Clinton may not have realized it, but both her choice of symbols from the past and her message for the present were mistakes.
Though he’s now often seen simply as a hero of emancipation, Lincoln had a far more complicated history on race. For years, like most Americans of his time, he espoused white supremacy, and he didn’t believe until the last year of his life that blacks and whites could live on equal terms in an interracial democracy. But he would later also take positions against racism that would be radical even today, calling for reparations for former slaves and urging newly freed black Southerners to defend their rights against white racists through force of arms.
Beyond that, Clinton’s call for everyone to “do the work” to unite against hatred overlooks the fundamental fact that it’s whites — and only whites — who must work to fix the racist structures in our society.
Clinton wrapped herself in Lincoln imagery for her speech for obvious reasons. But the history books sanitize the 16th president’s views on race. He believed that blacks were inferior, habitually used the n-word and loved “darky jokes” and minstrel shows. He advocated for emancipation as a political strategy, not for moral reasons or because he was an anti-racist activist who judged people by the content of their character. The only liberation strategy for black folks that Lincoln was deeply committed to was deportation: He asked Congress to allocate money to move blacks to Africa or the jungles of Central America. He was also against black people voting, holding public office or sitting on juries; he was “disgusted” by the thought of interracial marriages and mixed-race children. He only endorsed citizenship rights for black Americans after 180,000 black soldiers “proved” themselves worthy by fighting for the Union.
In an 1858 speech in Charleston, Ill., Lincoln said, “… I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”
Of course, our history doesn’t leave many presidents with better racial attitudes for Clinton to have cited. She couldn’t choose slave owners like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, who bore children with one of his slaves (who was also the half-sister of his dead wife). Andrew Jackson was a genocidal maniac. Even Lyndon Johnson, no matter what his record was on civil rights legislation, didn’t hold back on expressing his disdain for uppity n—–s.
Still, Clinton missed an opportunity to show her empathy, vision and ability to tap into the national angst — and hold a mirror up to white America.
To quote another historical figure, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The thing wrong with America is white racism. … It’s time for America to have an intensified study on what’s wrong with white folks.” Clinton could have spoken about racial justice.
Instead, like so many others, she focused on the rhetoric of unity. And calling for unity places yet another burden on black people.
Look at what happens in the wake of a shooting by police like the ones last week in Minnesota and Louisiana and Texas: The relatives of the victims are clearly grieving and traumatized, yet they are pushed to extend empathy and forgiveness to those who killed their loved ones, and to the system that profits from these tragedies. Routinely now, we encounter scenes of black folks hugging racists, praying with and dancing with police officers, being asked to do the additional work of teaching white folks how not to be racist and help them find solutions to a racist system we didn’t invent — while we struggle to keep ourselves and our loved ones alive.
Talk of unity, reconciliation and restoring trust is a diversion from the raw, ugly, excruciatingly painful work of addressing the systemic racism that is tearing our nation apart. In their rush to avoid the real work in favor of a kumbaya fantasy comfort zone, they refuse to confront history and the truth about present moment.
Asking black people to participate in this reconciliation process — one that centers on Lincoln — suggests that we bear responsibility in this mess. But we didn’t invent the concept of race. We didn’t create and don’t sustain institutionalized racism. And we surely don’t benefit from it.
Rhetorical calls for unity won’t address the fundamental sources of inequality: mass incarceration, employment discrimination, militarized policing, the school-to-prison pipeline, divestment in communities of color, political disenfranchisement, displacement of poor and working-class people of color from gentrifying cities. The emphasis on unity makes no room for discussion about growing white resentment and feelings of victimization, and it presumes that black folks bear responsibility for the entrenched problem of a “colorblind” white America that denies racism even exists.
And while Clinton may not have intended it this way, what the message of unity winds up doing is blaming communities of color for failing to assimilate, rather than acknowledging that the very fabric of this nation is built upon a diabolical, calculated and constantly evolving system of racism. That has the same effect as when Republicans blame President Obama for dividing the nation and making race relations worse, or when the media chastises Black Lives Matter protesters for alienating liberals with its “violent tone.”
The Lincoln rhetoric the country really needs is not the call to unity or the notion that we all must come together. It’s the language from near the end of his life, when he had finally recognized some sense of black people’s humanity and encouraged them to defend their rights and bodies through violence if necessary.
Days after the Confederacy surrendered, Lincoln told a group of freed slaves in Richmond: “In reference to you, colored people, let me say God has made you free. Although you have been deprived of your God-given rights by your so-called masters, you are now as free as I am, and if those that claim to be your superiors do not know that you are free, take the sword and bayonet and teach them that you are.”
Are white Americans ready to embrace the Lincoln who said this? If so, then maybe they’re ready for real racial reconciliation, after all.