For over a century, women in this country had no real legal rights, except perhaps as widows. They had no right to vote, no right to own property while married, no right to a divorce except in cases of adultery, no right to even a modicum of control over their own bodies. That last was not a comment about abortion: women were denied access to information about controlling their fertility. Not abortions, not condoms, just pamphlets. Such information was declared “obscene” by the Comstock Laws, and Federal officials would routinely search the mail and seize educational material on human sexuality. The lack of control would go even further, as spousal abuse was not considered a crime and rape would generally be blamed on the victim.
For over a century, African Americans could be killed with impunity in this country. They could be lynched for talking back to a white man, whistling at a white woman, owning a gun, or trying to vote. As local law enforcement usually organized the lynch mobs, blacks had no legal recourse or protection (State and Federal officials ignored the problem). Nor was this an exclusively southern phenomenon. The north and west had “sundown towns,” so called because the rules were simple: blacks could come into town during the day to work or do business, but had to be beyond the city limits by sundown, or face arrest or worse. Lynchings the country over were family affairs for whites, an occasion for a picnic and taking photographs. They were so solidly entrenched in the American culture that Franklin Roosevelt could not get an anti-lynching law passed in the heyday of the New Deal.
For nearly two centuries, gays and lesbians in this country were effectively persecuted. Sodomy was a felony. Just being at a gay bar could get you arrested for public indecency. If a gay man got arrested, he could expect to be beaten by the police (who would he complain to?) and have his name published in the newspapers, unless he could bribe his way out of it. If his name was printed up he could expect to lose his job, his friends, even his family.
Lesbians could expect all of the above as well; they would also be raped.
Things are better now, of course. Teachers can’t get in trouble for teaching about sex, just for teaching anything other than abstinence-only birth control. Blacks can’t get lynched by the police, just shot by them. Gays and lesbians can’t get beaten by the police, just by the general population.
These really aren’t problems of the past, either. Women only got the right to vote ninety years ago. They only got the right to their own birth control with the Pill; the last Comstock Law restrictions on birth control information weren’t struck down until 1972. All that’s within living memory. And it’s still hard to prosecute for rape. For starters most rapes go unreported because most rapists are friends or family of the victim. Secondly, law enforcement simply doesn’t make catching rape suspects a priority, as the huge backlog in processing hard evidence in rape cases attests. Finally rape is a difficult charge to prove to a jury, perhaps explaining police reluctance to bother with it, especially when jurors are older women. The exception, of course, is when the victim is white and the accused rapist is black.
Speaking of blacks, they are routinely punished more severely for crimes than whites. The discrepancy in mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine (a drug mostly used by poor blacks) and powder cocaine (used mostly by rich whites) is by now well-known, despite the controlled substance being in essence the same. The death penalty is far more likely to be sought and sentenced in cases where the defendant is black. It is still a commonplace occurrence for blacks and other minorities to be pulled over by police on no real cause: the sundown town is alive and well, we just call it “Driving While Black” now. And while we have a black president, there are those who oppose him and would welcome or even seek his death not because of his policies or his politics but because he is a black man who has had the temerity to rule over whites.
Finally we come to LGBTQ folks, who are denied the right to marry whom they choose and as such are denied the real and tangible legal and financial benefits that marriage provides; they are denied the right to serve their country without keeping their personal lives secret; they also have no Federal protection against being fired for simply being out. Not that this should really surprise anyone. Sodomy was still a misdemeanor in Texas until 2003. You heard that right: consensual intercourse between two adults of the same sex was a crime in Texas and twelve other states less than a decade ago.
And finally, nine young men took their lives in September 2010 because it is still acceptable to mock, tease, and bully kids for being gay–and it is still acceptable for the rest of us to ignore such harassment. Some public officials have even furthered the harassment; the school board member in Arkansas who recently resigned after advising gay teens to kill themselves is just the latest example.
When I add up all these offenses, codified into law by the government of the United States or lower authorities within its borders, I never cease to be disgusted that anyone can argue that the US is the best country in the world. Add in our invasions, our war crimes, our coups d’etat, and our genocide against indigenous peoples, and you see that there are nearly infinite sins upon our heads. Some people tell me that they cannot be held accountable for the sins of their ancestors, but a) they still benefit from said sins and b) as just demonstrated, said sins are not exactly just of their fathers. These are living-memory crimes; in the case of the suicide of fourteen-year-old Caleb Nolt on September 30, 2010, our crimes of neglect and tacit approval were just weeks ago.
So I have to ask you: when faced with this catalogue of wrongs, why should these groups have any loyalty whatsoever to the US government? Why should women, blacks, and gays and lesbians–to say nothing of Hispanics, Japanese internment victims, Muslims, transgendered people, union workers, and Indians–bear any love for this country?
Things have improved, you say. Well, answer this then: do you start loving someone when he stops raping you? Do you start loving the ones who lynch you if they never do it again?
No, the US has blood on its hands. These crimes cannot be written out, glossed over, or flag-waved away. They cannot be balanced out with good deeds or good intentions or “steps in the right direction.” It may not even be possible to atone for them. Certainly such atonement would take a greater act of will than we are currently making. It would take contrition, and we are not even acknowledging what we have done wrong.
That “we” is no accident, because let’s face it: the US is us. Whether or not it was really “we the people” originally, it is now. We the people had the power to vote down the Comstock Laws. We the people could have protected black rights by demanding enforcement of the 14th Amendment (to say nothing of murder statutes). The citizens of Texas could have repealed their state’s anti-sodomy law. That didn’t happen.
It was left to small groups of determined people–the tiny “creatively maladjusted” minorities, to use Dr. King’s phrase–to get us to improve even a little, and we dragged our feet all the way. We’re still dragging our feet. We still pay women less, we still fear young black men just because they’re young and black and men, we still use “gay” as an insult. These are all personal practices, but they are echoed in the law.
If the groups retain any loyalty to the United States of America–if, that is, some of us still acknowledge a bond of unity with the rest of us–it is not because we deserve it. It is not because we are grand and glorious and good. It is because they forgave us.
The United States has blood on its hands and anyone who says otherwise is trying to hide from it; anyone who says we’re a great country either hasn’t done the research or should hold us and their points of comparison to a far higher standard. What we’ve done cannot be erased and should not–must not–be forgotten. What we’ve done, what we continue to do, may even be beyond atonement, especially if we continue to deny we need to atone. But we can be forgiven.
With forgiveness, deserving has nothing to do with it. Forgiveness is the act of making whole what was broken: it is an act of love, with all the beautiful illogic that comes with love. It is irrational. It is never bargained for, nor purchased, nor earned. It simply comes when it can finally be. And it is lovely in its wild improbability.
If we are to be whole, it will come through knowledge and forgiveness: men remembering the rapes and beatings done to women, and women forgiving them; whites remembering the lynchings and the segregation, and blacks forgiving them; straight folks remembering the harassment and discrimination, and gays and lesbians forgiving them. No law, no vote, no feat of justice or compassion can ever measure up to that forgiveness.
That is the only road to a more perfect union; that is the only way the many can even begin to become one. That is the only way America can become America-the-Dream, that beautiful mosaic of every race and creed and love and thought, the variety that embraces contradiction and maintains peace despite all dispute. Family might be the best word. And forgiveness is its beautifully impossible heart.