BY JOSEPH SANDFORD
Over the July 4th weekend, before the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I consumed an instructive dose of history from Christopher Hitchens’ short biography, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America. Introducing his subject, Hitchens wrote, “It would be lazy or obvious to say that he contained contradictions or paradoxes. This is true of everybody, and everything. It would be infinitely more surprising to strike upon a historic figure, or indeed a nation, that was not subject to this law. Jefferson did not embody contradiction. Jefferson was a contradiction.”
Here, the essence of an incredibly influential man is asserted, and the difficulty in painting an accurate representation of an entire nation is revealed. Given the diverse perspectives, styles, shading, hues, and brushes available, it’s impossible to render an authentic sketch of any nation.
This week that picture became acutely clear for the most casual student of history or current events. Through the lens of fear our perspectives shifted and our image refocused. Fear that adhering to every letter of the law may get you killed at the hands of the police. In these instances, people were doing the right thing, but ended up on the wrong side of terror and injustice simply by the color of their skin.
The slaveholder Jefferson declared, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal.” This sentiment lays bare the American contradiction – all men are not treated equally. This past week demonstrated that achieving harmony within our society remains considerably beyond those with the furthest moral reach.
President Obama deftly summed up the meaning of last week’s tragedies: “These are not isolated incidents. They’re symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.” Videos of Castile and Sterling bleeding to death are not the first evidence of this disparity. How do we remove this reality from the realm of possibility in America, and create a society representational and respectful of all it comprises?
Institutional racism and injustice remain woven into the fabric of America. Jefferson reserved the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to white men, setting the foundation for our current predicament. Generations have fought for inclusion under the law. This struggle will continue, and it is one that must reverberate throughout all of society.
At the nadir of this generational struggle for equality and justice, it is naïve to caution against violence and rioting. The effects of oppression cannot be tamped down through clichés of non-violence and universal love. Rather, love and respect dictate that we find empathy for communities dehumanized by unjust social forces, and build their experiences into a moral system deserving of the words Jefferson wrote that revolutionary summer 240 years ago.
Thus, our collective attitude must change in the wake of the cruel destruction of black bodies. These tragedies demonstrate that battles seemingly overcome by abolitionists and the civil rights movement continue to plague America. Following these examples, society must lift its head above the ocean of ignorance and indifference. We must embrace calls to morality, justice, and the unalienable rights of all people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
However sad and fearful the future of this country may appear, it is encouraging to know what must be done. Respect for black lives must be nurtured. The criminalization, oppression, and harassment of black bodies must cease. Whatever has occurred to this point has been a rehearsal of form and practice. The events of last week highlight what does not work. Let’s move forward by finding a way that does.
Our collective identity will not reveal itself on your TV or phone – the truth is discovered through education and engagement. These are not optional practices for a country so divided by race and class. In the image of America, black lives remain blurred and shadowed by our history of slavery and racism. And only those communities wholly feel the weight of America’s past. Trust and communion will be achieved when we see the problems through their eyes and heed the message of their stories. Black lives are our leaders and experts on this issue. It is the responsibility of everyone else to follow.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph is a student of all that can be found on earth and beyond. He and Natalie met during their freshman year of college, and they’ve been debating everything from the pitfalls of democracy to the wonders of astronomy ever since. Joseph is a historian by training, who’s searching for meaning through the art of the essay. An avid skier and golfer, he currently lives in Boulder, Colorado (420 anyone?).