Hammurabi was wrong

I’ve been thinking about something that is buried and nagging and screaming in the back of my mind. It’s related to what I feel might lurk in the actions and reactions of countless white people to what is happening right now in every major city across this country, and around the world.

It’s not a pretty thought. It’s not logical. It’s not just. It’s not fair. It’s not reasonable. It’s not comforting. But it’s there. At least I believe it is, even if we don’t actively acknowledge it. I will not use the words white supremacy, white privilege, or racism; despite those all being at the heart of what I want to bring out into the open. Instead I just want to say out loud what is usually kept inside.

I want to talk about the concept of equal and opposite. For every action, there is another action to counter-balance or equalize what was just done. It’s a mathematical probability within physics, also called Newton’s Third Law Of Motion. It’s a fundamental concept that most all of us are taught at some point In our schooling. And somewhere, somehow, in that propagation we begin to conflate physical laws with social expectations. We use ancient sayings, such as “an eye for an eye”, the Hammurabi codes, and turn them into some universal laws of retaliation and reciprocity, woven into our social fabric and concept of justice. Codes becomes inescapable rules.

But what happens to a society who builds themselves upon a foundation of justified inequality, inhumanity, and cruelty? What happens when the excuses and reasoning around owning, selling, segregating, isolating, incriminating, imprisoning, and killing others on the basis of race begins to crumble? When those subjugated to those enslavements, segregations, isolations, criminalities, imprisonments, and deaths begin to rise up in revolt? What do we do with those innate, immutable societal rules when we are confronted with our past behavior?

Let’s not be coy. The U.S. is built around the ownership of others through slavery. The buying and selling of human beings of color, that we took from their counties, put on a boat, chained together into pens worse than livestock, shipped to our country, to work for a white man to do work that he didn’t want to do himself. Not to mention the labor and exploitation of women and the poor to further do things that these white men just didn’t want to do; you know, like raise children or cook or work somewhere smelly or dangerous or tiring or laborious. And since these white man had the power, because they had the money which controlled who was allowed or not allowed to participate in decisions or work or ownership within communities, they were also the ones wrote and made the laws, and therefore could make “just” and “legal” all their actions. After all, this is what had been done for centuries before the formation of this country. But for good measure let’s make it ordained by God, with His infinite blessing, because it’ll end any arguments to what we’re doing. And let’s also say everyone is equal, even though that’s not entirely what we mean. Wink. So society fundamentally could not and would not see any other human being as equal to a white man.

But then we’ve had some issues – little disturbances like a “unrest” and small “riots” and a “civil war”’and what not – all in reaction to these systematic policies. And again, let’s be clear, when we say systematic, we mean a never-ending cycle of people talking and yelling and fighting about the words we should use about the things we do, so that people don’t feel bad about it.

And throughout these centuries, looming large in the reasoning and actions, built into the laws of these white men, is fear. Maybe not fully realized or articulated or acknowledged. But baked into all of their ideas of justice goes back to physics. Equal and opposite. An eye for an eye. It forms our societal acceptance of retribution, of retaliation, of justice. And that fear only exists because they must know what we’ve done is wrong and cruel and horrible. And to keep those masses from doing unto them what they’ve done to others, this system has to stay intact.

What I’m saying is that, we as white people fight so hard against the ideas of inclusion and diversity and equality, in how we educate, in where we have communities, in the way we hire and pay, in where we worship, in how we disseminate justice, in who we elect, in how we believe we are “reasonable” and “logical” and “fair”, is really because deep down somewhere in our psychology, we’re terrified that people of color, minorities, immigrants, the oppressed, the poor, could and would be justified in doing to us what we’ve done to them.

Whether that means taking our jobs, paying us less, kicking us out of our homes, arresting us for no reason, raping us and our children, hanging us from trees with a crowd to watch, burning us alive, putting us in prison, killing just because we’re white – it would be just and right because that is what we’ve done to them. The Third Law Of Motion. It’s math. Inescapable truth.

I know we’re afraid of this imagined possibility, because it is exactly how we justify the actions we use to protect ourselves, from letters we write into our laws, from the decisions make in our courts, and from the words we use to make ourselves feel better.

We fear that we truly will reap what we sow. We fear that what we have done to others, will be done to us. In a world of equal and opposite, a world of retribution and retaliation, a world we created to benefit ourselves, which have to be equalized. Maybe it is what we deserve. What I deserve. Live with that a little.

Now is the time to do all that can be done to repair, rebuild, renew, to make equal and fair and right and just, to make whole and well and healthy, to finally become country and people that we were told that we were.

I know for sure that love saves me and that it is here to save is all.

—Maya Angelou