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Williams: Americans are more divided than at any point since the Civil War. If we can’t find unity, this election will have no winners
HIGH-STAKES ELECTION

Williams: Americans are more divided than at any point since the Civil War. If we can’t find unity, this election will have no winners

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'Raw exposed nerves': Anxious nation awaits Election Day

People carrying signs supporting voting rights were reflected in a puddle as they arrived at an early voting center at Model City Branch Library in Miami, held as part of a “Souls to the Polls” march on Sunday.

Four years ago, the national election was an afterthought as I obsessed over the Richmond mayoral contest. Levar Stoney defeated a field of candidates that included apparent frontrunner Joe Morrissey, a man some folks viewed as too scandalous to be mayor.

And then, America elected Donald Trump as president.

Tuesday, Richmond voters cast ballots for a mayor, a city council and a school board. But thoughts of a spiking pandemic and our moment of racial reckoning are accompanying many people into the voting booth, regardless of where they are casting ballots.

All politics has become national.

In Richmond, following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, demonstrators and Stoney removed Confederate monuments from their pedestals. Policing became a major issue. The disproportionate toll of COVID-19 on Black and Latino residents reflected the pre-existing condition of racism locally and nationally.

In Henrico County, the policing of police abuse emerged as a priority issue.

In Hanover County, Wegmans’ plans to build a distribution center hit headwinds because of wetlands issues. But the project’s proximity to Brown Grove, a Black community that emerged after Emancipation, raised additional concerns about environmental racism.

Charles City County is among Virginia locales voting on whether to remove Confederate monuments.

A recent story in The New York Times described how a local, nonpartisan mayor’s election in an Alabama small town with relatively tranquil race relations became a polarizing referendum on Black Lives Matter and fealty to Trump.

Elections are supposed to be the fertilizer that nourishes democracy. But bad seeds — planted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisive role in the contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush, an Electoral College that doesn’t always reward the candidate with the most popular votes, and Trump’s win-at-any-cost mentality — have sprouted anxiety, confusion, despair and an uncertainty that the American Experiment is sustainable.

Rage and grievance have become the national mood. The Republican Party is trying to suppress the vote and cancel ballots. Trump has undermined confidence in the democratic process, stoking his reactionary followers and issuing dark warnings about post-election violence that cast doubt on a peaceful transition of power.

No wonder the marginalized are arming up, hunkering down or pondering exit strategies.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the basketball great and author, lamented in an essay after Trump’s 2016 election that “it’s difficult to link arms when the home of the free embraces the leadership of a racist.”

As an African American, he wrote, “I speak with the rage of betrayal.” The prospect of our fellow citizens doubling down on that betrayal is too much for many of us to bear.

The year 2020 makes mincemeat out of optimists. But the winning political slogan of a dozen years ago is more resonant today than ever. We must cling fast to hope and change and rediscover how to function as a nation.

In the aftermath of Barack Obama’s historic election as president, I wrote words that in hindsight were both naïve and prescient:

There will be the temptation for all of us to indulge in premature self-congratulations. But bigotry, homophobia, greed and war will not disappear on Inauguration Day. No victory comes without vigilance and struggle.

Change tends to be incremental. Emancipation and Reconstruction beget the backlash of black codes, the Klan and Jim Crow. The civil-rights movement successes produced a conservative revolution devoted largely to turning back the clock on those gains.

Obama ... will no doubt face an organized and determined resistance. But nothing will be as it was. A deep cynicism that had enveloped our land has been lifted.

Obama has opened a door to a place that previously existed only in dreams. It can never be shut again. That door can only be opened wider for the woman, the Jew and yes, the Muslim, to follow. The door Obama has opened leads to America’s future — one nation of many, truly indivisible.

Today, this nation is more divided than at any point since the Civil War, locked in an embrace with its inner demons. It has chosen fear over rationality, greed over generosity and inhibition over aspiration.

We’re at our best when we confront the imperfections baked into this nation’s foundation and strive toward its highest ideas. We’ve fallen short plenty, at home and abroad. But those ideas, our open door, our generous spirit, were why the world looked up to us. And our national motto: E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

In June, locales nationwide appeared on the verge of a moment. Justice was ascendant. We’ll have no peace without it.

A pendulum swings in opposite directions before finding its equilibrium. This moment calls for tenacity of purpose, not despair, regardless of the outcome on Election Day.

mwilliams@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW

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