We live in a moment of crises. Police continue to gun down and taser African-Americans. Whites have called 911 on blacks for something as routine as having too many coupons at the checkout or sitting in their own homes. The Department of Justice threw its weight behind states that have targeted black voters for disfranchisement and removed or blocked more than one million citizens from the ballot box. The Supreme Court followed up by sanctioning the massive voter purges in Ohio that violated federal law and also left in place Wisconsin’s extreme and racist partisan gerrymandering.
Meanwhile, white nationalists are proudly running for national office. Add to this President Donald Trump’s campaign of terror against asylum-seeking immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, reports of sexual abuse and torture of the children ripped away from their families and evidence that some of the records to reunite them were destroyed. No wonder so many Americans are asking, begging to know: How did we get here?
Forgiveness got us here.
Counterintuitive though it might sound, the American penchant for unconditional forgiveness is at the root of our present turmoil. We have tended to forgive those who waged the most sustained, brutal assaults in the name of white supremacy, without requiring them to repudiate their beliefs or actions in return. We have rationalized that forgiveness, that generosity, as “moving on” and as helping the nation to heal. But misusing forgiveness does neither.
The American penchant for unconditional forgiveness is at the root of our present turmoil.
Unconditional forgiveness reared up at the end of the Civil War. In 1865, President Andrew Johnson gave blanket amnesty to many of the leaders of the Confederate States of America. He did so without requiring them to offer any hint of remorse, regret or contrition for firing on Fort Sumter, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Americans and working mightily to physically rip the United States apart.
Initially, these men feared that they were headed to the gallows for committing treason ― instead, Johnson spared them, and his forgiveness breathed life back into the mythology of the Lost Cause. Then, the unrehabilitated rebels slid into positions of power and authority in the local, state and eventually federal governments, carrying their hatred of black people, assuredness of white supremacy and contempt for the democratic and egalitarian ideas of the United States with them into the halls of power.
That reactionary worldview shaped virtually every policy the Southern Democrats created: disfranchisement, a brutally unjust criminal justice system, guaranteed inferior education for black children, and laws to ensure an expansive supply of laborers with no rights.
In the 20th century, the next generation of Southern Democrats carried on that legacy as they constructed and implemented the architecture of Jim Crow and reinforced the myth of a dignified, valiant South. Instead of responding with pushback and revulsion, from the early 1900s to the mid-1960s, state governments as far north as Montana extended yet more unconditional forgiveness, erecting Confederate monuments in public squares.
These statues honored men who killed more than 600,000 Americans so that white Southerners could maintain the right to own, rape and breed human beings. As blacks organized and launched movements for full citizenship rights, these monuments were also erected to remind them that, despite the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, they had no rights that a white man was bound to respect.
In the 1930s, that twisted version of patriotism would undermine President Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts to rescue the nation from the grip of an economic apocalypse. Amid the nation’s unprecedented suffering, Southern Democrats in Congress held the federal government hostage. They insisted that any New Deal funding or program had to bow to southern states’ rights and be crafted to reify separate and unequal. As a result, welfare, Social Security and federal support for homeownership through the Federal Housing Administration was a bonanza of public funding marked virtually whites only.
From the 1920s to the 1960s, the scions of the Confederacy also stymied the federal government’s ability to stop lynching. They thwarted the development of international human rights law even after the hell of the Nazis, and ― because Jim Crow exposed the glaring weakness in American democracy to the world ― they undermined the U.S. in the early years of the Cold War. Furthermore, the Southern Democrats impaired the troops’ fighting effectiveness during the first year of the Korean War, costing the nation many lives, because of their insistence on a segregated army, in defiance of President Harry Truman’s executive order to desegregate.
The civil rights movement should have wiped this treachery from American soil, and initially, it appeared it did. By 1964, the once all-powerful Southern Democrats finally found themselves outmaneuvered and losing influence within the party. The subsequent passage of the Voting Rights Act, with the very real possibility of ardent segregationists having to face a black electorate for the first time, meant the Southern Democrats’ days were numbered. It seemed that the reign of white supremacy was finally over.
The Republicans, however, seeing an opportunity to bolster their own political power and re-establish themselves in a region that had been closed off to them for nearly 90 years, welcomed the outcast racists into their ranks. That embrace, embedded in the so-called Southern Strategy, didn’t require scrapping the ideas of disfranchisement, unequal education or a racially discriminatory criminal justice system ― instead, it welcomed those evils and the people who perpetrated them.
Nor did the GOP insist that the renegades demonstrate any kind of remorse or shame for creating a system that could kill civil rights workers, bomb four little girls right after Sunday school, murder black veterans for daring to vote and beat people senseless for riding a bus. Instead, the politicians who built their careers on rabid racism, and their followers, were ushered gladly into the Party of Lincoln.
The politicians who built their careers on rabid racism, and their followers, were ushered gladly into the Party of Lincoln.
The GOP became a sanctuary. Membership in a mainstream party gave legitimacy to the archaic and toxic ideas of white supremacy and black inferiority. Slowly, those ideas began to dominate campaigning and governing, leaving no room for traditional moderate Republicans. Within a few decades, the dramatic rightward tilt openly embraced xenophobia, birtherism, voter suppression and the Klan’s endorsement of the GOP’s most recent nominee for president. Racial hatred was not only forgiven and tolerated, but rewarded.
The pushback, to be sure, has been intense. But this only raises the question: Will the seemingly inevitable collapse of Trump and his regime create the will to build a strong, viable, inclusive nation? Or will it result in yet another wave of unconditional forgiveness that will, once again, subvert the democracy that this increasingly diverse nation needs?
Right now, it doesn’t look promising. Former press secretary Sean Spicer has already been resurrected even though he lied for Trump over and over again. Similarly, fired campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was forgiven and granted a visiting fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Most recently, Trump’s former legislative director Marc Short has been tapped for a prestigious fellowship at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Even more unsettling, his appointment nearly coincides with the anniversary of the white supremacist uprising in Charlottesville where anti-fascist activist Heather Heyer was murdered. Short supported the president’s stance that the Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville were “very fine people” and that their opponents were also responsible for the violent clashes.
It is not that forgiveness is wrong. But forgiving those who refuse to own up to and repudiate the belief system that caused such damage allows the destructive power of white supremacy and its advocates to continue to operate with impunity. Forgiveness is a virtue; the misuse of it is not.
This is where we are. But it is not where we need to be. In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. asked: “Where do we go from here, chaos or community?” The choice has always been ours ― let’s hope that this time, at last, we make the right one.
Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler professor of African-American studies at Emory University. She is the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide and the forthcoming, One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy.