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American Unity is a Fantasy

Donald Trump should be happy that he has presided over more than 390,000 deaths from Covid-19 in the United States instead of over the Flint water crisis. Otherwise, he might some day face legal consequences.

Former Michigan governor Rick Snyder was finally brought up on charges Thursday, more than six years after his administration oversaw the decision to switch the water supply for the majority-black city to the corroded Flint River. Thousands of adults and children were contaminated with lead and other pollutants, and at least nine people who contracted Legionnaires’ disease died. Snyder pleaded not guilty to two misdemeanor charges of willful neglect of duty. He is one of nine total officials facing a total of 41 counts, including 34 felonies, in connection to the Flint catastrophe.

Imagine the absurdity, if you will, of saying that this — accountability for actions that took human lives — was all too divisive. That having Snyder and his cronies finally face criminal penalties would not be what Michiganders needed to heal. Poisoning Flint’s water was surely terrible, but inflaming racial and political tensions is what we truly want to avoid, yes? Moving on is really the best thing. 

However, while it would clearly be ridiculous and immoral to let Snyder and his cronies escape accountability in the name of “unity,” that’s exactly the approach Republicans are demanding we take to the white-supremacist mob that attacked the Capitol — and to the white-supremacist politicians who encouraged them.

Many a Republican this past week brushed away the seditious January 6th attacks as they sought to keep their president from being impeached by the House for a second time. The word “unity” may seem newly robbed of meaning when wielded by people who have themselves been, very recently, trying to overturn an election. In our current dystopian politics, these words are now opiates for the masses, intoxicating us daily with notions of American exceptionalism even as scourges of our nation grow more dangerous.

As violent extremists retreat to the deepest recesses of the internet to plan their next eruptions of entitlement, their elected representatives tell us that “unity” is in our collective best interests. It will surely work out well for the politicians and terrorists alike, helping both escape accountability, repentance, and remedies for their actions, as well as preventing any work necessary to reverse damage wrought upon our social fabric.

If we want to stop the next wave of white-supremacist violence — and root out the people and power structures that made the current one possible — we need to hold white supremacists accountable for their actions.

What should that accountability look like? Surely, a lot of people in and out of Congress need to lose their jobs. A lot of them, including the current president, should face prosecution for what they have done. However, we should exercise some caution. Addressing the racism within the Capitol Police would be a start, and overdue. However, The Marshall Project finds that civil-liberties experts fear that due to prosecutorial bias, responding to white extremist violence like what we saw at the Capitol with some kind of new “War on Terror” will undoubtedly result in harsher penalties for the very people supremacists target. Its report detailed that hate-crime laws unfairly target black Americans while but are under-enforced against white perpetrators: black people accounted for 13% of the U.S. population in 2019, yet were accused of 24% of the hate crimes. Conversely, white people were 60% of the population and made up only 53% of the defendants, respectively.

Unifying with those seeking white supremacy, voter suppression, and government overthrow seems like the very definition of madness. If Republicans were the only ones calling for this, it would be easier to dismiss. But consider that days before he was arraigned, Snyder joined his successor, current Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, “calling on people of goodwill across America to pray for peace, calm, and healing” after the Capitol riot and asking them to unify “to defeat our real enemy, which is the pandemic that has taken far too many of our friends, neighbors, and loved ones.” Unfortunately, both Republicans and Democrats are engaging in this vain pursuit of political unification at precisely the time when we should be focusing on reconciling the truth of Trump’s malevolent governance while at the same time putting forth policy that fully rectifies his shortcomings.

Joe Biden, the president-elect, made a speech in Wilmington on Thursday outlining a new, comprehensive $1.9 trillion “rescue and recovery plan” for the pandemic, which he called “the path forward with a seriousness of purpose, a clear plan with transparency and accountability with a call for unity that is equally necessary.” I couldn’t disagree more with that last part. How is unity as essential right now than the plan’s extended housing and nutrition aid? How is some amorphous harmony with people who have tried to deny Biden’s ascendance to the presidency with violence and death getting a $2,000 check into the accounts of Americans making $75,000 or less? (And not $1,400, as the Biden plan outlines, merely making up the difference of the Trump/Mitch McConnell $600 pittance. Give Americans what they should have had all along.)

The Washington Post reported that Congressional Republicans are already predicting widespread opposition to Biden’s sweeping plan, which includes a raise in the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and $350 billion in state and local aid. The American economy and job market are heading, with even more precipitous speed, into the commode — yet these folks Biden wants “unity” with consider his proposal a “non-starter.”

I would ask kindly that the only party that ostensibly represents the interests of black people and other Americans of color stop trying to ally with a party who could only get 10 of its 211 House members to vote to impeach a president who provoked a seditious, deadly, white-supremacist attack on the Capitol while all of Congress was inside, certifying the vote for the next President of the United States. Republicans mockingly refuse to wear masks, still —— resulting, it appears, in at least three positive diagnoses for Democrats cooped up with them during the riot. Since the attack, they’ve petulantly avoided the new metal detectors. The party of Trump is an obstacle to be outmaneuvered, not a partner to be persuaded.  And some of its members, frankly, should be expelled and prosecuted.

The calls for healing in the aftermath of the Capitol riot recall another egregious avoidance of accountability, one that serves as a cautionary tale. When President Lincoln in 1862 emancipated enslaved people in Washington, D.C., he paid their captors up to $300 for each human being they held in bondage. Even a passing look at what came next reveals the payments did nothing to win over enslavers to the cause of “unity.” Instead, they rewarded possibly the ugliest white entitlement there is. The United States has a long history, indeed, of ignoring the pain of its most downtrodden so that the salve of “unity” may be spread over the same festering wounds. In the wake of the Capitol riot, too many are all too eager to repeat Lincoln’s mistake. As he begins his presidency, Biden should avoid doing the same.

What do you think?

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