In his inaugural address in 1909 William Howard Taft said:
The negroes are now Americans. Their ancestors came here years ago against their will, and this is their only country and their only flag. They have shown themselves anxious to live for it and to die for it. Encountering the race feeling against them, subjected at times to cruel injustice growing out of it, they may well have our profound sympathy and aid in the struggle they are making. We are charged with the sacred duty of making their path as smooth and easy as we can.
And it really is shocking to read that nowadays. That it had to be said not that long ago that Black Americans are fully American. On this side of integrating the military and other public organizations. On this side of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. On this side of electing a Black president, it’s a shock to read that it had to be said. Lord knows it never felt like we were where we needed to be, but at least we had progressed to the point where we could agree on the fundamental truth that Black Americans are Americans who deserve to be treated as such.
And yet, after the Trayvon Martin verdict and the Voting Rights Act decision, those words keep ringing in my ears. Because it feels like that’s a debate in America for the first time in a long time. Not just on the fringes. Not just with a wink or with dogwhistles, but it’s an underlying part of the debate.
Just engaging on those things feels like it’s having the debate on if Black people are fully American, and if their lives matter as much as any other American.
I can’t have the argument with people who assume that a Black boy isn’t American enough to walk around in a hoodie in the rain. That his life is worth less than the fear of a neighborhood watch volunteer that he might be a thief. I can’t have the argument with people that it’s OK to bring a gun and stalk him, to ultimately shoot him dead. I can’t have the argument that Trayvon Martin’s parents — brave as they were in public, remarkable as they were — should have to have that much grace just to get their son’s killer put on trial. The fact that they are in America ought to have been enough. Even taking the side of human decency on that feels like it puts some legitimacy on the other side.
And I can’t believe we have to argue that Black folks deserve the right to vote, that precious, American right. That they aren’t considered American enough to have to stand in line in many places as quickly as White people. That they should be considered American enough not to need ID’s that they disproportionately don’t have. That in places with a history of barring minorities from voting, that can’t prove they’ve stopped it, deserve extra scrutiny.
I don’t know where it goes from here. But it feels like for the first time in a long time, it’s going backwards.