This essay is part of our series on Race and Racism in America. See the full collection here.
We live at a time when national unity is at a particularly low ebb. Everything seems to divide us—religious belief, ethnic background, gender, political ideology, party—and very little unites us. Separated into media- and technology-enhanced silos, we seem to have lost the ability to meet and converse with large numbers of fellow citizens on common ground. This is a serious problem that may, in time, signal the end of the American republic and its promise for the world.
Among the fault lines that define what has been called our “fractured republic,” that of racial difference remains the oldest and in many ways most telling. At the time of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, we were two Americas: a white one that successfully fought for and enjoyed the “blessings of liberty” to an extent unrivaled in human history, and a black one that suffered under the most extensive and invidious system of slavery known to man.
We have made significant progress in the last 240 years. We have the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, which abolished legal slavery and guaranteed citizenship and civil rights to the former slaves. We have the legal and social achievements of the Civil Rights Movement. Slavery has been defeated and racism is on the retreat, at least in the public mind and political discourse.
A Nation Divided
It has, therefore, been surprising—shocking, even, to most white conservatives—to see the recrudescence of racial tensions in recent years. Reactions to police shootings, high-profile national anthem protests, a string of mainstream movies and documentaries such as 13th, Get Out, and Detroit, and, most recently, the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, have hit many Americans like a bucket of ice water in the middle of a restful sleep. White Americans seem to have thought, especially after the two-term presidency of Barack Obama, that racial concerns had been allayed once and for all. Because almost none of us have been involved in the perpetration of slavery, Jim Crow regimes, or civil rights violations, white Americans have tended to think we were in the clear.
What has become evident is that, despite the real progress that most people on both sides readily acknowledge, we are still divided into a white America and a black America. While there are many exceptions, the general fact is that white Americans don’t think racism is important any more, and black Americans think racism remains a defining feature of American society. For white Americans, “colorblindness” is worn proudly as a badge of enlightenment; for black Americans, “colorblindness” is ridiculed as a badge of ignorance. Consider the difference of opinion surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s protest: a Quinnipiac University poll showed that 63 percent of white Americans of all ages disapprove of Kaepernick’s protest (30-percent approve), while 74 percent of black Americans approve (17-percent disapprove).
The association of racial issues with other civil rights issues—such as women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, or economic rights—has made the task of mutual understanding and cross-racial unity even more difficult. The largely successful efforts of advocates for these other civil rights groups to equate their claims with those of black Americans through history has only driven the wedge between white conservatives and black Americans further. In pushing their own inclusion agendas, these other groups have unintentionally solidified the racial divide.
Sources of Unity
In a speech he delivered toward the end of his life and after the failures of Reconstruction were readily apparent, Frederick Douglass made a forceful appeal for national unity. He argued that what was being called “the Negro problem” was really “an American problem.” As always, Douglass eloquently put his finger on the crux of the matter:
The real question, the all-commanding question, is whether American justice, American liberty, American civilization, American law and American Christianity can be made to include and protect alike and forever all American citizens in the rights which, in a generous moment in the nation’s life, have been guaranteed to them by the organic and fundamental law of the land.
Douglass knew that the only way out of our national purgatory for the original sin of slavery was unity—not toleration, not reconciliation, not compromise, not multiculturalism or relativism, but unity. Douglass believed in “the unity and dignity of the human family,” and he thought that the American “mission” consisted in furthering an understanding of this unity.
This mission is in jeopardy today. The primary cause of American disintegration is not the proliferation of sources of division, but rather the absence of sources of unity to counterbalance and contextualize them. The racial divide, I argue, is the most productive place to start in recovering the American mission and restoring national unity. White Americans and black Americans should be on the same page when it comes to “American justice, American liberty, American civilization, American law and American Christianity.” And if we were, we could join to confront the other issues that currently preoccupy American society and public policy in a more coherent and principled way.
Addressing America’s Divisions
One meaningful way to narrow the racial divide and make progress toward unity in support of the American mission is through our partisan politics. The Republican Party stands for patriotism and American ideals, but it is the Democratic Party that possesses the overwhelming allegiance of black Americans. This only exacerbates the feeling of alienation among black Americans from American society and its history. The Democratic Party, though, has done very little to address the issues most important to black Americans, and it obviously takes their votes for granted, as Al Sharpton recently underscored in a USA Today article. The Republican Party should take advantage of the opportunity this failure presents to actively champion issues that matter to black Americans and earn their votes. This primarily includes the vast disparities of access to quality education and economic opportunity as well as criminal justice reform. The GOP should develop a comprehensive policy plan explicitly geared toward narrowing socioeconomic divides and disjoining them from racial ones.
Another meaningful approach is through the avenue of higher education. The recent efforts at diversity education on campuses across the country have met mostly with suspicion and criticism on the part of conservatives. At the University of Missouri—the center of much of the recent controversy over issues of race and diversity in higher education—a collaboration is underway between the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy and the Department of Black Studies on a project called “Race and the American Story.” This project features a course that introduces students to the great texts of American political thought that deal with the issue of race: the writings and speeches of Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among many others. The course and project should serve as a national model for educating students on issues of race and difference in a way that unites American citizens along the lines Douglass urged over a century ago.
A third avenue is through Christian churches. In the cases of both the abolition movement in the nineteenth century and the Civil Rights Movement in the twentieth, Christian churches in the United States were overly reluctant to enter the fray and apply the Gospel message to American political practices. Both Frederick Douglass in his 1852 Fourth of July speech, and Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” specifically condemned this reluctance and called on American Christian churches to address issues of racial injustice forcefully. Today, Russell Moore is doing much the same thing through his emphasis on the centrality of racial reconciliation in the Gospel message, but this has met with significant opposition among many Southern Baptist churches, most of whose congregations strongly support President Trump.
Christian churches—Baptist, Catholic, and nondenominational alike—need to preach racial reconciliation and the Gospel’s message of charity from the pulpit, pointing out the obstacles to these Christian goals that beset current American politics and inspiring congregations to care about overcoming them.
American culture and its politics are broken in many ways today, and many different approaches will be necessary to productively address these problems. The longest-standing fracture in American culture and politics has been the divide between white and black, a divide that persists today despite changes and progress over the course of American history. If we can’t find a compelling way to address the racial divide—the contemporary manifestation of the most glaring and obvious moral and political problem in American history—there isn’t any hope for our addressing other important issues in compelling ways. The key to repairing this divide, as enjoined by Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, is the skeleton key that can unlock an overall regeneration of American political life. Only once white America and black America become a single America united on the common ground of humanity and natural rights can we hope to achieve meaningful and lasting progress in other areas of American society.