The arc of a nation isn’t a historical consistency. Though we try, the reality is that we can’t really point to the way things have always been. We rarely can even point to the way things are. For most of our miserable existence as a species, life didn’t get any better or worse. Our standard of living was permanent and brutal. We didn’t live longer. We didn’t create things that didn’t exist generations earlier. For the first 150,000 thousand years or so, our population ebbed and flowed with the course of disease or war. It was like that for much longer than it wasn’t.
About 300 years ago though, it changed. Something changed. The fragile flame of technology flickered for the first time in a place and time that would urge it to set the world ablaze with progress, England. Thomas Newcomen made the steam engine to drain the new coal mines of their water. And James Watt made it better. And the existing property rights, agricultural system and infrastructure in England fertilized the industrial revolution. Within a century, mankind would have something that it never had before. More than it needed. It sounds simple. And sudden. Bu it wasn’t. It stood on thousands of years of toil.
In America, the fate of history lined up cleanly with our system. The great race of progress for a people is to make enough food and goods that people don’t need to make their own so that they can start making things they don’t have to eat. And then they can make more of those things than they need and can start shipping them off to places unknown. We won that race.Then we won the next race, to evolve beyond making things. We eventually made so much stuff that we exported more than our goods. We exported our technology and our culture. And then we exported the burden of making things altogether. Now our people spend their days financing and insuring organizations that are simply the idea of making and consuming and serving.
For 200 years we’ve grown our productivity and surplus 1.7 percent a year.That doesn’t sound like much. But it is. No people like us has ever done anything close. Sitting here as you read, your life is 25 times better, more abundant, more productive, more comfortable than the visionary sentient beings who took to task the species pivoting revolt against absolute rule. We don’t even know what the next race is yet. The history of man is behind us. We are in uncharted territory. And there’s great debate about what forward looks like. Perhaps so much so that we’ve paused as a nation and decided we want to go back. We’ll realize we can’t in good time. And then it’s back to the task. A race to sustain the abundance we have and the earth and resources we live off. It took us 150,000 years to make our first billion people. It took us 12 years to make our last. That race is upon us, whether we like it or not.
But it’s fair to pause for a minute, maybe more today than any other day and ask the questions. Where would we be as a nation if we didn’t win the race to abundance? If we didn’t get to more than we need as fast and ahead of everyone else? It’s an unanswerable question. So I’ll ask another. Where would we be, if we didn’t fuel our journey to abundance with slave labor?
One of the dark truths about America is that we were built on the backs of one of the great moral failures of man. It was not isolated. It was not an unfortunate event limited in its outcome to those bound by it. It was free labor at a time when free labor could be used to catapult our entire society forward at an incomparable speed. And every American living today is living in a society that is further advanced than it would have been if not for humans that we kidnapped, transported and enslaved.
So what’s left? Guilt? Acknowledgement?
Well two things. First, we have to own our personal biases that drive our thought. We have to free ourselves from the lack of self awareness that confuses our basic, tribal, racial tendencies with rational thought. Everyone of us is bias. We are not entirely rational beings. Own it. Account for it in your life. Live and treat your fellow man accordingly.
And second, fight inequality like it’s the great evil of our time. Because it is. We’re never going to stop the racial divide in this country until we do. And we are never going to stop being racist until we live for generations in a world where being black didn’t mean you were more likely to be poor. Or less likely to be educated. Or have a higher chance of being in jail.
America owes. We owe big. There’s neither a slave owner or a slave living today in America. But we are all the children of it’s outcome. Some of us have benefitted. Others are tragically left behind. And the debt that needs to be paid is to get us back to the place where that determination has nothing to do with your race. And we’ve got a long way to go.
This project produced a work that is as raw and honest as I can be about race and inequality in America. I have never felt the cruel sting of racism. I don’t know what it’s like to look at my children and know the prejudice they will live in. I cannot empathize with the pain and hurt that it breeds. But I can understand its cause. And I can be dispassionate about the mechanics of the solution. But I must also remain deeply, emotionally, spiritually committed to the human cause of racial equality to the extent that I am willing to sacrifice for it. It will not end on its own. We have to end it.
My hopes are that others read what I’ve written and pause and admit that they are afflicted with the sickness. And that they bear the responsibility of advocating for policies and programs that force the hand of closing the racial inequality gap in our country, 400 years in the making. And if you’re wondering, relying, even to a lesser extent, on the latent desire of white America to be led by a white man again, or a white man’s values, to gain power is not a step in that direction. And I’m not afraid on this day, the inauguration, to say it.
Reflect deeply on the offenses this writing may have caused you. And ask yourself, are you a part of the problem? Or are you a part of the solution? There is no third category.
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Categories: Culture and Society