My oldest brother Tim was a relentless competitor in nearly everything he did. When his stint as a high school basketball player didn’t translate into a career in the sport, his drive to win materialized in every other facet of his life. He had the flyest white Cadillac, the most hip record collection, and the most beautiful girlfriends in the neighborhood. What self-respecting Black man compares his cooking to his mother’s to her face? Timothy K. Woods, that’s who. And years later, when he returned to the church, he was his congregation’s greatest servant, helping people every day across the city doing just about anything. I am unconvinced that it wasn’t his constant push to aid others that burst his still-young heart.
Some of my favorite memories of my brother come from the rare moments when our extended family would engage in a board game after a big holiday dinner. It was during what you might call his “creative” approach to Scrabble or Monopoly that my brother’s penchant for competition would truly shine. When challenged on his compulsion to cheat, he would often say, “I may not win, but I choose not to lose.”
I could never shake that phrase from my mind. Its poetry is captivating enough, but the logic behind it is truly stunning. I am perfectly content with losing a fairly fought game. I try to win, but the rules are the rules, and you work with what you’re dealt. But for my brother, every game was a starting gate to the larger game of lording over others for the next six months. He could even turn that six months into a year if he could wear you down, forcing you to concede that perhaps he hadn’t lost a game you knew he did. Even his smack talk was a competition, and he could not be bothered to play a game fairly if it meant he might lose in the end.
It never occurred to me to seek reconciliation with my brother. To him, cheating was part of the game, an ingredient that made the act of playing at all enjoyable. More than that, playing a game was about power, not what happened on the board. While I love both games and my brother, I knew we could never talk about a game with any honesty. He would never concede that what he did to win — or lose less soundly — was wrong.
Reflecting on my brother now, near the season of his death, I cannot help but consider how instructive his motto is about the mindset of the Republican Party, particularly in their calls to move past the events of January 6. Having never reconciled with my own flesh and blood after his grossly suspect debates over the purpose of Monopoly’s Free Parking space, you can imagine my feelings when the stakes are a little higher.
You can’t reconcile what you refuse to own up to, and this is true for both sides of the aisle. As each day passes, Republicans are doubling down, steeling themselves against calls for self-reflection and ownership. Hours after the attack, House Republicans still contested the results of the election. They did this not because they believe there was fraud, but because they are power-hungry. A day after the attempted coup, some Republican lawmakers got into shouting matches with Capitol security guards over increased safety measures. They weren’t standing up for liberty; they were skimming any ounce of power that could be had from the resultant photo ops. This isn’t a party seeking reconciliation. They want a pass.
Republican lawmakers may not care about specific issues facing Black people, but Democratic administrations pretend to care, which in many ways is worse
Watching both Republican and Democratic calls for unity, I vacillate between confusion and being incensed. As more information about the extent of carnage and machinations from January 6 come out, it becomes harder to process who people want me to reconcile with: The cop killers? The batterers? The people who urinated in the hallways? The 68% of House Republicans — including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who had explicitly told Trump that it was MAGA who was responsible for the insurrection — who voted to forego democracy and install a dictator? What definition of unity are we operating with here?
Reconciliation assumes that some contrition has taken place, and while it would be easy to wail on Republicans for the next four years after the Capitol attack, some interrogation of the unity Biden is selling is also necessary.
While Republicans want everyone to look past this moment because they’re responsible for it; Democrats want to get past it so they can get on with their agenda. And while I can certainly get behind watching Donald Trump recede in our collective rearview mirror as quickly as can be managed, I also need the party Black people just saved to address our needs while the leverage exists. For them to ask voters who just yanked their party from the jaws of defeat to extend an olive branch to a portion of the country that apparently wants them disempowered, enslaved, or dead is too big an ask. (But then, if they were any good at wielding the bully pulpit, Trump would never have been elected, so I can’t say that I’m surprised.) Voters didn’t put Democrats back in power to negotiate as a moral union. The people will decide if and when they can forgive. But two weeks after an attempted coup? That’s too big an ask and Democrats should know better.
Republican lawmakers may not care about specific issues facing Black people, but Democratic administrations pretend to care, which in many ways is worse. Too many policies that Democrats hold up as gains for Black people are simply gains for all people; meanwhile, the disparities baked into such a win mean that a step forward for everyone is only a half-step for us. At the rate that the Democrats address Black need, there will only be a handful of us left to relish having finally arrived “There.”
In a relationship of dwindling returns, it is impossible for Black people to know where we stand with the people we’ve voted into office — three generations after having won the right to vote, that is its own statement. The problem with the Democratic ask for unity now, when America appears in its racialized darkest days (again), is twofold: it ignores what has already been sacrificed in the name of unity, and it vaporizes even indirectly honoring those sacrifices by ignoring real or meaningful change.
Black people are constantly buried in requests from mainstream society to get to the forgiving stage of unjust acts, not on our timetable, but on the chess clock of White feelings and agendas. It is as if White America is terrified of Black anger boiling over to the point where no middle ground can be reached. That fear has very little to do with any real concern over Black violence. It has more to do with the fact that America needs Black people to run. It needs us on its front lines nursing its sick. It needs us cleaning up after its Capitol riots. It needs us in its jails laboring for literal pennies a day. It needs our endless blues-based creativity. It needs our grieving families on the news after a police killing to ask for peace. And it needs for those conditions to never change.
As Biden takes the desk in the Oval Office, every American should all be calling for three things: accountability, reckoning, and repercussions. Democrats should want these things because they’re owed them. Republicans should want them because they’re out of legitimate power plays, and doing so might save their party from devolving entirely into a band of roaming savages. Americans at large should want them because not demanding them is to not live in a state of justice.
Before anyone starts lining up for the sing-along, America needs to reconcile with all of the lies it has told itself about how we got here. I have little confidence that it will do so. Consider how many things must not only make it to the table, then be unpacked, then interrogated, then focus-grouped, then piloted, then put into action by at least a majority of the people who encountered the proposed change. That’s a lot of homework for a nation that was half in the bag for Trump in November, even after four abysmal years of governing.
To those who spent years sowing dissent and setting up what happened on January 6: I await your acknowledgment. I await your contrition. I await your apology. I await your self-reflection. None of this is happening from any of the people that need to be doing it for unity to occur. Unless these things happen for real, lasting unity is not possible. And those of us who aren’t on the hook to do those things need to be strong enough to demand it.
We always risk the possibility of not winning a given battle, but on the matter of this war, we can choose not to lose.