Senator Ronald L. Rice | June 21, 2020 | Star-Ledger |
By definition, an experiment is conducted to make a discovery. The results can be positive, negative or a combination of both. But the point is to learn something. And if we learn, no experiment can be considered a failure.
Two hundred and thirty-one years ago, George Washington’s first inaugural address commended “the experiment” of our republic into “the hands of the American people.” He lauded its foundation on “the pure and immutable principles of private morality …. an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness…between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity.”
Is what we now call “the great American experiment” truly based on morality? On virtue? On magnanimous policy? If so, what is this heart-wrenching debris we are awash in – the flotsam and jetsam of unrealized freedom and equality we now wade through?
I have to sigh. Heavily.
George Washington, meet George Floyd.
Obviously our “Great American Experiment” reveals fatal flaws that undoubtedly stem, in no small part, from the fact that our first inaugural address was written by a man who inherited 10 slaves from his father at the age of 11. Washington was conflicted by slavery his whole life, managing only to finally emancipate most of his 317 slaves after his death as a stipulation in his will. Despite his brilliance and a multitude of gifts, George Washington – and most of our Founding Fathers – were contaminated by the colonial policy of harnessing slaves to power the burgeoning tobacco economy that fueled our fledgling nation.
America was founded on a fault line – a soul-racking contest between kindness and cost; morals and money; freedom and finance. The tectonic shifting of those plates plunged the nation into a civil war. We climbed out of that blood bath into a half-hearted Reconstruction, which plummeted America into another 100 years of the Jim Crow racial caste system. That era erupted into the seismic upheaval of the 1960s, which generated an onslaught of necessary and long-overdue civil rights legislation, but never truly addressed our grief and grievances as a nation.
Since the 1960s, Black Americans have seen advances and reasons for hope, including the inauguration of our 44th president. Yet, as the magma of fear-based racial hate and bias boils just below the surface, the death toll mounts each year for crimes not listed in the statutes: driving while Black, opening your front door while Black, jogging while Black, sleeping while Black, begging to breathe while Black.
The conflict in George Washington’s soul – and in the soul of every American generation since – has given rise to the most dismal aspect of our Great Experiment. At every turn in our history, the conflict contorts into a new specter, reincarnated by our inability to be honest about our fears, our needs, and our wants. The darkest failure of the Great Experiment is our refusal to see how much we all need each other and how much the happiness and success of each of us is linked to the security and opportunity for all of us. Together. Regardless of color.
The original sin of our nation became impacted and has wedged itself into the heart of each generation. Swallowed away, confined and restricted, it grows ever more deformed – too hideous to expose, too painful to contemplate, too difficult to discuss.
The good news is that 231 years after the start of this experiment, we find ourselves at a turning point that can help end this torturous journey and attend to the unfinished business of the ’60s. The chants in the streets are a beautiful prelude to the song we will all sing if we open our throats in a dialog and raise our voice at the polls. Now is the time to choose, to vote and to heal.
Our leadership must reflect our diversity. Our policies must be written to empower those with the least. As the coronavirus has plowed over and uprooted decades of growth, and life itself, in every sector of our beautiful Garden State, we realize the enormity of this opportunity before us. This is our chance to get it right – to correct the systemic injustices that so glaringly exposed racial disparity. We can choose which seeds to now plant, as Washington said, to best bring forth a union “between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity.”
As we continue this Great American Experiment, we must elevate our vote as our highest voice across the land and proclaim loud and clear who should do the planting, who will tend, who will reap and how we’ll distribute the bounty. Voting for representation that mirrors the represented liberates all of us to a better life, puts our knees on the neck of racism and smothers the fear that fuels it.
George Floyd was denied his pleas to breathe. So, we will breathe for him, using our breath to give voice to the voiceless and to breathe new hope and fresh life into this Great American Experiment.
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