We Wear the Mask – Still

            As an African American, I find that I often walk around with a lump in my throat because this country does not, has not, and will not regard me or my people as human beings worthy of being treated as the American citizens we are.

            When it comes to race, this nation has no honor.

            The lump isn’t always noticeable; sometimes, it retreats and I can forget for a time that it is there. But no matter how long the lapse, it always comes back.

            I first noticed the lump when I was in college. I was reading about the lynching of Emmett Till, and how the all-white jury acquitted the two white men who had killed him. How could that be, I wondered? How could a court ignore the guilt of two men who had clearly murdered someone?

The lump reappeared from time to time after that, but came back with a fury when I was in seminary and heard the story of one Dred Scott one Sunday I had, of course, heard his name before, and knew a little about his story, but I had never heard about the engagement and involvement of the nation’s highest court. It was in a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright that I heard the words uttered by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney in 1857 as he ruled against a Black man, Dred Scott, who sued in order to protect his freedom, gained when his owner took him into a free state. Scott had lived in the free territory of Wisconsin and the free state of Illinois before being taken back to Missouri, where he was again enslaved.

            Scott objected. He knew the law and the law said that once a person was free, he or she was always free. He decided to sue in a lawsuit that made its way all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. After 11 years of litigation in its movement from lower courts to the country’s highest court, the decision was finally at hand. Scott was hopeful.

            But his hope was dashed as Taney ruled against him. Taney wrote that because Scott was Black, he was not a citizen  – and could never be a citizen -and therefore had no right to sue. Referring to the Declaration of Independence, Taney also said that “it is too clear for dispute that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration…” 

            Given all of that, Taney said, it had to be understood that “there were no rights of a Black man that a white man was bound to respect.” 

            What? I was stunned and can still remember being in shock as I heard those words. How could someone who was supposed to be about justice say such a thing? I later wept as I read the words for myself and realized in a new way that not even the courts do not protect us and could be counted on to bring justice to Black people, including the highest court in the land.

            From the day that the lump formed it has risen from time to time, reminding me of the pain I carry about this nation having so little honor when it comes to race. That lump jostled me again today as I heard the decisions the U.S. Supreme Court made that clearly indicate that the justices are not interested in treating Black people as full American citizens with all the rights citizenship includes. The highest court in this land has yet again sanctioned ways to keep Black people disenfranchised. (https://www.cnn.com/2021/07/01/politics/voting-rights-act-supreme-court-ruling/index.html) (https://www.npr.org/2021/07/01/1004062322/the-supreme-court-guts-a-state-law-requiring-nonprofits-to-name-their-rich-donor.

And again, I wept.

            From the courts to law enforcement to the media, this country has made clear how deeply embedded is the spirit of white supremacy. There are those who are bold with their belief in the inferiority of Black people, and others who remain quiet and do little to nothing as they see the system run roughshod over Black lives and yet declare that they are not racist. The latter group makes little to no effort to investigate and see why there is a Black Lives Matter movement. They refuse to open their eyes and see how the systems of this country have blocked African Americans for literally hundreds of years. Both the vocal and non-vocal racists remain steeped in fear, rage, and insecurity; they are afraid of Black people and afraid that if Black people ever got the opportunity to govern, they would do to white people what white people have done to them. They are full of rage because they believe Black people – who they still do not regard as human beings or citizens – have been “given” too much and are unappreciative, even as white people struggle in ways they do not believe they should be, and they are insecure because reports say that white rule will soon no longer be the case in America.

            It is a difficult thing to keep on pushing for justice when the hard truth of the lack of honor of white people in power repeatedly hits you in the face. Black people get metaphorically slapped over and over, as arrogant critics tell us to get up and to “shut up and dribble,” as the infamous Laura Ingraham once said when NBA great LeBron James spoke out against police brutality.( https://www.marketwatch.com/story/fox-news-host-laura-ingraham-told-lebron-james-to-shut-up-and-dribble-so-whats-her-take-on-drew-brees-2020-06-04)

            The evil of white supremacy in this country has never diminished, and at this point, it is more toxic and dangerous than it has been publicly for some time, but make no mistake: it and its toxicity have never been gone. This country still has a plantation mentality, wanting Black people and a whole lot more people whom the white supremacist adherents believe are less than human to “stay in their place.”

            Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote the poem, “We Wear the Mask,” the first line of which says, “We wear the mask that grins and lies; it hides our cheeks and shields our eyes. This debt we pay to human guile…”

            We have been paying that debt for literally hundreds of years, and we still must.

            The stupid lump in my throat is real today; I will work – as we all must – to swallow it back down into its bedroom that is in my soul. But it will rise again.

            A candid observation …

Getting Up All Over Again

This has been a difficult week for Americans who have been fighting for their civil and human rights in this country.

The United States Supreme Court upheld the president’s travel ban and also ruled against unions collecting dues from non-union employees.

Then, US Supreme Court Justice announced his retirement, effective July 31 of this year, giving the current president the opportunity to name yet another person to the high court. Undoubtedly, that person will be a social conservative and will pull the court further to the right.

The gains made by Americans who have been fighting for their voice will be pushed back  – again.

The Rev. Dr. William Barber, the creator of the Moral Mondays movement and most recently the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, wrote that this nation has historically fought back when too many gains have been made by marginalized groups, most specifically by African Americans. The “first Reconstruction” came after the Civil War; the “second Reconstruction” came after the Civil Rights Movement, and this, the “third Reconstruction” is on the heels of the presidency of Barack Obama.

In each of these “setback eras,” as I view them, angry whites have done all they can, politically and socially to undo the gains that African Americans have made. During the First Reconstruction, they did all they could to suppress the newly gained right of African Americans to vote.  Voter suppression was the hallmark of the Second Reconstruction, with social conservatives working to undo the rights afforded blacks by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

And now we sit in the midst of the Third Reconstruction, where voting rights are again under attack, along with rights gained by the LGBTQ community. There is a fear as well that with the nation’s high court getting another right-leaning justice, Roe v Wade will be overturned, making it illegal for women to get abortions. Immigrants and their rights are being attacked and eroded; unions stand to up to a third of their members and funding.

Because of the domination of all three branches of government by Republicans who claim their position to be that of social conservatives, many people and groups will slip back into places from which they have been fighting to get out of for decades.

I am looking for an adjective that I am satisfied with when describing social conservatives. A working definition of a social conservative is someone who holds onto tradition and the way things have been. Social conservatives fight change in the social makeup of a country or government. In America, the granting of rights to what they would call “marginalized” groups has gone over the top. Voting rights, gay marriage, the right of women to choose their options for pregnancy, protection for transgender individuals and continuation of protecting immigrants who come from Mexico, Central and South America have eroded the America in which social conservatives trust has been too much. Author Karen Armstrong has said that when there is too much change in a society or culture, there is a backlash, which includes the rise of fundamentalism. People pull harder to the right to protect what they know, an action which comes off as being racist, sexist, Xenophobic and more and they often use their understanding of God and of the Christian Bible to justify their views and their actions.

Their determination to put everyone back into their place is unrelenting, and once they have successfully wielded their power which is theirs primarily because of their race, gender and wealth, they fall back into the rhythm with which they are comfortable. The “undesirables” have been controlled, and all is well.

People in this world who are not white, male, heterosexual and wealthy will always have to fight for full American citizenship. They interpret the Constitution as a document which demands parity amongst individuals, which it does not. The Constitution was at its inception a document which made a way an protected wealthy, white, male, Protestant landowners. In actuality, the Founding Fathers desired to create a country for white people, even as they imported Africans to this country to help them build this nation’s wealth. That they did not think through what their greed would ultimately do – i.e., establish the African American population of this country – shows their arrogance. Because they did not look at African Americans (or Native Americans, or women, for that matter) as human beings, they did not include those groups as groups worthy of full American citizenship. As the country grew, and African Americans, as well as women, began demanding their rights, the social conservatives worked – and continue to work – to make government protect their rights while chipping away and outright denying those same rights to groups whom they felt were not human and therefore not worthy of equal treatment and status.

Human beings, however, will not stay under a rock and acquiesce to injustice; within all humans is the desire to be free in the fullest sense of the word. Every time the government has worked to reduce their rights, these groups have fought back. The groups of people in this country whose rights are being eroded or which stand a big chance of being eroded will be knocked down, but they will get up. Every time the social conservatives try to stop the movement toward the dignity of different groups, those groups become more resolute to fight for what they know they deserve.

While social conservatives appear to live in and be guided by fear – fear that they will lose their property, their jobs, their dreams and their status – the ‘marginalized” live in hope – the hope that they will ultimately win.

Step by painful step, they will. Evil is a strong force in this world, but hope is stronger. Hope has made the marginalized fight for justice for thousands of years, and hope will be the fuel that gives them the power and strength to get up all over again and continue that fight.

A candid observation …