Our Racial Tragedy as Lincoln Saw It

If we define tragedy as a crucible of human pain where vast forces collide and blame is unclear, the centuries-long ordeal of black and white in America is exactly that.  The rioting in Charlotte is one more episode in the racial back-and-forth that has tormented our continent since the first African slaves were brought here almost 400 years ago.

It’s pointless, though tempting, to urge simple solutions to break the tragic cycle, framed along the lines of “If only white people would—“ or “If only black people would—“.  Tragedy doesn’t yield to the if-only approach.  It has to work itself all the way out, with a grinding slowness that demands patience, perseverance, perspective, and goodwill from everyone involved.

Indeed Abraham Lincoln, entering on his second term in the presidency in the final weeks of the Civil War, warned Americans that the slowness of working out our nation’s two-and-a-half centuries of racial injustice might require that long again to balance the fearsome scales — or in any event, an equivalent toll of retribution for the awful wrongs our ancestors did each other.

250 years of bitter payback for 250 years of chattel slavery, the grim ledger would demand, as I read Lincoln’s somber words in the Second Inaugural (see full quotation and link below).  Pause to recognize that we’re only 150 years on from Appomattox, and the imperative of patient goodwill when a Charlotte explodes or  a Colin Kaepernick acts out or an Al Sharpton rants is reinforced; the glibness of my comfortable white viewpoint is silenced.

Agonizing over the evil of slavery in the earliest years of the Republic, Thomas Jefferson had written that human liberties “are the gift of God… not to be violated but with his wrath. Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”  Should it come to violence between the enslaved blacks and the enslaving whites, he added, “the Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.” (Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785) 

The author of the Declaration of Independence held up a mirror to the racist brutality of his fellow Caucasians and warned all of them, himself included, not to expect to get off quickly or easily from the grave moral debt they had incurred to millions of innocent human beings since 1619.  Beyond this, there was the practical question of how civil peace could be maintained amidst the mutual fear and hatred of the races, when slavery finally ended.

As Jefferson put it in an 1820 letter, “We have the wolf [racial antagonism] by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.  Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”

From the perspective of these two farsighted and morally incisive Founders, Americans in 2016 can take considerable satisfaction in how far our country has come toward true equality, true justice, true freedom — and yes, true racial reconciliation — in a shorter time than either man might have expected. But we should also take their clear-eyed reading of the grand sweep of history as a reminder that our beloved, beleagued country still has far to go in realizing Dr. King’s dream.

Tragedy is real.  It exacts its price. It tests us and scars us.  But surviving tragedy, then surmounting it, then ultimately learning its hard lessons and forging them into wisdom — perhaps even into healing — is possible if we have character enough. Do we, Americans?


From Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865: Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-men’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”