Traditionally our July Fourth service at Union Chapel is reserved for the topic of the state of the American democracy. We celebrate America the Beautiful, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, God Bless America and more. We are reminded of the range of red, white and blue that adorns our balconies, lawns, and porches on and around our cottages here on Island. Kathy and I take our grandchildren to the children’s parade in the Camp Ground where they march with little kids and big kids on skateboards, bikes, red wagons all dressed up in regalia of the patriotic colors. We honor our veterans as we remember those who defended our freedom in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and those that fought in the Iraq, Afghanistan and other theaters.

But this year, 2020 has witnessed a new kind of national hero and heroes and they are from the medical front line: The nurses, physicians, hospital attendants that knowingly spend shift after shift exposing themselves and their families to the vagaries of a virus that kills indiscriminately. Our neighborhood health centers our public and private hospitals have all been tested beyond their resources. But time and time again the national will that was summoned in decades past to face national tragedy has found its way into the DNA in this generation facing this pandemic. And we are all mighty grateful.

Then just as the nation was establishing health protocols for easing social distancing with Covid-19, we began to witness the resurgence of overt racism from several aspects of American life. The brutal murders of black men, several young men in the prime of their life at the hand of police that are sworn to protect and serve. Discrimination in hiring in major corporations and some business sectors that intentionally exclude black women and men. Rampant voter suppression schemes in many states have all combined to push thousands into the streets and public places that are demanding change, right now. These converging events have also caused a national discourse on the true status of our democracy.

The Rev. Rafael Warnock, senior pastor of historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, calls the problem of systemic racial inequalities in America our Covid-1619 virus. That is to say the year when the first slave ships landed in Jamestown, Va., unleashing an epidemic of racial discrimination and subjugation that is still deeply ingrained in the American culture despite Juneteenth.

Covid-19 and Covid-1619 are the twin threats to our nation, but one is more dangerous and more destructive to our national fiber than the other. The naive eye and in some cases the blind eye will quickly assert that it is Covid-19 that poses the greater threat. The interesting thing about Covid-19 is that it does not discriminate; rather it attacks the rich and the poor. To be sure, certain socio-economic groups in our society may have more exposure to the virus and therefore a more disproportionate impact. This virus can reach and touch all in our society. Moreover, notwithstanding the devastating impact of this virus there will be a vaccine for Covid-19.

On the other hand Covid-1619 tears at the founding principles that were essential to the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and its subsequent amendments. History tells us that our political and business leadership has an incomplete record of providing remedies for Covid-1619. The civil rights movement gave rise to the Civil Rights Acts, the Fair Housing Acts, Voting Rights Act and more, but still in 2020 we suffer from this debilitating disease.

And so I ask myself why is 2020 any different? Why is this national focus on race in the spring of 2020 any different. There is some evidence that this might be different, but I am still skeptical. In prior periods, many would say that the killings of black men and women were justified because the men in blue “feared for their life” and did not represent either structural or systemic racism. First, technology today has given full light and clarity to the pernicious depth of prejudice for all the world to see. The knee on George Floyd’s neck, the fabricated assault by Amy Cooper in Central Park and the deadly shots fired into the back of Rayshard Brooks were exposed by technology for all to see.

Second, the streets in America and other parts of the world are filled with white people, many of them young and in many communities out numbering people of color walking arm in arm with one another. They are putting up signs, wearing shirts and strongly identifying with Black Lives Matter. Many have been inspired by the recent presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders, Liz Warren and Andrew Yang. These protesters want structural change and they have categorically rejected the America that they’re parents have sustained and condoned. They want America to be what America says it is.

Third, some of their parents are in corporate America and hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested thoughtfully and strategically to fight economic injustice. PayPal is investing $500 million to support black and minority businesses, SoftBank pledged $100 million to invest in companies led by minority entrepreneurs. Others have recanted their past hiring practices and announced a new direction. Adidas said it will fill 30 per cent of its open positions from black and brown talent pools. And hundreds of millions more have been dedicated to these same efforts.

But I am reminded of our past which causes me to be a bit jaded about whether this is really different and not tokenism and a brief moment of guilt and remorse before a fierce turn back to the old normal.

In his book, The Fire Next Time, the brilliant and irreplaceable James Baldwin wrote to his nephew and namesake James, trying to explain to him in 1963 — yes 1963 — the burdens and barriers he would face as a black man in America.

Listen to Baldwin speaking to his nephew: “You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence, you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. posed the question in the title of his 1967 (and last) book: Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?

The years 1963, 1967 and now 2020. Is this really different?

Thousands have seen the video with two young boys, one black and one white running toward each other embracing, laughing, enjoying each other’s humanity.

My friends, today we are in James Baldwin’s “fire this time” and it must be our collective hope that if my grandchildren, Tyler and Logan and your grandchildren all symbolically represented by these two innocents young boys, one black and the other white — as Dorothy West would say, not knowing the differences between. These two must be able to embrace 10 years from now, 30 years from now with the same life expectancy, the same professional opportunities, the same access to capital and yes the same net worth. Then and only then will this time be truly different and then we will have a new normal.

Not the new normal of Covid-19, but of Covid-1619.

Some years ago the term Greatest Generation was coined by the well-regarded newsman Tom Brokaw, a reference to those born between 1900 and the 1920s who lived through the Great Depression. Many of them fought in World War II, while others supported the war industries back home.

I must confess something has always gnawed at me about the appellation and characterization of this cohort. Not that they were not valiant, brave dedicated Americans. But in my heart and under soft history, I always thought those Americans — white and black, Jew and gentile, north and south, young and old who fought for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s — represented the greatest generation. Those who were part of the Montgomery bus boycott, those who were in Birmingham fighting dogs and water hoses, at the lunch counter in Greensboro, marching across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ernie Green and Charlayne Hunter Gault integrating Central High School in Little Rock and the University of Georgia respectively. This to me is the greatest generation.

And so here we are on Independence Day in 2020 with the fire burning all around us. And we are looking for the next greatest generation. I am betting on the young white and black folks that are in the streets to finally turn us into the beloved community that Howard Thurman championed his entire spiritual life and that King and others died for. A world where barriers of divisiveness that separate individual from individual, group from group, nation from nation, race from race, barriers that create suspicion, hatred, violence and death will be torn down.

Richard Lewis Taylor writes the Oak Bluffs column and is the author of Martha’s Vineyard: Race, Property and the Power of Place. Condensed and edited from a July 5 speech delivered at Union Chapel.