Our Patriotic Duty

America is a story of struggle between self-evident truths and self-interested lies. Our patriotic duty calls us to this historic struggle to fight for these truths and secure justice for all.

Painting copyright K. Herlihy-Paoli “The Tempest”

No lie can live forever, Dr. Martin Luther King assured. But for a least 400 years, the lie of White supremacy has. Borne of self-interest and greed, this lie destroyed and dehumanized, raped and colonized, criminalized and terrorized. Religious and biological lies substantiated it. People and cultures internalized it. Laws and institutions sustained it. It is antithetical to the self-evident truth “that all [] are created equal,” yet inseparable from the American story.

To truly eradicate this subversive lie from American legal, political, and cultural institutions we need to honestly reconcile with its progression through history, and identify the policies, practices, and inequalities this progression built and fortified. Then, armed with this history, we must uncompromisingly deconstruct this “indifferent fortress of white supremacy,repair the generational damage it caused, and work to build antiracist institutions rooted in the principles of democracy, liberty, and equality hallowed in America’s Declaration of Independence.

This transformative process begins by embracing the most basic antiracist truth that there is nothing inherently superior or inferior about anyone based on the color of their skin or their national origin. The racist lie that there is, as James Baldwin understood, “is always and everywhere and forever a delusion.” And yet, beneath this delusion “is centuries of history and assigning of assumptions and values to physical features in a structure of human hierarchy,” writes Isabel Wilkerson.

Self-interested White men devised this human hierarchy to justify the brutality and inhumanity of conquest and colonization, and the horrors of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The racist lies substantiating this hierarchy claimed darker-skinned peoples were uncivilized, incapable of governing themselves, and in desperate need of White salvation. And these lies legitimized the exploitation and capitalization of bodies and land that true commitments to justice and morality could never condone. Not then. Not now. Not ever.

Through the 244 years of American history, these lies deemed — and continue to deem — White lives more valuable than others and White people more worthy of the benefits of American society. More deserving of dignity and respect. More human. The only appropriate response to these inhumane and immoral lies is righteous opposition through antiracism: “the active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, organizational structures, policies and practices and attitudes, so that power is redistributed and shared equitably.”

In essence, a racist sees racial inequality or inequity and asks what is wrong with the people. An antiracist sees the same and investigates what is wrong with the policies.

Racist lies remain useful tools for those with inordinate wealth and power today as they deliberately incite racial fear and division. In doing so, they create an environment where, as Ibram X. Kendi explains, “rather than locating the real sources of economic hardship and inequality, racist politicians encourage Americans to blame their struggles on neighbors who don’t look or act like them, who are supposedly stealing their jobs or subsisting on their hard-earned tax money.” Such misplaced outrage distracts from the centuries-long looting of America by the wealthy and powerful.

Indeed, the very wealth that enabled the colonies to declare independence rests on the land of whom that Declaration described as “merciless Indian Savages” and on the backs of whom the Constitution considered three-fifths of a person. I recall this being framed in my early education as the “three-fifths compromise, ” but framing it this way dismisses the absurdity of converting a person’s humanity into a fraction. This “compromise,” along with the Electoral College and the Senate, secured disproportionate political power for the slave-owners of the new republic and the racist ideas they profited from for generations to come.

It is not difficult, then, to draw the parallels between America’s foundations as a slaveholder’s republic and America today. An economic advisor of the current administration made that connection plain when he referred to working class Americans as “human capital stock.” Consistent with this slaveholder logic, and amidst mass suffering and death, low-wage workers —whom we now recognize as essential — are being treated as expendable. Meanwhile, in only a few months, a handful of America’s wealthiest people have expanded their wealth by more than 500 billion dollars.

Our history numbs us to such callous subjugation.

Painting copyright K. Herlihy-Paoli “Enough!”

For generations, slavery “killed, tortured, raped, and exploited people, tore apart families, snatched precious time, and locked captives in socioeconomic desolation,” Ibram X. Kendi describes in Stamped from the Beginning. With the same disturbing cruelty, colonization killed hundreds of thousands of Native Americans, ripped them from their ancestral homelands, and made every attempt to destroy their cultural heritage. These historic struggles for freedom and justice are inextricably connected, and they continue today.

Though emancipated by the law on Juneteenth 1865, Black Americans remained enslaved by the racist American conscience that hardened over the previous 246 years of slavery and colonization. The Jim Crow era unleashed another 100 years of “racial apartheid and racial terrorism.” Likewise, westward expansion provoked a new era of colonization and genocide. Thus, following the Civil War and First Reconstruction, the economic, social, and political conquest of dark-skinned bodies and Indigenous land changed only in form, not substance.

The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery “except as punishment for a crime,” so the Black Codes, Jim Crow laws and a system of “convict leasing” condemned the newly freed peoples to work in the same fields from which they had just been freed — shackling them in economic destitution. Laws and customs separated and discriminated against Black Americans in every aspect of life — a practice the Supreme Court eventually constitutionalized under the enigmatic concept of “separate but equal.” And poll taxes, so-called “literacy” tests, and outright acts of terrorism, prevented the exercise of the newly enshrined constitutional right of men, regardless of race, to vote. The slave patrols of the previous century evolved into organized police departments, who often worked in concert with armed vigilantes to enforce the written and unwritten rules of this racial hierarchy.

The lies that dark-skinned people were not of sufficient moral or intellectual character to enjoy the rights and privileges of American life persisted to justify this era of racial terrorism. So, while the Constitution finally reflected the magnificent promises of the Declaration, White Americans — and more specifically, White men — remained the gatekeepers and the sole beneficiaries of those promises, of the so-called American Dream. And as that Dream moved from the breezy southern plantations, to the western frontier, to the white picket fences of American suburbia, it remained dependent on the exploitation of dark-skinned bodies and Indigenous land.

Thus, it remained dependent on the racist lie of these people’s inferiority — a desperate lie generated to validate the United States’ legacy of broken treaties and segregationist policy, which created poverty and human suffering, and is then justified by the existence of that poverty and suffering. Such a fortress of self-fulfilling lies can only be dismantled by historical truths.

Painting copyright K. Herlihy-Paoli “The Will’s Final Curtain”

Decades prior to the Civil War, in 1830, the United States’ forcibly removed the Native peoples from their ancestral homelands in the southeast to clear more land for the cotton industry. 4,000 people died on this Trail of Tears west. This conquest of Native people and cultures was not new. And it continued in the decades following the Civil War as immigrants and newly freed peoples did the brutal work of laying the Transcontinental Railroad tracks on which White settlers and land speculators comfortably rode to claim their piece of the American Dream in the West.

Through the Homestead Act, the United States granted free plots of this western land — 270 million acres in total — almost entirely to White men. About one quarter of the United States population today can attribute their wealth to this program. Contrarily, the newly freed peoples received no compensation or reparations or the 40 acres and a mule they were promised for the centuries of exploited labor under slavery. Thus, the inequality forged in the previous centuries only worsened.

The Dawes Act of 1887 then attempted to accelerate the legal conquest of Native sovereignty and culture by wresting and parceling their land into individual plots, and opening settlement to non-Natives. This Act added to a legacy of broken treaties and ultimately led to the confiscation of about 100 million acres of land — roughly two-thirds of the collective land base of the Native peoples — between 1887 and 1934. Congress and the Supreme Court alike justified this land grab with familiar declarations of racial inferiority.

This pattern of subsidizing economic growth for White people while deliberately obstructing economic growth for people of color continued well into the New Deal years. Although often lauded as the most progressive economic period in American history, the United States government explicitly denied Black Americans the recovery benefits of the New Deal in two main ways. Through “redlining,” the government refused to insure mortgages in and around Black and immigrant neighborhoods. And through restrictive covenants, the government prohibited the sale of the subsidized, mass-constructed suburban homes to Black Americans. This remained the policy of the Federal Government until the late-1960s, when Congress passed the Fair Housing Act. And it left lasting effects by relegating Black Americans to areas closer to industrial plants that polluted the air, further away from grocery stores with fresh food, and more likely in places where the water is not drinkable.

The resulting injustice compounded through generations as lower property values translated into less money for schools. America’s schools remain as racially segregated today as they were before Brown v. Board of Education because of this residential segregation. A recent study found that predominantly White school districts today receive $23 billion more annually than school districts predominantly serving people of color. Moreover, arbitrarily excluded from labor unions, university admissions, and better paying jobs, the American Dream was much more of a nightmare for the people of these communities. And, despite disingenuous calls from a distance, there were no “bootstraps” in sight.

It is not a mistake, then, that 33% of Native American children and 30% of Black American children are born into poverty, compared to only 11% of White children. (To be clear, any level of childhood poverty is unacceptable in the richest country in the world.) Nor is it a mistake that a Black family owns $10 of wealth for every $100 a White family owns, and Native families even less. Nor that the life expectancy for Native and Black Americans is shorter than that of White Americans. The racist lie used to explain these disparities is that the people, because of laziness and irresponsibility, are to blame for their poverty. The antiracist truth is that the policies designed and implemented specifically to create and fortify these racial inequalities are responsible.

Painting copyright K. Herlihy-Paoli “Eanie, Meanie, Miney”

A determined and sustained movement­ for justice in the face of horrendous violence and cruelty culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act in the mid-1960s. That is to say, for 346 years after the first ship of enslaved peoples arrived on this continent, and 189 years after the self-evident truth that “all [] are created equal” echoed across the world, Black Americans were subjugated to a legalized subhuman status in American society where they could not vote, purchase a home, take out a loan, or to simply be in public, free of discrimination and abuse. And yet, though these laws ended legal discrimination, they did not address the massive — and still growing — health and wealth gaps created by the previous centuries of racist policy.

As a result, civil unrest carried into the late-1960s. The Johnson Administration commissioned a report to explore the causes of this unrest, which it determined to be institutional racism and poverty. In a nearly 500-page report, the commission bluntly warned that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” Addressing an essential American truth, the commission wrote: “White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

The commission recommended massive investments into schools, job training programs, affordable and dignified housing, and expansions of public programs to repair the destruction caused by centuries of racist policy. These recommendations were not novel, they echoed those of past commissions. But because they contradicted the comfortable myth of American progress, they were promptly discarded. Instead, cries for “law and order” rang from the highest levels of government as the “War on Drugs” reallocated resources from already underfunded schools and social programs to prisons and police forces. In effect, the poverty the government created became a crime.

Between 1970 and 2020, the incarcerated population soared from 300,000 to 2.3 million, due in large part to a drastic increase in enforcement of minor drug offenses. But while drug usage rates are virtually the same among all races, and despite communities of color making up only 37% of the United States population, they account for an astounding 67% of the prison population today. And incarceration rates for Native Americans are among the highest: Native men are incarcerated at four times the rate of White men and Native women at six times the rate of White women.

Worse yet, too many never see a day in court because they were killed in the street (or in their home) by an officer who swore an oath to protect and serve. Black Americans are three times more likely to be killed by the police. And officers take this lethal action with impunity as a disturbing 99% of the police shootings between 2013–2019 resulted in no charges against the officer.

The racist lie to explain these disparities is that people with darker skin are inherently more criminal or more dangerous. The antiracist truth is that criminality is not inherent. Crime rates are generally lower when unemployment is lower. And the police presence in communities of color is much greater than it is in White communities.

But more broadly, this era of mass incarceration reflects the confluence of historical, societal, and institutional factors merging to form a new system of legalized segregation very much resembling the Jim Crow era. As Michelle Alexander explained, once branded a felon, an individual permanently surrenders “the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits.” This makes it virtually impossible to reincorporate into society in any meaningful way.

Felony disenfranchisement alone prevents 6.1 million people from exercising their constitutional right to vote. Other forms of modern voter suppression like massive voter registration purges, closing or under resourcing of polling stations, extreme voter wait times, and strict identification laws have reemerged since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Though these tactics may be more subtle than in centuries past, they have the same antidemocratic effect of preventing people (and disproportionately people of color) from voting. Above all, they make clear that the struggle for a true democracy — one where every voice is valued — continues today.

Painting copyright K. Herlihy-Paoli “Opening Up”

So, while the American story is often framed as one of constant progress toward “a more perfect Union,” I believe it is better understood as a 400-year struggle between complex antiracist truths and comfortable racist lies. A struggle between the truest meaning of the Declaration’s promises and White supremacy’s terms of that agreement. The terms to which White America has accepted — either with enthusiasm or indifference — from the beginning.

That is why this moment is about much more than restoration. It is about reconciliation, reparation, and reinvention. About arming ourselves with the knowledge and power of this history and the courage to change it.

We are the perfecters of this Union. And we will not change this country into what it must be “without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure,” as James Baldwin advised. This means fighting to create a society that values the health and well-being of people over the daily convulsions of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. It means building a society that guarantees a life of dignity and respect by ensuring a living wage, necessary healthcare, and a high-quality education for every single human being in the United States.

To achieve this, first and foremost, we must relentlessly pressure our representatives to reinstate and expand the Voting Rights Act to include automatic voter registration, expand early voting, make election day a federal holiday, eliminate the electoral college and gerrymandering of congressional districts, and grant statehood to Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, and other U.S. territories if they so choose. Only then, only when our government is representative of, and responsive to, all of the American people, will America be a truly democratic republic, not the oligarchy it resembles today.

At the same time, we need to look forward with bold investments in our future by reallocating resources away from policing, incarceration, and militarization to programs that actually make our communities safer, healthier, and more prosperous. Programs like need-based education funding and incorporating civic and critical education into curriculum to prepare children for the complexities of the modern world. Programs like building affordable and dignified housing units to end the housing affordability and homelessness crises. Like providing healthcare for all, including mental healthcare. Like providing free childcare. Like funding job-training programs to eliminate unemployment. Like forgiving student loan debt and providing support for entrepreneurs to unleash the untapped potential of our communities. And as we implement these policies, we need to continuously monitor outcomes (not intent) for racial equity or inequity, making adjustments when necessary.

These demands are humanitarian, not partisan. So, I believe it is essential we shed the superficial and divisive labels of Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative and reject the meaningless binaries of left or right, red or blue, less government or more. The true struggles are between oppression and liberation, between corruption and integrity, between democracy and oligarchy (or demagoguery), between racism and antiracism, between justice and injustice.

The persistent triumph of racist lies throughout American history makes clear that the moral arc of the universe does not bend naturally toward justice. There is no justice in history without the tireless work of organizers and activists and the sustained movements of past generations fighting for a better future they knew they may never live to see.

Our patriotic duty calls us to this historic struggle to give the promises of democracy, liberty, and equality enshrined in the Declaration their truest meaning. To ignore this call would only prolong America’s centuries-long betrayal to the self-evident truth that “all [] are created equal.”

Painting copyright K. Herlihy-Paoli “This Will Pass”

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