This book is many things. Primarily a historical, political, and philosophical treatment of this country’s ethic, it explains the moving parts of politics, justice, civil rights, and philosophical discourse as they gather together and furnish this democracy with promise or poison. The book is history and also a glimpse into the future. Bailey writes as a concerned and prophetic scholar.
As I prepare this review, I think of the ways prophets were known in the first testament of the Bible. Prophets told the truth. They spoke forth what the community knew and what the community didn’t know. Prophets talked history and what the people of God already understood as God’s word which had been delivered through the vessels of graced hands and blessed mouths. And prophets also talked about the future and pushed the people to see a new, unknown tomorrow which was, always, a work of faith.
Prophetic work is faith work. Dr. Bailey works at his faith in that sense as he writes a compelling, interesting, and informative book about the history and future of the United States of America. He pulls up a chair for us and walks us through the perennial questions about our country and its unfulfilled promises, its strain to be an exceptional nation, and its insecure moral footing. He invites us to careful examination of those things said most loudly (which are usually the least true) relative to our country’s moral arc that has bent back from justice.
“While we are still making progress, we have lost the path (and especially the togetherness that characterized our first steps on it), and we have become more and more lost, unsure of the future.” Despite the troubling material he serves us, Bailey still has hope. And he offers his plan for locating and electing leaders with hope, with ethical strength, with generosity, and with moral courage.
He mines the current political and legal realities in Black and non-Black communities, holding out a convincing application of social-psychological theory and the clear ways our frames of reference are developed so as to prevent us from seeing. He moves through the double standards of politics and civil discourse. He talks fundamental attribution error and its relation to racism and white privilege.
He writes swiftly and clearly, “White privilege blinds those who would claim that Black America is its own worst enemy.” He continues, knowing that his truth is the truth and installs his rendition of the rise of President Barack Obama, contextualizing Mr. Obama’s campaign and victories, and noting the key agreements between those political achievements and the longer narrative of all those earlier (and all those future) acts of reclamation and recovery in previous times.
His book is a reflection of the exact and ever-present power of white privilege, the absence of non-white privilege, and the corresponding injustice that results. His book addresses these things in the slow, careful way a good teacher would and with the loving embrace of a brother and friend. He serves to us an explanation of the fear in us as a collective people and how religious views contribute since religion is a hot, undeniable area where change is most needed and most difficult. Early on he says what feels like a summary and an echo of his spirit throughout:
“Until an essential humanness replaces the hierarchized core of our racial discourse, we will continue to dehumanize the dark-skinned in both word and deed. Until the roots of structural racism are uprooted and an egalitarian worldview is planted in its place, the financial poverty of America’s inner cities will remain a reflection of the moral poverty in our nation.”
And he states such things carefully while, at the same time, challenging us to hold a “horizontal integration of the mission.” Bailey sounds like a pastor and professor, activist and contemplative. He sounds concerned and moved by love. He was hard to read–because his truths were, simply, true–and completely invitational at the same time.
The four central chapters cover in deft, artful ways topics that anyone interested in justice should sit with, including racism, xenophobia, poverty, and income inequality. Bailey speaks to the spirit while illuminating the mind. He teaches through his writing.
Tracing Civil Rights and Jim Crow, he explains what the Voting Rights Act was and how it was done true damage by the recent rule of the US Supreme Court. He takes you to school without making you feel like you missed out on the previous week’s homework.
He inspires you, hurts you, and challenges you. He tells it the way it should be told: decide what you believe about freedom and determine if those things should be offered to others.
That is the spirit of his invitation around economics and income, work and jobs. I get the sense that Bailey is dancing to the music of economics and political theory and history and morality. Of course morality is the cooler, distant term for spirituality.
There is a bottom to Dr. Bailey and though I read of portions of it, I can tell that his center is on display as he highlights moral decline in the United States. He writes of our need for a spiritual revolution even if it is not religiously based. It is a challenge and a call. It is necessary and for our own good, as well as a road we have often missed.
“But, so often, those who cause the most hurt are those who are meant to represent love, caring, and respect for the wholeness of persons. Churches and schools are beacons of light in communities, yet our churches denounce gay, transgendered, and queer parishioners in favor of pedantic adherence to an old exegesis of scripture, while our inner-city schools arrest students before counseling them, remove them before reviving them.”
His tone is not one that is easily dismissed. Even if your theory differs from him; even where your reading of the same historical moments generate a different conclusion; even if your political vision diverges from the biblical images he calls upon to color his perspective; you cannot dismiss his enduring sentiment and its corresponding energy. You have to contend with Julius Bailey’s love. And any good teacher would be pleased with that contention.