It's the Content of Our Character That Matters Most | Opinion

America is once again at a crossroads on the issue of race. It's a place we cannot avoid and a discussion we return to time and again. As new injuries reopen old wounds, we find ourselves in a heated debate over how we move forward and how we atone for sins, past and present.

There are no easy answers. Too much of our country's history is wrapped up in our inability, our unwillingness, to extend the concept of equal justice under law to every man, woman and child.

By failing to do so, by failing to strangle the institution of slavery in its crib as it came to our shores, our forefathers allowed our new nation to be branded like Cain. We cannot—indeed, we must not—forget this original of our sins, even though the Founders held other things to be of greater importance when securing our independence from Britain.

I long for the day when, as Mr. Jefferson wrote so long ago, the self-evident truths "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" become the reality of our shared American existence. This is why I can, in all honesty, join with those who call out, "blacks lives matter."

They do—no more nor less than any other lives. The current crisis may call some to seek a greater understanding of and greater empathy for aspects of the black experience in America. As for me, let me say black lives matter because all lives matter—an assertion that I am sure will be met with reproach by those who believe in so-called cancel culture.

That culture, and the effort to use social media to silence those who voice opinions some find controversial, is one reason I had not intended to use this space to discuss this issue. Besides, what more could be said about it than has already been said in hope, out of frustration and in anger? And then I was reminded of something attributed to Father Martin Niemoller, a Lutheran pastor who narrowly escaped execution in a German concentration camp.

Niemoller was not a perfect man and would not be considered a saint by most standards. History tells us his opposition to Hitlerism came late and that some of his observations, then and now, would badly rankle those committed to the idea that all mankind is made equal in the eyes of our common Creator.

Nonetheless, he is remembered, and rightly so, for an observation he made in 1946:

They came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.

Niemoller's rebuke, which is not of others but of himself, serves as a reminder to us all that there is danger in not speaking out in the face of injustice. Some may find it odd that I find hope for our nation in the way so many people of all colors and creeds have come out in peaceful assembly to protest the treatment of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police Department.

Funeral for George Floyd in Houston
Funeral for George Floyd in Houston Godofredo A. Vásquez - Pool/Getty Images

Some say such abuses are common. I will accept them at their word. Just as there are those "bad apples" inside some peaceful demonstrations who encourage or commit violent acts, so too are there law enforcement officials who fail to understand their job is to preserve and protect the citizenry they serve—not to persecute them.

Unfortunately, there are no simple answers to the questions now being raised. Defunding the police—and I take those who call for it at their word—is not the answer. Changing how the police and the public interact, especially in high-crime areas, deserves the attention it is now getting. But what changes should be made that would be effective are beyond my speculative powers.

We cannot keep revisiting the same ground, generation after generation. Rather than shouting at one another, or rioting or pointing fingers of blame for things that happened more than 100 years ago, let us look to the future. The question we should be asking is, "How do we make the country a better place for our children and their children than it was when we found it?" That, if I may borrow from one of this nation's great leaders, only comes when the focus on the content of character overcomes our concern about the color of one's skin.

Newsweek Contributing Editor Peter Roff has written extensively about politics and the American experience for U.S. News and World Report, United Press International and other publications. He can be reached by email at RoffColumns@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.