He was met with the incredulous anger of the diner’s owner, Mrs. Leroy Merritt, who refused to serve him and later said: “He looked like just an ordinary run of the mill n----- to me. I couldn’t tell he was an ambassador.”
The incident wasn’t just another unfortunate but common indignity in Jim Crow America; it became a foreign policy crisis. Sow was part of a new cadre of African diplomats who arrived in the United States following the continent’s decolonization, quite a few of whom were subjected to the same racism when traveling between Washington and New York. President John F. Kennedy got wind of these slights and recognized a vulnerability — a glaring fault — on which other nations could capitalize, particularly the Soviet Union.
It was long known that diners in that corner of Maryland didn’t serve Black people, ambassadors or otherwise. But Kennedy, not wanting to lose influence in Africa during the Cold War, directed his administration to work with Maryland state leaders to resolve the issue.
Desegregation arrived only partially onto Route 40. Many diners began serving African ambassadors, but African Americans were still unwelcome, and the message to the nation was clear: When it came to race relations, détente was more urgent than delivering equal treatment. It would be several more years before the rights and privileges of citizenship trickled down to America’s Black citizens, even though we have, since the republic’s inception, stepped forward and performed our most sacred civic duties, such as military service, in superlative fashion.
It is an uncomfortable truth for a nation so attached to its founding principles that its progress toward living up to them is primarily a product of realpolitik. But for Black America, this has been clear from the outset. And Black Americans have long practiced a politics that marries a moral claim with a national interest, recognizing that such a strategy can be employed to coax, if not compel, the United States to be truer to its professed ideals.
After the tragedies over the past year — the murder of George Floyd; the racially disparate rates of hospitalization and death due to the pandemic; the storming of the Capitol by a mostly White band of insurrectionists — even the most hopeful among us may think national solidarity is out of reach. We see these events as the product of a nation failing to live up to its promise — the Promise.
The Promise holds that all men and women are inherently equal, that each of us will respect and defend the liberty of others, and that the state will not unjustly deny our constitutional rights or hamper our exercise of them. Not the American Dream — that’s a question of opportunity and economic attainment. The Promise is about a person’s basic value and the state’s fundamental obligation to protect one’s rights.
And we are falling short.
The well-being of America and its future generations rests on our ability to establish national solidarity — to demand, on moral and principled grounds, that the country address wrongs suffered by some of its citizens so that the rights and privileges prescribed in the social contract are equally available to all. National solidarity requires each of us to acknowledge the diverging paths ahead: actively champion equality and liberty for yourself and your fellow Americans, or accept that your professed love of country is only skin-deep.
Fortunately, we have blueprints of the solidarity we desperately need. The solidarity that sustained Black Americans through slavery and Jim Crow also energized the quest for civil rights and economic opportunity and fostered the Black electorate’s political unity — it’s no accident that throughout the nation’s history, Black voters have almost always overwhelmingly supported one party. And that solidarity compelled the nation to become a better version of itself, offering three major lessons for confronting our seemingly intractable race problem head-on. This is not to say that Black people exclusively hold the key to beating back the threat posed by racism. But Black America offers a particular set of experiences that highlight attributes of solidarity that the broader nation must replicate if Americans are to find unity across difference.
The first is the idea of superlative citizenship, a deliberate strategy serving as an explicit counterargument to the racist tropes that have been used to justify why Black people have always experienced a lesser version of America than many others. Superlative citizenship requires taking on all the responsibilities required of citizens — military service, voting, paying taxes, risking your own security and freedoms by exercising First Amendment rights — even when the nation does not deliver on its obligations. The opposite, in other words, of the all-too-prevalent self-interested citizenship that treats America like a prize to be wrested from others instead of shared for our mutual benefit. This has the power to expose the nation as being more wedded to the appearance of holding certain truths as self-evident than to a steadfast commitment to ensure that we all enjoy them.
The next is the concept of trickle-down citizenship, when the benefits of citizenship are granted only when leaders see it in the national interest to permit it. Black Americans’ inclusion has often been a byproduct of a solution to some other problem, such as saving the Union by abolishing slavery, mobilizing Black voters just to win elections or convincing White diner owners to serve African ambassadors. Trickle-down citizenship reminds us that the extension of rights to previously excluded groups is often a matter of cold political calculus, not of warm, fuzzy feelings about our exceptionalism.
The remaining lesson Black America has is the civic friendship found in a shared identity — not easily achieved. Black solidarity is the product of an inhumane catastrophe and the persistence of inequality. But contrary to those who’ve claimed that Black people are captive on the Democratic Party “plantation,” or addicted to grievance, Black solidarity has never demand unanimity in our worldviews, and it isn’t directed in opposition to another group. It leverages a shared history toward surmounting obstacles. For all their differences on policy, one need only listen to the nation’s three Black senators — South Carolina Republican Tim Scott, New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker and Georgia Democrat Raphael Warnock — to identify common threads in their family stories and lives. On explicit issues of racial equality, such as the equitable funding of historically Black colleges and universities or the need to pass federal anti-lynching legislation, there is no daylight between them.
Through a broader conception of our national history, the American story can become the basis for multiracial connection. Structural racism — a crime of the state, not merely a side effect of one group of people’s attitudes toward another — is the barrier that prevents citizens across lines of race and ethnicity from realizing the Promise. There is solidarity to be found in the recognition that racism harms us all, and the struggle against it is our collective responsibility.
My optimism that we can surmount these problems is heavily influenced by a choice my forebearers made in 1918. I am Theodore Roosevelt Johnson III, a Southern Black man named after a White Republican aristocrat from New York. A familial faith in the Promise led to my name and quietly shaped the path my life has taken. Not long after Teddy Roosevelt ascended to the presidency, he hosted influential Black political leader and educator Booker T. Washington at the White House for dinner. My sharecropping great-grandparents, Will and Annie Johnson, took note, naming their third son Theodore Roosevelt Johnson in honor of the racial equality that dining together symbolizes.
Eight decades later, I was commissioned as a naval officer. Life as a Black man in America occasionally butted heads with life in the military. Of course, I’ve experienced racial discrimination — both in and out of uniform — but I’ve also seen the best of America and felt the distinct national identity that deployments overseas demonstrated was as much mine as any American’s. And 110 years after Roosevelt and Washington’s historic dinner — to the month — I was at the White House for a small reception to meet the nation’s first Black president.
Despite the tremendous arc of my family’s story, this is still the place where military men who were supposed to be my brothers-in-arms have told me that my promotions were affirmative action handouts. It is where I have been yanked from my car, handcuffed, searched and tossed in jail because two cops thought a Black college student with a blown headlight was suspicious. Where buying a car, selling a home, visiting a doctor and shopping at the mall are different for me as a Black man than they are for others. And yet, I love America; I simply cannot help it.
But if we avoid the hard, incomplete work of confronting the threat racism poses to our democracy, America will be the blessing that almost was — and then spectacularly was not. It will be a place where the people permit partisan interest to trump our values, allowing firebrands to set Americans against each other and excuse anti-democratic initiatives to hoard the Promise for the few. It will be a place where the Route 40 incident is justified, where denying or complicating access to constitutional rights becomes the cost of doing business to safeguard the country for only self-appointed “real Americans.”
Instead, we can choose solidarity. And our progress will be a message to posterity and an example for the ages. National solidarity is the means to push our country to ensure the Promise. It is how we demonstrate our civic kinship to one another. If we are to be truly American, national solidarity is the means by which it must be so.