Imagining the Possible, Committing to Action: On Creating a Racially Just America
Keith Boykin Considers the Lessons of History and the Challenges Ahead
It may be hard to hear this right now, but our history need not be our destiny. No matter what you’ve been told, we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Just as surely as the colonists changed the course of America in the 19th century, the abolitionists in the 19th century and the civil rights activists in the 20th century, we, too, can chart our own path, and we can finally break the cycle of progress and retreat.
But to create this change, we must first be “brave enough to see it,” as Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in US history, reminds us. Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of Broadway musical Hamilton, explains it this way: “I know that we can win. I know that greatness lies in you. But remember from here on in, History has its eyes on you.”
So, let’s make history and imagine a vision of a possible new future.
It’s now Tuesday, February 10, 2060. A Black woman with beautiful, flowing locs walks into a crowded auditorium filled with hundreds of dignitaries. She stops a few steps after she enters the chamber and waits. A white woman and a Latina notice her entrance and rise from their chairs in the front of the room. The Latina picks up a heavy wooden gavel and slowly strikes it three times against the desk. The audience quiets. All eyes turn to the back of the room to face the woman with the locs. She opens her mouth and speaks:
“Madam Speaker, the President of the United States.” The audience cheers.
A beaming Indigenous woman in a wheelchair enters the floor of the United States House of Representatives, shaking hands with and fist-bumping smiling members of Congress from the fifty-two states, who stand or sit to her left and right. As she proceeds down the hall, she greets each of the eleven Black US senators, equivalent to the total number who served during the first 245 years of the nation’s history. Even her opponents from the three other political parties scramble to greet her. Pausing repeatedly for photos, she takes a few minutes to arrive at the well of the House. For continuity-of-government reasons, her space secretary cannot attend tonight, but the president shakes hands with the remaining cabinet members, a dazzling and talented cross section of America.
Next, the president is ushered toward the six women, four men, and one nonbinary member of the US Supreme Court. They greet her warmly. Then the Joint Chiefs of Staff salute her. All the while, applause continues uninterrupted as the president wheels herself up the accessible ramp and the automatic podium adjusts to her height.The real absurdity is not the possibility of empowering women and people of color; it is perpetuating an unfair and unsustainable two-hundred-year oligarchy for a powerful minority.
It is a historic night. She is the third woman president, the second woman of color to hold the office, and the first Indigenous president, and this is her final address to a joint session of Congress. The Latina woman in the front of the room gavels the crowd to order and speaks for the first time: “Tonight, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States.” The audience roars again in applause. The president finally has reason to celebrate.
Thanks to the national health care law passed decades earlier, the nation was able to mobilize quickly and vaccinate 95 percent of the population against a deadly contagious virus. The Black and Hispanic unemployment rates for the past three years remained slightly below the white unemployment rate for the first time in history. The Reparations Act of 2036 has finally started to eliminate some of the nation’s racial disparities in annual income, household wealth, and educational attainment. The number of police shootings of civilians has dropped dramatically, while a police officer involved in a high-profile shooting incident was recently convicted by a multiracial jury.
And despite the ongoing concerns about climate change, the president is prepared to report that, for the tenth consecutive year, the country continues to meet its annual net-zero emissions policies. After a challenging year, she allows herself to breathe a sigh of relief. She thanks the Speaker of the House and acknowledges her vice president behind her.
“Members of Congress,” the president says, “The state of our union is strong.”
If it seems absurd to imagine women holding the positions of president, vice president, and Speaker of the House, and the majority of the Supreme Court all at the same time, remember that this is precisely how America has operated, with white men in those positions for more than two hundred years. The first woman vice president only took office in 2021. The first woman Speaker of the House took control of the gavel in 2007. And the first woman on the Supreme Court began serving in 1981.
For two hundred years before that time, every president, vice president, Speaker of the House, Senate majority leader, and member of the Supreme Court was a white man, even though white men today make up less than a third of the nation’s population. The real absurdity is not the possibility of empowering women and people of color; it is perpetuating an unfair and unsustainable two-hundred-year oligarchy for a powerful minority.
The choice we face now is between fear and love. Fear encourages a scarcity mentality that excludes those most easily marginalized. Love teaches an abundance mentality that embraces the vulnerable along with everyone else. For those of us who are fortunate enough to live in the richest country in the world, a country that has never lived up to its promise of “justice for all,” we have a duty to embrace love and treat all those on our soil with dignity and respect.
In my most hopeful dreams for America’s future, I see a loving, diverse, inclusive, and equitable nation striving to make real the promises of the republic. But in my most discouraging nightmares of the future, I see a dangerous, divided land, rife with fear and violence. Neither of these outcomes is guaranteed. The future of America is not inscribed in stone. It is, instead, what we choose to make it. It is our actions today that will define the world we live in tomorrow.
I’ve watched the world change for the better and the worse during my life. I graduated from college at a time when a concrete wall still separated East and West Berlin and Black South Africa was ruled by a white racist apartheid regime. And when I took my first job after college, the very thought of gay marriage or a Black president was only a distant fantasy for wide-eyed optimists. On the other hand, even during my most pessimistic college moments during the Reagan administration, I never imagined that America would elect an incompetent game show host as president or that he would incite a racist white mob to attack the Capitol.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a Black man in America, it is that time does not heal all wounds. I’ve seen how the unhealed wounds of slavery, segregation, racism, and white supremacy still continue to divide our country, and I know that this pattern will persist unless we change. It is for this reason that Dr. King warned that “time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.” King cautioned us in 1963 to avoid the “strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.”
Despite the enormous racial strides we’ve made since Dr. King’s time, America remains just as broken as it was all those years ago. Every day that our pain lingers unaddressed, every day the psychic wounds of war fester unhealed, every day we deceive ourselves to believe that future generations will peacefully resolve the tension, we continue drifting toward dissolution. The changing complexion of America does not ensure a welcoming multicultural and multiracial future. It threatens as much as it inspires.
This has brought on our new cold civil war—a daily series of conflicts and confrontations, big and small, between competing interests and individuals struggling to win control of the future. If a cold war is a state of political hostility between countries without direct warfare, then a cold civil war is a state of hostility between people of one nation without direct combat. Unlike the Cold War of the 20th century, this cold civil war is not a battle between superpowers but rather a clash among the people of one nation. And unlike the US Civil War of the 19th century, it is not a crusade of horses and canons and gunfire but a proxy war of policymakers and citizens acting as satellites in a larger struggle.
What connects this cold civil war to America’s bloodiest war is that it is still a war about skin color. And this is the sad reality of modern America. More than a century and a half after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Commander Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, the thorny issue of racism and white supremacy in America has yet to be resolved.
Now we’ve reached a critical juncture, testing whether we will continue to repeat the mistakes of the past or move forward into a bright new future. As I’ve tried to document in the previous two sections of this book, every approach we have tried in the past has failed to stop our intermittent racial crises, and the most common current proposals under discussion will likely fail as well. That’s because most of the approaches are not designed to resolve America’s fundamental race problem. They are designed only to respond to the crisis of the moment. Which is why I believe there is still a way out.
The lessons from the past teach us that we will not solve America’s race problem in one presidential administration. The way forward will require a long-term national commitment beyond the lifetime of any of us alive today. It will require Americans of all races to work both separately and together. And it will require a reaffirmation of the founding principles of our nation.
As I indicated at the beginning, there is no panacea or magic elixir to solve racism in America. However, I still believe we can move in the right direction if we each take responsibility with constructive steps toward healing and progress. These, again, are the steps: First, white America must atone for a legacy of racism and slavery that still persists today. Second, Black America must hold the dominant political parties and our own leaders accountable to the needs of our community without exception. Third, America, as a country, must embrace a new approach to racial equality that is based on equal outcomes and not just equal access.
This article has been excerpted from Race Against Time: The Politics of a Darkening America by Keith Boykin. Copyright © 2021. Available from Bold Type Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.