Related: Civil & Human Rights

American Exceptionalism


The news demands that I pause my reflections on the beautiful, peaceful natural wonders of the Adirondacks to comment on the evil, violent, oppressive man-made catastrophe that is the racism, violence and hatred coursing through the American body politic and raising the body count to unfathomable heights with each new tragedy.  Dallas. Baton Rouge. St. Paul.  From Louisiana to Minnesota to Texas, from St. Louis to Baltimore to Staten Island, and too many other places, police officers have killed black men with scant provocation and wanton displays of violence.  Rage and hatred surge hotter and higher and more dangerously with each killing.  This week, the outrageous deaths of Alton B. Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in a suburb of St. Paul now apparently incited the horrendous murderous attacks on police officers in Dallas.

Make no mistake about it.  The wanton murders of police officers is evil, wrong and deplorable.  No excuses.

The killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and so many others without justification are also evil, wrong and deplorable.

Nationwide, the Washington Post reports that nearly 500 people have died in police shootings so far this year.

America is, indeed, exceptional — this nation has an exceptional record for violence, racial hatred and oppression, and shamefully tepid political will to address the root causes of the evil that rends our social covenants to shreds.

In his acclaimed, controversial and starkly lacerating work Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates exposes the corrupt center at the heart of the myth of American Exceptionalism.  Citing the history of slavery as the basis for building the wealth of the white power structure of the United States, Coats writes,

“Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies.  If there has been, I have yet to discover it.  But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal.  America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization.  One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error.” (Ta-Nehisi Coats, Between the World and Me)

The great problem of American history — the way it has been taught in most schools — is the denial of the truth that most of those men we call the “Founding Fathers” absolutely knew that slavery was wrong, and they had the power to end it in the first Constitution, but they chose their own economic self-interest over human rights and justice.  Yes.  Thomas Jefferson, George Washington — men whose wealth and status was thanks to slaves — could not vote for abolition.  We continue to pay a heavy price for the failure of our founders to bend the arc of history toward justice at a time that would have been heroic, and would have made this nation truly exceptional.

America today is exceptional in its indulgence of violence as the means to preserve order — or power for some.  What other basis can there be for the mindless exaltation of the Second Amendment, against all historical evidence that it was a period piece for revolutionary times.  Instead, we have indulged a culture of violence against black people in particular, and against others who threaten to upset “order” as some deem it to exist.

In 1963, James Baldwin wrote of the fear and anger propelling some white Americans to resist integration with violence, police brutality, fire hoses, dogs, incarceration of civil rights leaders, murder.  He wrote of white Americans,

“…They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.  They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men.  Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.  To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.  In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.” (James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time)

More than 50 years later, the violent resistance to the reality of integration and the imperative of justice for all threatens domestic peace more than any external threat from terrorism or other sources.  Our nation is arming itself internally, facilitated by the gun lobby and despicable politicians who have only contempt for their responsibilities to the entire nation.  One major political candidate gains fervid, frenzied support by declaring he will build walls higher, deport Muslims and Mexicans and other people who are not, in his view and the view of his supporters, “Americans” translation “white.”

Echoing much of Coates, Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown professor, wrote “What White America Fails to See” in today’s New York Times, saying that so long as white Americans persist in not understanding the fear that black people must live with every day, we cannot possibly address the root causes of the violence.  He writes:

“At birth, you are given a pair of binoculars that see black life from a distance, never with the texture of intimacy. Those binoculars are privilege; they are status, regardless of your class. In fact the greatest privilege that exists is for white folk to get stopped by a cop and not end up dead when the encounter is over.” 

The fear of violence against the black body — stated so painfully by Coates — is centuries old and as fresh as today’s headlines.

The New York Times Editorial Board asks today, “When will the killing stop?”

The answer seems painful to say, but very clear:  we cannot stop the killing until we accept the fundamental moral and legal premise that we say is the basis for our nation:  that all people are created equal, and have equal right to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Not just some. Not just whites.  Not just people who arrived in ways we deem “legal.”  But all people.

America can only be truly exceptional on the day we can say with truth that equality and justice prevail for all.  But saying that again and again is not enough.  Just like “moments of silence” have become trite, and mourning is all too routine, we cannot simply spout more platitudes.

This year America faces the most consequential political choices in generations.  Not only the presidency, but also the Congress and among state houses.  Will we choose to continue this virulent climate of hatred and obtuse fomenting of violence?  Or will we choose leaders who can walk with us across this dangerous terrain to find some places of calm where we can start working again on repairing our social contract.  We are not bystanders to history, we are the history we choose to write.  We must choose peace and justice, because what is the alternative?  A perpetual state of war within ourselves is unacceptable.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: