Last Saturday, I did a brief phone interview with Keith Willis for his Saturday morning Community Connections program. I was surprised and pleased that the first thing he wanted to talk about was what going on at the border. It is Keith’s raising an issue that I’ve given some thought, but not a lot of attention, that is the motivation for this commentary.
One of the weaknesses of the African American political and public policy space is we constantly obsess about ourselves. I understand why, given the mountains of dung that have been dumped on us incessantly by our American experience. However, the failure or inability to embrace a larger world, and understand how the struggles and travails of others are connected to our plight, undermines our humanity and narrows our possibilities.
One of the things we never discuss is how many bad habits we have acquired as a function of our proximity to some of the worst aspects of white America. And of all the despicable traits we’ve acquired from America’s worst, none does us a greater disservice than our own xenophobia, and indifference to the suffering that America inflicts on people who don’t look like us. On the issue of separating Latino children from their parents without regard for their wellbeing, only the morally comatose would refuse to choose a side.
If you are black, with just a modicum of an emotional connection to and an understanding of our history in America, what is happening to brown babies and their parents should outrage you. Because until 1865, under the color of law, this is exactly what white America did to us. First upon our arrival, and later at birth, they separated black children from their parents and sold them to disparate parts of the country, never to be reunited. This is exactly what is happening at this moment. And in both cases, it seeks to be legitimatized as a function of American law and executed as government policy.
The nature of predatory evil is to prey upon the weakest and the most vulnerable. At this moment, there is no weaker or more vulnerable population than the immigrants at America’s southern border. While predatory evil does not need your cooperation or support to prevail, it cannot succeed without your indifference. The 18th century Irish politician and political philosopher, Edmond Burke put it best, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” We have been the victims of this kind of moral indifference since we first arrived in Jamestown in 1619.
I want to frame this issue around the words of two of the most eloquent ministers of the Christian tradition. I do this not because I am a Christian, I am not – but because nearly all the African American readers of the St Louis American profess to be, and at some point, what you believe has to become a function of what you do, in order for the statement of belief to have any moral authority. It is kind of like a “faith without works” sort of thing.
Foundational to the Christian tradition is the notion that all humanity is connected in the Body of Christ and all are equal before God. Nobody expressed this more clearly than 17th century poet and churchman, John Donne, who wrote, “any man’s death diminishes me because I’m involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Three hundred years later, Martin Luther King Jr. expanded and deepened this notion in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” with words that are equal to Donne’s in their eloquence and profundity, he wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
In the name of our ancestors, and for the sake of these children, in this spirit of human solidarity, we must pick up the burden of these children. Not just for their sake, but for ours as well. For if we ignore the tolling of this bell, we will have traveled a considerable distance toward becoming the soulless ingrates that make up Trump’s America, and like them, we’ll be unworthy of forgiveness and beyond salvation.
And for the readers of this column that consider the Bible more than a literary masterpiece that contains arguably the greatest collection of brilliant allegory and analogy translated to the English language, I would offer this admonition from Exodus, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weeklies by the Missouri Press Association.