Eddie S. Glaude Jr., a Princeton scholar, made his first trip to the island Friday to celebrate Juneteenth with a lecture.
Glaude wrote “Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul,” and he spoke at First Presbyterian Church on a day when yet another jury — this one in Minnesota — acquitted yet another police officer of killing a black man. The sanctuary of the historic church in Galveston was, Glaude said, a beautiful place to have a difficult conversation.
In America, there is a difference in how we see and value one another. Because he is African American, Glaude is one of those rare Princeton professors who can be mistaken for a caddy when he goes to play golf.
And those prejudices, those mistakes in the way we see others, add up. We live in a country in which some lives are valued more than others. You can see that difference in the way we value people in the wages people earn and in the value of their homes. You can see that difference in the makeup of our prison populations. You can see it in the way we define “good” schools.
Those patterns are so clear that pretending to be innocent of them is a kind of complicity.
Can visitors really see those ugly patterns of inequality in beautiful cities on islands — in places we love and call home? Sure they can.
Glaude is a professor of religion, and when he looks at democracy he sees it as an ethical idea. Democracy, he says, is an idea that requires you to believe that all should participate equally.
And so if you have a democracy that is built on the idea that some lives are worth more than others you have a house that is built on a shaky foundation. This democracy began with flawed founders and flawed foundations. It accommodated the horrific institution of slavery. Perhaps our democracy’s greatest president — Abraham Lincoln — hated slavery, but he believed that some lives were less valuable than others, a belief that deformed his idea of democracy and made it, and his presidency, less than it could have been.
Glaude asked, at a time when many of us are wringing our hands over the state of our country, whether we are willing to risk throwing democracy away just so we can take advantage of our own little spot in that value gap.
Galveston is the home of Juneteenth, the holiday that marks the day when slavery finally ended in this country. It would be wonderful if it were a city in which visitors like Professor Glaude could come and enjoy the city’s beauty and hospitality and see no evidence of that value gap. But our communities are like our dogs and children — if they are ours, it’s hard for us to see their faults, no matter how obvious they are.
Juneteenth is a good day to take a personal accounting of our role in this democracy.
Do we really believe in it? Do we believe in the idea that all people should participate equally? And if we really believe that, do we back it up? Do we act like we’re committed to that belief?
• Heber Taylor