Former vice president Joe Biden delivered a powerhouse speech on Wednesday that rebuked President Trump in no uncertain terms and rhetorically fought for “the soul of America.” By doing so, the 2020 Democratic front-runner reminded us of who we are as a nation. “America is an idea,” Biden said. “ It gives hope to the most desperate people on Earth." And yet, that’s only half the story of our history.
Hours before Biden’s speech, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who is also seeking the Democratic nomination, talked about the other half, the dark chapters of our history that are dealt with elliptically, if at all. During his powerful address at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., Booker spoke of uncomfortable truths. He also spoke of love, the kind that moves people to put themselves in danger for a greater good. In this case, America.
“To love our country in this moment means that we have to step outside our comfort zones and confront ourselves,” Booker said with characteristic passion. “We need to be honest not just about who we are, but who we have been for generations and generations in this nation.” That honesty demands facing not just the original sin of slavery. Booker didn’t even mention that. He dealt with the ideology that drove it.
“Bigotry was written into our founding documents. Native Americans in our Declaration of Independence were referred to as ‘savages’ and in our Constitution, black people are fractions of human beings,” explained Booker. “White supremacy has always been a problem in our American story — if not always at the surface, then lurking not so far beneath it.” He added, “Yes, racist violence has always been part of the American story — never more so than in times of transition and times of rapid social change.” Booker included the lynching and bombings of the civil rights movement, the killing of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in 2017 and the targeted slaughter of Latinos in El Paso this past weekend.
Booker is absolutely correct when he said, “To say this, is to speak the truth plainly — because without truth there can be no reconciliation." He was absolutely correct when he said, “To proudly claim that we are a nation of tolerance is no great aspiration.” And he was absolutely correct when he held the mirror up to the nation to say, “We must acknowledge as a country that as much as white supremacy manifests itself in dangerous and deadly acts of terror, it is perpetuated by what is too often a willful ignorance or dangerous tolerance of its presence in our society.”
Dropping biblical knowledge, Booker reminded the gathered that we reap what we sow. “The act of anti-Latino, anti-immigrant hatred we witnessed this weekend did not start with the hand that pulled the trigger. It did not begin when a single white supremacist got into his car to travel 10 hours to kill as many human beings as he could,” Booker said. “It was planted in fertile soil, because the contradictions that have shadowed this country since its founding remain a part of our body politic.”
The terrible and terrifying times we are in is one of those decision moments every generation of Americans has had to face. Will we rise up and fight for who we are, or will we aid and abet injustice? As Booker argued, what is happening goes beyond arguing over who is and who isn’t a racist. The current president and those in the White House, Congress and the Republican Party enabling him have answered that question. But Booker goes a step further by asking and answering another vital question. “If the answer to the question ‘do racism and white supremacy exist?’ is yes, then the real question isn’t who is or isn’t a racist, but who is and isn’t doing something about it,” the Democratic candidate said to applause. “Because there is no neutrality in this fight. You are either an agent of justice or you are contributing to the problem.”
If Biden extolled the idea of America, then Booker celebrated the grit of the people who have kept that idea of America alive for generations. “America has shown greatness not because of the absence of violent bigotry and white supremacy,” Booker said, “but because of our efforts together to overcome it.” In the end, the goal of confronting ourselves in the manner that Booker prescribes, of being “an agent of justice” is freedom. Freedom from the weight of our fraught history to move our nation towards what he calls “a New American Freedom.”
Freedom from fear.
Freedom from violence.
Freedom from hatred.
Freedom to seek.
Freedom to prosper.
Freedom to dream America anew again.
If Biden celebrated the greatness of America by extolling the “idea” of America, then Booker celebrated the grit and determination of the people who have kept that idea of America alive for generations. “America has shown greatness not because of the absence of violent bigotry and white supremacy,” Booker said, “but because of our efforts together to overcome it.” And we shall overcome — again.
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