As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron.
— Journalist H.L. Mencken, Baltimore Sun, July 26, 1920
Wednesday was a day when we weren’t primarily sports columnists or sports fans, or athletes, coaches, children, spouses or parents. We were Americans first.
Many of us had spent parts of the previous two weeks bent over, peering into the abyss. I don’t know what hurt more: My back or my heart.
From Jan. 6 to Jan. 20, a profound civic perversity played out: An armed insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, incited by a president, to stop the official conclusion of a federal election by intimidating, injuring, kidnapping or killing federal officials, to aid in raising funds from supporters for the president’s personal use.
Feel free to read that sentence aloud a time or two, in order to never forget it.
On a campus surrounded by 25,000 National Guard members and razor wire sufficient to cordon off Rhode Island, the continuing intense threat wound down Wednesday afternoon in a remarkable moment in Senate chambers.
Kamala Harris, the newly sworn-in vice-president, a Black woman of South Asian heritage, swore in three new Democratic U.S. senators: A Black minister and a white Jew, both men from Georgia, and a Latino man of immigrant parents from California.
As much as the day’s rhetoric was reassuring and inspiring — hell, I was thrilled with sentences that had subjects, verbs, objects and periods in familiar order — the concrete action of flipping the Senate with a rich mix of Americans signaled, in the same room the rioters defiled, the failure of the insurrection and its leader that Mencken had called out 100 years earlier.
Mencken’s oft-quoted understanding of the contradictory American character speaks to the fact that the obscenity perpetrated in the Capitol, on the Constitution and against their defenders, was not invented by Trump. He merely exploited a long-running toxicity to a degree shocking to those of us so long unwilling to confront it.
The toxicity is rooted in racism and sexism that have been part of America far longer than the Constitution, something its creators did a poor job of addressing (the year Mencken shared his observation was also when the 19th Amendment was ratified, giving women for the first time the right to vote in all national and state elections).
As I watched the Capitol desecration roll out with a nearly all-white mob bearing Confederate, white supremacy and anti-Semitic symbols, I flashed back to an unusual sports moment last year — the remarkable, unexpected Zoom conference Aug. 29 with Seahawks coach Pete Carroll.
Following the shooting in the back by police of an unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wis., Carroll canceled a preseason practice and let players spread out on the field’s berm. He asked them to tell their stories of race in America to him and each other.
After the session, Carroll offered up to local reporters a passionate, spontaneous monologue about the racial ignorance of white America. At the time, with the NFL season imminent, COVID-19 playing havoc, and tense confrontations nationally between police and protesters seeking racial justice, Carroll’s potent words on a Saturday had a short national life.
Now, on consecutive Wednesdays in January, we have had an insurrection, an impeachment and an inauguration. We have seen that the mechanism of democracy has prevailed, in a severe test. Less certain is whether anything has changed in America’s inner soul, as Mencken called it, because there has yet to be an accounting among the insurrectionists and their supporters in the administration, Congress, police and military.
So a re-visit of some of Carroll’s strong words about America’s inner soul from that day seems a little more timely now (edited for length and clarity):
This is about racism in America that white people don’t know. They don’t know enough and they need to be coached up. They need to be educated about what the heck is going on in this world.
Black people can’t scream anymore. They can’t march any more. They can’t bare their souls anymore to what they’ve lived with for hundreds of years, because white guys came over from Europe and started a new country, with a great idea, and great ideals that (had) great writings and laws (about) democracy and freedom and equality for all.
And then it ain’t happened.
It’s not what happened, because we went down this other road, followed economics, in which white guys made money, and they put together a system of slavery. And we’ve never left it. Really, it’s never gone away. The really amazing thing that I’ve learned is Black people know the truth. They know exactly what’s going on. It’s white people that don’t know. It’s not that (Black people) aren’t telling us; they’ve been telling us the stories, that we know what’s right and what’s wrong. We just have not been open to listen to it.
We’ve been taught a false history of what happened in this country. It has not been about equality for all. It has not been about freedom for all, not been for opportunity for all. And it needs to be, because this is a humanity issue that we’re dealing with. This is a white people’s issue, to get over it and learn what’s going on. To figure it out, and start loving everybody that is part of our country, and that want to come to our country, wherever they want to come from.
Our players are screaming at us: Can you feel me? Can you see me? Can you hear me? They just want to be respected. They just want to be accepted, just like all of our white children and families want to be.
There’s no difference, because we’re all the same. There’s a lot of people that don’t see it that way, but there’s a lot of people that do. I’m hoping that from this point forward, maybe there’s a new door to open for us, and we can we can walk through it together with the thought of doing what’s right.
Carroll doesn’t have the leverage of a politician, but he has experience in one of America’s two high-profile industries with majority Black talent (the other is the NBA). He knows his material and his truths, and his point of view will certainly get some light after the Biden administration changes things.
But after Trump was fired, the presidency is no longer where the problem is. It remains with the rest of us. Even after an insurrection was put down, I’m skeptical the door is open yet. If it happens, it will be America’s greatest achievement.