On announcing his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States Joe Biden declared that he was engaging in a “battle for the soul of this nation”. Reflecting on the bold scenes of fascist demonstrations that plagued the streets of Charlottesville in 2017, as well as the current President’s unwillingness to condemn it as wrong, Biden indicated that in November “the core values of this nation, our standing in the world, our very democracy, everything that has made America, America will be at stake”.
The presumptive Democratic nominee was not the first person to employ such a high-stake, restorative narrative. Like Biden, Malcolm X, in his later years, spoke about saving America from the path of destruction that inevitably followed unchecked racism. In his autobiography he reasoned that the “road to the salvation of America’s soul… can only be salvaged if human rights and dignity, in full, are extended to black men”.
Evidently, Malcolm’s diagnosis and recommended treatment reaches deeper than the polemics of Biden. Inherent to Biden’s assertion that the upcoming election is the “battle” is this notion that the 2020 presidential election is a “winner-takes all” contest, as if the hate demonstrated at Charlottesville will crawl back into the abyss on 4 November.
The struggle for redemption which X sets out is longer, and more difficult, yet it is more appropriate considering the magnitude of the sins. After 400 years of plight the requirement that African Americans be incorporated into the American Social Contract cannot seem so drastic? Following slavery and segregation, how can the demand that those vital words of the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equally” be applied to people of all races be deemed radical?
Moreover, to say the upcoming election is the conclusive “battle” for the soul of America truly underestimates the task of redemption. Malcolm X, who had little time for electoral politics, looked at the 1964 election between pro civil rights Lyndon B. Johnson and conservative Barry Goldwater with what can only be described as indifference, because he knew his cause transcended even the presidency of the US. So, yes, a term of Trump has been damaging. Yes, another one, will likely be the same. But the fact is no single election can represent the immense task of saving America from hate. As Martin Luther King Jr put it “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.
As a result, Biden’s campaign appears somewhat disingenuous. Not only because it downplays the magnitude of fixing America’s social ills, namely racism, but unlike his former opponents for the nomination such as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, how he intends to fix these ills remains rather vague. As valiant as a “battle for the soul of the nation” sounds – rhetoric alone just won’t cut it.
Moreover, to the frustration of all social justice advocates, especially the more militant Malcolm X, this journey towards a wholly equal and just society is a long one. Had it not been for his assassination at the age of 39, Malcolm X would have turned 95 today. Throughout his life, even after his philosophical evolution he remained secure in the belief that this struggle would outlive him. Having hailed himself as a “realist” as opposed to an idealist, X likely would not have found the scenes at Charlottesville in 2017 as shocking as most. You see, he understood the struggle to be greater than any one election cycle or president, he was concerned with the very social fabric of America.
This year the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed, black jogger, shocked the world. Interestingly, it was not until a video of what happened surfaced that those who were responsible, were arrested and charged. US senator Kamala Harris’ tweet captured the mood of the masses, and went viral as a result. Striking at the heart of the struggle for the soul of America, she wrote “Exercising while Black shouldn’t be a death sentence”. If Biden wins, will these hideous acts of violence, driven by hate, just come to a halt? No. Even if he wins and passes 5 bills and 2 amendments protecting African Americans, the hate will persist.
This just proves that the battle for the soul of America is an ongoing struggle. It is bigger than who sits in the Oval Office. Even if Biden’s campaign ends in bitter defeat or glorious victory, the movement for racial justice continues.
Malcolm X viewed people who claimed legislation would remedy America’s foul history of racism with suspicion. Despite the ratification of the 13th and 14th amendment he saw that racism was still rampant throughout the United States in the mid-20th century. Thus, he argued that African American’s focus on asserting their human rights, even suggesting they take the cause to the UN and charge the US with failing to protect African Americans.
Above all, however, Malcolm X dedicated his final years to advocating for a sense of universal “brotherhood”, that would transcend race. Inspired by the “sincere brotherhood practiced by all races (…) irrespective of their colour” during the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, he returned to the US with the conviction that America could only be saved if such solidarity was adopted. While this path is not straightforward, it is the only one capable of redeeming the US.
Image - Flickr.