation. And the majority of those slaves work to support the supply chains of our economy, just as much as slaves on plantations of the Old South.
If we are to overcome these 400 year-old rifts in our American identity, we first must acknowledge they exist. We must face the fact that the great promise of America has for too long been restricted to white, Christian males, and has relied, economically, politically and socially, on the subjugation and exploitation of those who don’t fit that narrow mold.
This week that cancer of American greed, hate and inhumanity came to the surface in the persona – not a new or unique persona, at all – of a president who calls Jews disloyal, repeats claims to be like the “King of Israel” and “the second coming of God,” continues to attack black and Muslim members of Congress and claims to be “the chosen one.”
The struggle between the two faces of America’s identity is centuries old. But we, today, find ourselves in the bizarre and imminent position of having to decide if we want our nation steered in that struggle by a president who courts white supremacists, draws political lines based on race, religion and ethnicity, and who has a literal god complex.
We have to choose between our two contradictory American personalities — freedom and democracy on one side, hatred, fear and greed on the other. We have to decide, as a nation, if we want to truly embrace the promise of America — the better half of our identity — for all people.
If we are to be true to the best of what it means to be American, and true to our children, we need to start by being true with ourselves about the dark side of America’s split personality. Then, we need to carry that truth to the ballot box.