Trying to make sense of the protests and unrest following the killing of George Floyd, Democratic nominee and former United States Vice President Joe Biden said "the original sin of this country [the United States] still stains our nation today".
"We are a country of open wounds," he said.
He was referring to slavery.
It is a clumsy metaphor - man's fall from grace with God is hardly the same as the state-sanctioned oppression which characterises that country's black history. Nevertheless, there is power in the message.
His meaning is clear - the Black Lives Matter protests, which are still ongoing, are not just about police violence against black people. The rage is rooted in that country's slave past, which institutionalised black disadvantage and white privilege and legitimised the sub-human treatment of black people, like what happened to George Floyd, 150 years since emancipation.
When the most recent protests here first began, some were surprised, even irate, that Australia was importing a movement from the United States. We are the most successful multicultural country in the world, it was said, the implication being that we have no racial issues here. What possible relevance did the treatment of African Americans have to Australia, and why did the movement spread across the globe?
When you peel back history, you will find each nation's original sin: racism, in one form or another. Like original sin, it is inherited, a perpetual stain on the conscience of a nation, an open wound, in Biden's words, festering in the darkness of ignorance, hate and apathy.
Australia's original sin is a hundred or so years younger than that of the United States, but no less tragic. It lies at the heart of how this nation came to be, a land taken by force from our First Nations peoples, without treaty or compensation, generations stripped of land and connection, relegated to the margins from which the pleas for recognition have repeatedly been ignored. That is until Black Lives Matter stirred something in the country's psyche, forcing us to confront our own original sin, not an imported one. It was like looking in the mirror for the first time and not liking what we saw.
Britain had to face its own complicity in the slave trade and the ravages of its imperial legacy, which stripped continents of their wealth, enslaved local populations and rewrote maps of the world with the stroke of a pen, spawning ethnic unrest and violence from Africa to Asia. So, too, France and other European countries, which have failed to accept the violence of their colonial past, preferring a nostalgic view of history like in one of those old black and white movies. Germany had the holocaust, South Africa apartheid, and so the list goes on.
That is why Black Lives Matter is not just about black incarceration and police violence - it is about all those things and more. It goes to the heart of each country's failure to acknowledge and address their own original sin. That is also why the movement has resonated so powerfully outside the United States, including among Asians and minority ethnic populations - across the whole spectrum of colour - tarred by the same original sin, carried along vicariously by the struggle of their black brothers and sisters in the United States.
Black Lives Matter also speaks to a more profound connection between Indigenous Australians, African Americans, Asians and other minorities. One has to be black or coloured to actually feel it. It's about bonds that unite all coloured people, something innate, not taught. Simple. Powerful. Uniting. The knowledge that the oppression of one is the oppression of all.
When we are prepared to confront our past, we can start to empathise with those who reject symbols of those who oppressed them. Taking down statues of those who profited from oppression is not about rewriting history, it is about choosing not to celebrate their oppression, to pretend they are more righteous than they are. In any case, history is not fixed in time, it is fluid. The terrorists of yesterday (think Mandela) are the idols of today. Our view of history needs to change with the times in which we live, as we confront more about our past.
The implication of Biden's message is that there can be no healing unless we acknowledge our original sin. Any theologian will tell you, redemption is only possible through forgiveness. Like someone with an addiction acknowledging they need help, first you have to admit there is a problem.
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