Much has happened in the months since George Floyd died of suffocation under the knee of a white Minneapolis cop. Mostly, poor George Floyd has been forgotten, and the attention of the global information sphere has turned, obsessively, to a cosmic injustice called “systemic racism.” To ask what this phrase means, or how it works, or what the evidence is, or how it compares to the past or to other nations and societies—to do any of this is to call down the rage of millions who are no doubt well-intentioned but have no interest in analysis or debate. Yet that is where I live: in evidence, analysis, and intellectual dispute.
Famous personalities and important organizations have stumbled over one another in the rush to confess their own sins and condemn their country of oppression. Others have maintained a prudent silence. I find that I’m too old to fear the wrath of inquisitors but just young enough to feel compelled to take a stand: an unfortunate combination. So, this is it. This is my stand.
I believe the United States has been a beacon of freedom in the dark night of history. Millions who felt downtrodden have left home and followed that beacon to our shores. My family was among them. My daughter’s high school graduating class in Fairfax County, Va., represented 90 languages of origin. All came in search of something that could not be found elsewhere.
American freedom means an open path, a ramshackle adventure, a vast frontier across which you make your own way untrammeled by the dictates of political power or the humiliations imposed by bigotry. That holds true no matter who you are or where you come from. I arrived in this country as a child immigrant, not speaking a word of English, in the bad old days before the youngest (hence most virtuous) of my readers were born. My earliest memories were an almost visual awareness of that astonishing frontier of freedom. There it was, far and wide. The direction was up to me.
There are different varieties of freedom, and ours is of a peculiar kind. We try to balance the pursuit of individual happiness with the mutual respect implicit in the faith that all are created equal: an impossible job, really, but here we are going for it. The epic dimensions of this struggle are rarely dwelled on. We don’t think that way. We just head for the open spaces and live our lives.
The arrangement only endures, I suppose, because the country is so big and varied. There are 50 states and thousands of towns and counties, each with their particular history, sects and religions, accents and attitudes. If I don’t like it here, I can go anywhere I want. American freedom to my way of thinking is always on the road, behind the wheel of a car—a Model T jalopy out of the Dust Bowl or a Corvette roaring over the superhighway, it’s all the same frame of mind.
Freedom was once for some but is now available to all. This is where I disagree fundamentally with the accusers and self-flagellators of the moment. I believe Abe Lincoln hit on the secret code of American freedom when he said we were a nation dedicated to a proposition. The principle of equality, to which we are dedicated, is imperial and universal, and has conquered every attempt to restrict it to men, or to Protestants, or to natives, or to whites. The triumph of a principle of justice over brute prejudice has been the glory of American history.
Ours is a government of the people, not of angels. We have never achieved our ideals, but have had to inch, in pain and blood, toward them. At certain times and in certain places, Americans have broken faith and worshipped that devouring old idol tyranny. Lincoln spoke his words by the graves of thousands who had died to end the curse of slavery. That was achieved.
When I first came to Virginia, it was a one-party state like the Cuba I had escaped, controlled by a gang of thugs around Harry F. Byrd, whose rule was dedicated mainly to the principle of racial separation. That’s what systemic racism looked like in real life—and I was here when it ended. Schools and housing were segregated—I watched that end, too, with amazing rapidity.
Virginia was not the worst of the Southern states, but the threat was always there, the fear was always there, along with the secret crimes, the night riders, the rule of violence. That was the “system” that made racism “systemic.” Many died and many more risked their lives to end that.
If systemic racism in truth remains, the deaths were for nothing. We should abolish Martin Luther King Day and burn the Civil Rights Act in despair. But I’m certain those brave people didn’t die in vain. I’m certain Martin Luther King Jr. died a liberator to all Americans—you and me, those who came before, and those who will come after. I’m certain the Civil Rights Act changed this country forever—and for the best. The fear is gone. The night riders have vanished. Those who scream the loudest about racism are free to do so in the open, in front of cameras, to the applause of elected governors and mayors.
For those with eyes to see, the remarkable thing has been the advance of justice and equality within a single lifetime. The improbable thing has been how thoroughly American freedom has overcome the bigots and the petty tyrants. Whenever some angry soul speaks of systemic racism in the age of Barack Obama, I hear old Harry F. Byrd cackling in his dishonorable grave. Injustice has not disappeared, and, given the human condition, never will. Individuals can be crude and hateful, sometimes criminally so. But the system works powerfully against them. The cop who killed George Floyd has been fired, arrested, and faces the judgment of American justice, not the shameful perversions of Jim Crow.
I would offer more evidence of change—statistics about interracial marriage, attitude surveys, and so forth—but I have already established that evidence and analysis will be waved aside by most who disagree. On this question, at this moment, people are encased in absolute certainty and reject argument as a shyster’s gambit. So rather than argue, I want to address myself directly to those who hold the US to be the Great Satan of systemic racism.
If you wish to fight for justice as you perceive it, you must choose between two paths: you can persuade or you can dictate. I stand ready to be persuaded. But, as I warned, I’m too old to be bullied—and I suspect the majority of Americans will have even better reasons to resist. If you seek to persuade, your arguments have already been made for you, in the magnificent language of Jefferson, Lincoln, and King. But if you believe that the totality of American history has been defined by oppression, and you aim to wipe it out, to expunge it from memory, then your quest for justice will be lobotomized into an expression of personal spleen. Your rage and your mandates will be derived from no higher principle than “I want it so,” and few societies have been improved by a temper tantrum.
Some of you wish to dictate. Editors and professors have been fired or “investigated” for trampling on the taboos you have invented. People of good will have been forced to abase themselves in sickening apologies before your prideful presence. City blocks have been “occupied,” and monuments of every kind have been destroyed or vandalized because so many of you think that American society, by failing to fit into your slogans, should be condemned root and branch.
I know you. I saw you in Cuba when I was a kid. I remember you in Virginia when I was a teenager—the petty bosses of the Byrd machine, always inspecting our words, the books we read, the thoughts inside our heads. The great open spaces of American freedom terrify you, as it did them, because in the end they will shatter your hold on people’s fears: your system of control.
A wise man once told me that we are all prisoners of our experience. Maybe there’s something tormenting your hearts that has been redirected against your country. Or maybe it’s the opposite: you have led such a comfortable existence that you crave to play-act the hero’s part in a grand if fictitious conflict. I can’t say. I don’t know you. My journey through the wide frontier has been different from yours, and I have no advice to offer. My own experience was shaped a long time ago, when I was taught that the color of one’s skin mattered infinitely less than the content of one’s character. That’s how I hope I would deal with you, good reader, if we met as strangers. That’s what I wish to be when I’m at my best. And it’s where I stand.