An open letter to President Obama: This is a moral emergency

Dear President Barack Obama,

I appreciate your comments on the “heartache and the sadness and the anger” that many Americans are feeling after the shooting of nine African-American congregants at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. You pointed out that “this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” and you argued, as you have before, for stricter gun control laws. I agree. After the torture and death of Freddie Gray, you said that we – as a nation – “have some soul-searching to do” and that race-based police violence was not something new. Indeed, it is not. After the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, you said that Trayvon could have been you “35 years ago,” and you pointed out the ways our criminal justice system disproportionately targets and imprisons African American men. You wondered: “But beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do?”  After the strangulation of Eric Garner, you said that “this is not just a black problem or a brown problem. This is an American problem.” You are absolutely right. And after the death of Michael Brown, you said “we should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” You called for prayers, peace, and soul-searching. But with all due respect President Obama, none of this is enough. We – all Americans – have to call this violence out for what it really is: It is racism. And racism perpetuated and legitimized by the persistent failure of Americans to confront this most urgent, most pernicious, and most vile moral and existential catastrophe at the core of our nation.

President Obama, you know that these are not isolated, new, or unrelated cases. They are quite continuous with the racial history of policing and mass incarceration in the US, the structural disenfranchisement of people of color, the war on the poor, and the terrorism of white supremacy. In fact, these deaths are just some of the most recent and most public ones. They signal (yet again) a persistent and pervasive devaluation of the lives of people of color in our nation’s history. More than half a century ago, in his eulogy for the children killed at the bombing of the sixteenth street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr. said that we must not only be concerned about bringing the murderers to justice, but we must also confront “the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.” This system, this way of life, this philosophy lives on and on and on.  Dylann Storm Roof is the homegrown product of systemic racism in America, a way of life, a philosophy that makes up the rotten fabric of our nation. It’s not mental illness, or bad apples, or drugs, or any number of explanations that make white America feel safe in our shelters of privilege.  It’s racism – systemic, historical, and pervasive. Yesterday, it cost us the lives of Reverend Sharonda Singleton, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lance, Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, and Reverend Daniel Simmons, Sr.   

As the President of the United States, you are vested with the authority to declare a national state of emergency “to save lives and to protect property and public health and safety … to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in any part of the United States.” The emergency that we face as a nation is not a natural disaster or the threat of war, but there are certainly lives that need to be saved. They are the lives of every person of color in the United States, which centuries of racism have devalued and put at risk. This is a national catastrophe that has raged – almost unmitigated – since the founding moments of our country. It rages today and will rage tomorrow if we do not do something truly profound and transformative.  I am writing to ask that you marshall all the resources at your disposal – financial, political, and intellectual – to declare and address this catastrophe for what it is: A moral emergency, a national catastrophe.  It needs to be named as such, and we need the federal resources, the leadership, the audacity, and the fortitude to honestly confront and doggedly remedy our shared moral failure. Perhaps we could start by lobbying Congress to pass H.R. 40, a bill first introduced in 1989 by Representative John Conyers, Jr. to set up a Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans. I am looking to you and to all our elected officials for leadership, to bring us together in a different united states, to bring about a triumph of conscience and justice, in the face of staggering violence and human loss.  I am one citizen, but we are surely millions upon millions strong, in solidarity with one another across the lines of race, ethnicity, class, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. We are in solidarity first as human beings. I humbly ask you to start now with an urgent declaration of a national state of moral emergency. Tomorrow cannot resume with business as normal.

Let me close by urging you – and us, as Americans – to muster the resolve to finally and truthfully realize Lincoln’s remarks that the dead did not die in vain, “that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”  I ask you – on the 150th anniversary of these remarks – for the sake of our nation, for the sake of the sanctity of the lives of everyone who has lived, is living, and will live in the United States of America. It can’t be overstated, President Obama: The future of our nation and the very sanctity of life are at stake. We are in a state of moral emergency. 

Sincerely yours,

Todd Samuel Presner
Professor and Director, Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies
University of California Los Angeles