Death and Seeds of New Beginnings
In the midst of a pandemic with social and political unrest, a violent effort to intimidate Congress and threats of violence at state capitals, I keep thinking about new beginnings.
New beginnings often require a death to occur first. It may be the death of an idea from which a new innovation emerges. It may be the death of winter, as the earth sits fallow, waiting for spring. It may be the death of a family matriarch and the beginning of our role as the elder. Or it may be the death of flawed national values, from which a new nation arises, like a phoenix.
It’s this last death and rebirth of a nation and society that has captured my attention for more than ten years. What will be our nation’s new beginning? What will We the People collectively decide is valuable?
About 240 years ago, in response to a tyrannical king, Americans prioritized their “pursuit of happiness” as a guiding principle to decision making. In 18th century usage, happiness meant prosperity or good fortune. Upon learning this, it changed my understanding of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” All of a sudden, these men of the American Enlightenment seem a little more...materialistic. While today we espouse this pursuit of happiness as our birthright, at the time, they sought to protect their “good fortune” from the King of England and immortalize their “property” rights in our Constitution.
Again and again, throughout our history, Americans have tangled, argued and fought about the value of human beings. The latest example is the response disparity to threats of civil discord, so clearly on display at The Capitol last week. Here are three additional historical examples.
- In 1787, the negotiation of the Constitution was won by slave-owners who demanded power and gained the ⅗ compromise -- for Congressional representation -- and the protection of property rights, including the right to repossess any “person held to service or labor” (an obvious euphemism for slavery). Many of our heralded founders did not hold their slave laborers as equally human, but counted them to retain or suppress political power. Hence, structural racism is written into the Constitution.
- The post Civil War era brought us three “corrective” amendments to the Constitution. The 13th, ending slavery. The 14th, guaranteeing citizenship rights for anyone born in the United States. And the 15th, granting African American men the right to vote. And the era of Reconstruction saw many advancements in equal rights for Black Americans. When the election of 1876 relied upon electors in three states, the compromise of 1877 awarded the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes (who lost the popular vote), with the promise of ending Reconstruction and sacrificing the hard-won protections of our Black brothers and sisters. In the following years, states' rights cases won at the Supreme Court were the basis for “Jim Crow” laws that insured segregation throughout the south and gave permission for preserving prejudice in the rest of the country. Structural racism evolved to devalue Black Americans through the courts, legislation and lack of enforcement.
- Abolitionists and suffragists were closely entwined before the Civil War. As the 19th Amendment (granting women the vote) was nearing passage, Black women were set at a distance quite intentionally, to hold onto the support of many white southern women. Following passage of the 19th amendment, the groups broke up all coalitions. This collapse of support hampered Black women especially in the south, from actually voting. It would be another 50 years to overcome poll taxes and literacy tests for most Black women in the south with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Under the banner of pragmatism, racism broke apart a long-held coalition towards equity and equality.
On the floor of the Senate, following the violent intimidation, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) cited the compromise of 1877 as an example to challenge the election outcome -- a way to “settle” the election claims through additional investigations. Many of our non-white citizens heard this echo of Jim Crow and offer to “compromise” the promise of equity and equal human value that is within our reach.
Our U.S. history tells us that when we have faced the choice between economic and human interests, our elected leaders choose economic interests every time. Let us make a new choice today. Our national economy is a collective agreement about exchanges of goods, services, properties and pursuit of wealth. Business has shown in the last few days their interests are aligned with equity where in previous times, business was better served by compromise to allow the continuation of structural racism. This is still an economically based decision. Let us adjust our national economic priorities to serve our collective human needs first. And our bank accounts second.
We are in the winter of our constitutional republic. We will experience more dying of people, businesses, institutions and beliefs for a little while longer before spring arrives. But what will bud and blossom in the season of new beginnings? Have we readied the soil (our beliefs and our institutions) to receive a new planting?
Let us till the soil to root out toxic beliefs, toxic practices and make it ready. Let us plant seeds of equity, respect and dignity. Let us recognize that each and every one of us has inherent human value. May we plant seeds of responsibility for ourselves and our institutions, all connected to and interdependent with our community.
What will be your new beginning? I continue to plant seeds of hope that we will finally embrace our shared humanity. Race-based differences of human value are a myth we can no longer afford to compromise with and around. Let’s prioritize ALL human life over economics -- have economics serve our shared humanity, not exploit it.
Our new beginning is coming. This time, let’s get it right.