Shame makes a comeback

Suddenly, some who lead us seem aware that they are being judged by their fellow citizens, and by history. Will it last?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (pictured in May) said recently that he decried racial discrimination and praised the protests.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (pictured in May) said recently that he decried racial discrimination and praised the protests.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press/file

Is shame back?

For years, we’ve had a famine of that emotion, which keeps our worst instincts in check when conscience falters. Those who loudly support this president — himself a paragon of shamelessness — seemed incapable of it, sticking by him no matter what. No desecration of his office, no naked lie (of which there have been thousands), no suffering he unleashed, could separate them from him.

Now, suddenly, some who lead us seem aware that they are being judged by their fellow citizens, and by history — and that an electorally vulnerable president’s good graces provide no protection from that lasting, and richly deserved, condemnation.


Many in the nation, too, are feeling long overdue shame over the racism on which so much of America’s history and selective prosperity are built, as we reckon with the police brutality undeniable in the murder of George Floyd, and in the often-brutal response to the protests that have followed.

It only took scores of Black bodies piling up for years, a pandemic, an economic collapse, and the jarring images of smashing store windows to make it happen.

Scales are falling from Americans’ eyes. Polls show steep spikes in concern about racism, with large majorities seeing in Floyd’s killing a wider problem in policing, and believing the anger that led to the protests across the nation is justified. This week’s bestseller lists consist almost entirely of books about racism. Corporations are issuing statements of support for the protests, and vowing to confront bigotry, including their own.

We appear, let us pray, to be at a turning point.

Where the people have gone, their leaders have followed — with their words, at least.

“We are still wrestling with America’s original sin,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Republican who could not bring himself to address the first Black man elected to the White House as “Mr. President.” McConnell said he decried racial discrimination and praised the protests.


In Washington and across the country, legislators suddenly have time for police reform bills that have languished for years. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who forbade peaceful protests against bigotry and brutality by kneeling players at football games, reversed himself — though his epiphany stopped short of an apology to Colin Kaepernick, whose career was derailed because he had the audacity to take a knee. NASCAR, too, seems to have gotten religion, finally banning the display of confederate flags at races. Military leaders said they are open to renaming military bases named for the Confederate generals who were enemies of the United States, responsible for sacrificing hundreds of thousands of men to maintain slavery.

And in a statement extraordinary partly because so many before him could not find the courage to do something so obvious and necessary to maintaining the Republic, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair General Mark Milley apologized for his part in the obscene June 1 stunt where the administration had police clear peaceful protesters near the White House with flash bangs and pepper spray to make way for a presidential photo op.

Of course, it’s easier to put a little daylight between oneself and the president when polls show him trailing his challenger by double digits — a gap that will surely close when memories fade and voters who might feel shame admitting support for Trump now enter the privacy of the voting booth.


Trump himself isn’t giving an inch, exchanging his dog whistle for a bullhorn. He has vowed to maintain Confederate monuments, and his campaign is selling onesies that say “Baby Lives Matter” in the style of the Black Lives Matter logo. Next week, he’ll hold a rally in Tulsa, Okla. — site of a race massacre — originally scheduled for Juneteenth, a day celebrating Black emancipation. (Late Friday night, Trump announced a date change.) And he’ll accept the Republican nomination in Jacksonville on the 60th anniversary of an attack by white mobs on that city’s Black residents.

And yet, even in the midst of this reckoning, most Republican leaders, and over 40 percent of voters — continue to lash themselves to Trump, with his barely concealed racism, malice, and incompetence. Or distance themselves from him only when it costs them nothing.

If they don’t feel shame in this moment, at long last, they never will.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.