Have you ever visited Monticello, the Virginia home of Thomas Jefferson? Nestled in the woods of the Charlottesville countryside, it is a magnificent place. As the descendant of enslaved Africans, I visited the plantation with the same apprehension with which I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. — expecting my heart to be broken.
What I came away with instead was a strange sympathy for Jefferson. As I walked the rolling, manicured lawns and explored the well-ordered geometry of his architectural masterpiece, for the first time in my life, as a Black man, I think I really understood the attraction of slavery.
Despite his better judgment, Jefferson embraced the institution of slavery because he enjoyed its benefits. The moral conflict that inspired him to introduce a Virginia law prohibiting the importation of enslaved Africans in 1778, even as he personally committed all manner of horrors against the Africans he owned, is an illustration of the strong pull selfishness can have on all of us.
Like freedom, selfishness is a foundation stone of the American experience. Our history is one long pattern of certain people satisfying their selfish needs at the expense of a selected few — beginning with a dispossession of the Indigenous peoples and then the exploitation of enslaved Africans. The observant learn quickly that racial justice in America arrives and recedes like the sweep of a pendulum: out toward justice for a time and then back again toward selfishness.
It is for this reason that we know the Black Lives Matter movement is on borrowed time.
If past is indeed prologue, one day soon, the heat of the BLM movement will fade away like all previous similar movements, to be replaced by some bland, nostalgic approximation. We’ve witnessed the pendulum of racial justice swing back and forth for centuries in America, and yet we continue to be surprised that racism persists.
In the late 1860s, after centuries of slavery, the pendulum swung in favor of Reconstruction and hung there in the air for a time, until the opportunity to seize the reins of presidential power in 1877 convinced supporters of justice in the North to turn a blind eye to injustices in the South — setting the pendulum in motion toward Jim Crow.
In the late 1960s, television brought the horrors of the segregated South into American homes with a power and immediacy that was difficult to ignore, setting the pendulum in motion toward justice again. For a time, ordinary people were suddenly open to the idea that it might be wrong to beat a man bloody for simply wanting to vote. This acceptance fueled support for the civil rights advances of the 1970s and ’80s and, for a time, the pendulum swung in favor of policies supporting school desegregation and Affirmative Action. But the pendulum swung back again as soon as the majority recognized that equal justice often means equal sacrifice.
Today the pendulum is poised in judgment above the debate over Critical Race Theory. At the heart of CRT is the concept that racism is woven into the fabric of the American psyche, its systems and its institutions, and that only deliberate action can correct the damage it has done.
Across this country, there is a movement afoot — fed and fueled by such groups as the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute — to oppose the spread of Critical Race Theory. You can see the fruits of their labor on TikTok in tutorials about Black people owning slaves; in Twitter rants equating CRT with public sanctioned racism; and in state legislatures and among House Republicans in Congress, where there is a push to ban its teaching in public schools.
Opponents of CRT push back despite a preponderance of evidence that even people new to this country can see. Why else would Indian Sikh Bhagat Singh Thind and Japanese-American Takao Ozawa sue the United States to be classified as “white,” if they did not equate whiteness with justice in America? Immigrants watch and make their judgments as the benefits of the GI Bill and favorable home mortgages and places at our elite universities accrue with abundant regularity to certain people. They see how the cards are stacked.
At present, the pendulum hangs in the favor of supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement and Critical Race Theory, but the pendulum waits for no one. Now is the time for those seeking lasting racial justice to grab as much psychic, moral and political real estate as they can — before it’s too late.