The Hays-Tilden Compromise of 1877 — signed on by Northerners, we must not forget — ended hopes of true democracy in America for another century. In our own era, fear of black crime has filled our prisons with black men sentenced with laws that are blatantly tilted by race. That fear has allowed cities like New York to resort to violations of constitutional rights on a grand scale through stop-and-frisk laws.
We know that advancement is not inevitable and that the arc of the moral universe that Barack Obama so lovingly evokes is not linear. There have been frequent setbacks and side trips and retreats in our history. The Dec. 6, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor triggered the greatest act of ethnic cleansing in America since the expulsion of the Native Americans from the Eastern half of the United States a century earlier. Japanese Americans — successful, entrepreneurial, committed citizens — were rounded up into concentration camps on suspicion of disloyalty, an act of irrationality that received the imprimatur of the U.S. Supreme Court and an apology a half-century later.
In the aftermath of 9/11, thousands of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans found themselves under suspicion for little more than their ethnicity or religion. Some Americans argued loudly that profiling Arabs made sense because the World Trade Center bombers were from Saudi Arabia. Holding suspects outside the reach of the U.S. Constitution in Guantánamo or Abu Ghraib, they argued, was sound strategy. Fortunately, as the panic subsided, our legal system began to reassert itself and pushed back against the draconian behavior of the administration.
But as we pull back from Iraq and, soon enough, Afghanistan, most Americans sense that we have not won the war against terror. We are not necessarily safer now. We all have reason to worry about the consequences of the next terror attack or military setback. And those of us who are brown or hyphenated Americans do have reason to fear fear itself. After all, its consequences can, and will, affect our own status as Americans.
Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root.