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  • John Ikerd

Some Thoughts on Racism and Patriotism

Updated: Sep 29, 2021

I have been reluctant to write about political issues since the 2020 presidential election. I had hoped some of the bitterness and divisiveness might have begun to fade by now. However, large segments of American voters still seem willing to abandon democracy rather than allow a growing majority of minorities to participate fully in their government. We see this in minority-voter-suppression tactics being employed in DC and in state capitals around the nation. We see this in the Republican party’s continuing efforts to prove that democracy can’t work.

Some obstructionists rationalize their action as defending the nation from socialism. Irrational threats of socialism have been used historically to oppose child labor laws, labor unions, Social Security, Medicare, equal employment opportunity, affirmative action, and every expansion of voting rights and citizenship. Any effort by government to address the needs of the economically and politically oppressed is maliciously and inaccurately labeled as socialism. The threat of socialism was the rationalization that allowed Hitler to rise to power in Nazi Germany.

Others want to “Make American Great Again” by returning to an earlier time when women and minorities “knew their place” within society and were kept there. They wrap their gender, ethnic, and racial biases in a cloak of patriotism. This was readily apparent in the 2020 presidential campaign, it was on open display among the Trump supporters who invaded the US Capitol Building on January 6, and it has continued since—openly and subtly. It is also apparent in their opposition to public acknowledgement of past racial oppression, continuing systemic racism, or any form of restitution for past oppression. Racism seems somehow to have become a litmus test for patriotism.

Admittedly, some of the founders of the nation were slave owners and racism has permeated American society since. However, we apparently are expected to believe that patriotism demands we return to racist beliefs of the founders that have persisted throughout the nation’s history. To me, this rationalization is incomprehensible. However, I know of no other way to explain the actions of those who seem willing to abandon the American experiment in democracy rather than allow the full and equal participation of racial minorities in all aspects of American society.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “racism” as "prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race, based on the belief that one's own race is superior." Oxford defines “patriotism” as “love of one's country, identification with it, and special concern for its well-being and that of fellow citizens.” It’s possible for people to believe that their own race is superior to others and also to “love, identify with, and have special concern for their country.” A notable example might be Nazi Germany. However, it is inconceivable that racists in a racially diverse nation such as the US can have any “special concern for the well-being of their fellow citizens.”

It is even less comprehensible that racists can believe that racial discrimination is consistent with the principles upon which the United States of America was founded. We have no way of knowing for sure whether the individual founding fathers were racists or instead simply rationalized their racist decisions as compromises they deemed necessary to eventually free the nation from racism. We do have historic documents confirming that many of the founders were publicly opposed to slavery and several spoke out in opposition to slavery during the Constitutional Convention. The Constitution did eventually give the government power to limit slavery and the people power to add a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery.

The importance of slavery to the US economy was undoubtedly a major contributor to the founders’ failure to include the prohibition of slavery in the US Constitution. Perhaps, some of today’s so-called patriots consider the founders’ precedent in giving economics priority over equality to be a fundamental political principle of governance. Maybe this explains why some racists are also sexists and consider a person’s willingness and ability to work and earn money as an accurate reflection of his or her inherent worth. Native Americans, women, and even white, male non-landowners, were also excluded initially from voting and participating in other aspects on American life.

These self-proclaimed patriots appear to believe that political rights should be extended to those previously excluded only after they have proven their willingness and ability to overcome systemic discrimination by earning and accumulating economic wealth. However, there is abundant historical evidence that the founders of the United States of American never intended that the nation would be shackled forever to slavery, racism, sexism, or any of the other barbaric beliefs or practices of their ancestors—including those of at least some of the founders.

Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, was among the founding fathers who encoded their vision for the future of the new nation in the American Declaration of Independence in 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The founders obviously knew that these ideals were not the core values of people in the British colonies from which the nation was to be formed. Instead, it was a vision for the future of the nation that eventually could become its reality.

In 1787, another distinguished group of American patriots signed the Constitution of the United States of American. It begins: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." This was the functional agenda for governance. It seems abundantly clear that the US government was not established to defend the inaugural status quo, but instead to guide the nation toward the vision of liberty and justice for all. There is no liberty without justice and no justice without liberty—as I have explained at some length in my previous series, “The American Covenant.”

Inscribed in the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC are the words: “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and Constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” Jefferson obviously knew that slavery and racism were likely to persist in the new nation for some time in the future, but he clearly did not accept racism as a litmus test for patriotism.

Our nation today is in a time of crisis, not unlike the time of the Civil War of the 1860s, or even the Revolutionary War of the 1770s. As the patriot Thomas Paine wrote in 1776 in his classic essay, The Crisis: “These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.” Once again, the nation is faced with the threat of tyranny.

Racism, like tyranny, has not been easily conquered. We have made progress since the abolition of slavery—not only for African Americans but also for women, Native Americans, and other political minorities. We still have far to go. But when we finally do conquer racist and other forms of discrimination, it will be a glorious triumph for democracy—and for all people of America. We at last will have become the constitutional democracy envisioned by the nation’s founders. We simply cannot allow the persistence of racism and other forms of discrimination to destroy this dream of democracy and return the nation to tyranny. Racism is not patriotism; racism is tyranny.

John Ikerd

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