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Reconstructing Ferguson, USA: Why America Needs To Grow Up in a Hurry

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We Americans are a mass of contradictions. We hail our freedoms while we lock up more of our citizens than the Soviets in Stalinist Russia. We complain that wages are being driven down by 'illegals' and in the next breath claim that labor unions do more harm than good. We lead the world in artistic and scientific innovation yet are so frightened of change that we pretend that climate change is a hoax and that women are content being paid less than men. We brag that the election of our first black President proves racism is over then acquiesce when our Supreme Court conspires to disenfranchise the young, old and poor. The Citizens United ruling, like the infamous Dred Scott decision, proved that Abraham Lincoln was right to warn that Americans were prepared to become “fit subjects of the next cunning tyrant who rises among you.”

The intent to render 'negroes' throughout the country sub-human chattel was annulled by the civil war, yet the 'land of the free and home of the brave' is as fearfully divided as the day Lincoln was elected. When, despite non-stop evidence of police grossly abusing their authority, 70 percent of whites and close to half of everyone else condone letting officers assault fellow citizens, it is clear that though the 16th president had preserved the Union, slavery's doctrines remain embedded both in the nation's mindset and its legal framework. While his fellow slave barons greeted Lincoln's election with trepidation, Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy's future vice president, saw no need for the South to secede, believing she would continue to receive more than her share of the nation's privileges just as she always had. The South had inordinate influence: by the 1860's Southerners could boast sixty years of presidents against the North's twenty-four; eighteen Supreme Court justices to the North’s eleven, and two thirds of court appointments, including twice as many attorneys-general. But though the plantation oligarchs had managed to fashion the laws in their favor, their cavalier way of life was under threat as public opinion responded to the democratic urges emanating from Europe's Enlightenment. If it is correct that a shameful truth is only expressed under duress, that may explain why a Southern writer felt forced to confess that "the slavery of the black race on this continent is the price America has paid for her liberty, civil and religious, and, humanly speaking, these blessings would have been unattainable without their aid."

 Young empires, needing cheap and abundant labor, are brutally unequal as they lurch towards a more inclusive statehood. In America, the blessings of citizenship are still delineated on the basis of skin tone. If the 13th Amendment claimed to end legal slavery, the abandonment of the freedmen after Reconstruction and the government's shameful capitulation to the Ku Klux Klan and segregationist Black Codes confirmed its commitment to white supremacy. Managing places like Ferguson, Missouri, and North Charleston, South Carolina, where people of color make up the majority, requires state-sanctioned violence to chasten dissent and suppress ambitions. As a consequence, much of the country has suffered uneven or arrested development – the denial of movement and free access continuing to hobble not only the poor but a fretful middle class, which, as the New South is finally learning, would benefit the most from the despised talent and industry of the underserved classes.

Though the nation's changing demographic is challenging the assumption of white supremacy, America still faces the dystopian future Marcus Garvey predicted when he toured the country in the 1920's. Upon seeing black resistance regularly met with cross-burnings, bombings and lynching, the Jamaican founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association urged his followers to reject the American Dream and turn their energies from fighting Jim Crow and instead towards helping to rehabilitate Africa. To those who scoffed and counseled patience, Garvey asked if they could contemplate a time when the struggling white laborer would sacrifice his meager benefit to promote his oppressed black neighbor. Though his 'back-to Africa' call was mocked and criticized, Garvey's adherents would number in the millions as the forceful anti-colonialist inspired liberation movements across the globe before being libeled by the FBI and finally deported back to Jamaica. The lawful end of U.S. apartheid appeared to disprove Garvey's prediction but a clear-eyed view of America sixty years after Brown v. the Board of Education shows that our racist history continues to hinder progress and disfigure our civic institutions.

A house divided against itself cannot stand, but as Garvey understood and Hannah Arendt uncomfortably points out there is a difference between the political and the social. No law can outlaw private prejudice. So long as a difference in color makes us all suspect we will continue to fear each other and made prey to those most indifferent to our country's well-being. The rich slave barons who purchased their influence have been replaced by a financial elite no less disdainful of democratic government. So long as we, the people, retreat from, rather than engage our founding principles, and that 'immortal declaration' that we are 'all endowed with inalienable rights' our children will suffer. The deficit they face will not be counted only in dollars but in strength – the strength of a citizenry united enough to weather the turmoil from global warming and resource depletion, from worker displacement and chronic underemployment. With our wealth and history we Americans of all colors are positioned to lead the world, but that time is running out. It is time to stop being slaves to fear and aggression and nurture leaders with courage and vision. Technology, trade and travel have made race separatism a disabling relic, so as we move to the brink of human history let us find the courage to take up the rejected challenge still engraved on our nation's seal, namely: will 'e pluribus unum' finally, truly, exist?

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