The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion As astronauts rocket into space, protesters are beaten in the street — just like before

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Crew Dragon spacecraft launches May 30 from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/AP)
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Diane McWhorter is the author of the civil rights history “Carry Me Home.”

Ever since last Saturday’s launch of the first manned rocket from U.S. soil in nine years, my mind has been thumping with Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 anthem to the Apollo space program and its crushing irrelevance for black lives. “A rat done bit my sister Nell,” it begins, “with Whitey on the moon.” Seeing the photographs of the president and vice president at Cape Canaveral, their backs to the camera and a country in pain, I wondered: What year is this?

In scarcely a week, we’ve had a replay of two major stories of the mid-20th century: the civil rights revolution and the Cold War’s most thrilling moral victory, the moon landing. The moonshot so carefully state-crafted in 1969 as a mission of “peace for all mankind” has become the harbinger of a Space Force committed to waging “our American way of war.” And the civil rights protests that jolted the national conscience in the 1960s have become an endless loop of videotaped executions by police who walk free.

Full coverage of the George Floyd protests

It is clear that the two driving narratives of our national identity — as a beacon of democracy to the world and a guardian of liberty at home — have gone way off the trajectory. This moment forces us to face a reckoning: Have we ever really understood the terms of the American covenant?

Eight months after President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, his brother Robert courted international goodwill on a tour overseas. He was stunned at other countries’ “misinformation” about the American system. Rather than recognizing that capitalism was the essence of individual freedom, young people, especially, believed it was “synonymous with selfishness.”

RFK added, as if it were an image problem, that America was a hard sell abroad “if we treat part of our population as inferior human beings.” He still subscribed to a myth of American innocence that flourished in spite of white supremacy. The civil rights “black eyes” — Little Rock, the beatings of the Freedom Riders — were imagined to be blemishes as opposed to a congenital birth defect and surely could be healed. Faith in the gospel of unbroken progress continued up through the election of a black president, and even the party that thrived on exploiting racism knew to keep it soft-core.

Then Donald Trump whiplashed the arc of that moral universe. He succeeded where other tribunes of white grievance (George Wallace, Sarah Palin) failed: He has made the White House the stage of a white restoration. And the loyalty of his supporters attests to the power of whiteness to confer blamelessness, no matter how obscene the offense against country, Constitution or Jesus Himself.

With white-endowed innocence comes an equal and opposite assertion of black culpability: the unblinking condemnation captured in Officer Derek Chauvin’s “You got a problem?” sneer at the camera as he kneed the life out of George Floyd.

New York police SUVs plowed into Floyd mourners on Saturday as our new astronauts made their way to the International Space Station, and I got to wondering: If the Mercury Seven astronauts had been black, would their (pace John Glenn) reckless lads-being-lads behavior have been whitewashed by the right stuff? Not that the moon project was ever the spotless exercise in “freedom and peace” heralded by Kennedy. The Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo astronauts was built by a former Nazi, Wernher von Braun, who had previously invented the V-2 (for “vengeance”) missile with which Hitler had hoped to gain domination over the “lesser” races. The NASA center where von Braun achieved his Cold War triumph was in Alabama, the host state of the era’s epic civil rights showdowns. It was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s marches in Birmingham that provoked Kennedy’s other majestic initiative, the segregation-abolishing bill passed after his assassination as the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

King was dead of an assassin’s bullet by July 1969, when his heir, Ralph Abernathy, showed up at Cape Canaveral, then Cape Kennedy, on the eve of the Apollo 11 moonshot. His entourage included 25 impoverished families and two mule-drawn carts, visuals of what a society that could put a man on the moon seemed unable to get right on Earth.

Like the Saturn V, the Falcon 9 rocket that sent men into space last weekend was the creation of an immigrant. Elon Musk, SpaceX’s South African-born founder, has become a flash point in a civil rights crisis as well, this one over the inequities of essentialness laid bare by the novel coronavirus. By defying the county-mandated shutdown of his California Tesla factory, Musk articulated the reigning corporate ethos, picking the word “fascist” to describe local government interference into his freedom to jeopardize his workers’ lives for profit.

RFK, assassinated 52 years ago on June 5, would likely be appalled by the shameless ways that capitalism has hijacked our democracy. As much as we might want to look into the face of Chauvin and see a depraved individual — or a rancid police culture — his icy ruthlessness also stands for a political and economic system that voids the humanity of black people it has historically left behind.

As for the billionaires: Musk’s trophy was generously funded by the taxpayers and retraced ground broken half a century ago to the awe of the world, excluding the brothers and sisters of rat-bit Nell.

Read more:

Condoleezza Rice: This moment cries out for us to confront race in America

Michelle A. Williams and Jeffrey Sánchez: Racism is killing black people. It’s sickening them, too.

George F. Will: A 1946 lynching is still haunting us

The Post’s View: Even amid strife, the best of America shows itself

Samuel Kimbriel: White Americans, resist the temptation to disengage

El Jones: Black Canadians are suffocating under a racist policing system, too