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At a Historic Juncture, We Must Embrace 'the Fierce Urgency of Now'

by on June 11, 2020 4:45 AM

As the winds of change have begun to blow at a tempest pace, we should understand that what is happening in America right now is bigger than one man or one incident. This is about a nation confronting our complex history while searching for unity at a time when forces are pulling us apart.

The forces of division remain firmly rooted. They’ve found fertile soil because we choose to hear only what we want to hear. Confirmation bias is as old as humanity. In biblical times Paul warned in his second letter to Timothy:

“For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but, following their own desires, will surround themselves with teachers who will tickle their ears. They will stop listening to the truth and will wander off to fables.”

Many in America have bunkered into fables of group-think trenches to cast wary eyes on anyone whose opinions vary from theirs. We demand absolute opinions, but that is folly. Support for protesters does not necessarily make one anti-police, or pro-looting. Support for police does not necessarily make one racist.

Last Sunday the people of our community marched to protest the injustices of racism in America. Many signs expressed statements aligned with my opinions, but others did not. 

But there is a common passion to move toward equality, and a recognition that unless “Black Lives Matter” can any one of us truly state that we are all free?

George Floyd has become the symbol of the movement, but there is much more for America to understand. His death, captured so graphically has sparked action, perhaps like no other in many years. What struck us most was a man asking to stand, wanting to breathe; the most basic of requests for human dignity.

But his is not an isolated incident that just happened.

In 1776, America’s founding creed was a radical statement that exploded across the world: “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” And yet slavery remained and our Constitution allocated a 3/5 human worth to certain people.

All these years later, we’ve yet to realize our founding statement of equality of opportunity for all. True equality is a unifying force to bind the nation together. The failure to reach that divides us still.

Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder himself, understood that when he wrote: 

“Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”

But our founders’ inaction on abolition eventually resulted in violent Civil War. In his second inaugural address President Abraham Lincoln stated about the long, ongoing war: 

“Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’"

A century and a half later why do the issues of race remain?

For 20 years I traveled around the country to schools, wealthy and poor, rural and urban and places in between. That shattered the myth that there is an equality of opportunity for everyone in America.

That is the cause for which we must all fight now.

We cannot pretend that racism does not exist, nor can we use the cloak of patriotism to hide our racism.

And just as some categorize Blacks with false assumptions, labels and stereotypes, so too we should not always invoke the idea of “white privilege” to discount the opinions and concerns of all whites. But that’s not my idea.

In his landmark speech on race in 2008 then-Senator Barack Obama said: 

“Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away.”

In America there is “wealth privilege” but the exception is that for certain groups no amount of wealth can erase all stereotypes. Even a wealthy, educated Black man in a nice car is more easily “profiled” than an Italian, Jew or Latino.

Obama knew that working and middle class whites don’t get to dictate terms of employment and call their own shots. They have to work within the system and rise within it. And in our justice system, working and middle class people, regardless of race, can’t afford $1,000 an hour attorneys if they’re falsely accused.

So many of us are in the same boat, and the sooner we recognize our common humanity, the sooner we will cross the bridge toward the original promise of America. The solution can only come from common cause when the hearts of all people are opened.

Seventy-five years ago my grandfather Angelo Paterno led a group committed to interfaith and racial tolerance, harmony and justice. Armed with his core values and a belief in what America faced in October 1945 he spoke these words:

“We must have unity of thought. We must have unity of action. We must all act as missionaries and we must preach to our fellow men, night and day, the evils of this hydra-headed monster of bigotry. The forces of intolerance and hate are on the march today. The seed of hate and discord is being sown all around us. It is our task to indicate our worthy ideals into the warped minds of the weakling before this seed takes root.” 

In 1945 and in 2020 the truth remains, despite the efforts to divide us, despite attempts to have us look warily upon the motives and agendas of one another we are more alike than we know. 

All parents go to bed with dreams of a better day coming with the new dawn. But in many homes across America parents of all races and faiths have fitful nights worrying about being able to afford rent, food, education or even healthcare for a sick child. Those concerns don’t discriminate because of race or faith and resolving them makes us all stronger. 

Ending racism is patriotism. Patriotism comes from understanding our common cause, understanding that this moment is bigger than one man or one incident and all of us must work for our solution.

This is one of those times when we must chase our founding ideals.

We’ve arrived at an historical juncture when the momentum of justice is with us. We’ve gained a favorable wind toward the harbor of our American promise. But just as those on the right side of history sense the changing winds and favorable tides, so do those who remain entrenched in the bunker of hatred.

Their time has passed, yet they will resist.

But Martin Luther King spoke of a “fierce urgency of now” and this is an opportunity that must not be lost. In a quest for equality as old as America itself, the words of an 1849 letter written by Frederick Douglass must be our guiding light home:

"If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will."

State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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