What in the world could they have been thinking?

That’s one of the questions (or, at least, one hopes it is) that most white Americans ask themselves periodically when contemplating the evil of human slavery – the institution that undergirds so much of their modern privilege and wealth. How could any human being ever think themselves entitled to own another human because of their skin color?

But, of course, as many Native Americans regularly remind us, the brutal enslavement of millions of Africans and people of African descent is far from the nation’s only original sin. And it’s also far from the only example from American history that readily gives rise to that question – “What in the world could they have been thinking?”

What in the world could white people have been thinking when they denied even the most rudimentary of civil rights to Black Americans and enforced racist miscegenation laws for another century after the end of slavery?

What in the world could American men have been thinking when they denied women the right to vote for nearly a century-and-a-half, along with an array of basic property rights, for another half-century-plus after that?

What in the world could the nation’s factory owners have been thinking at the turn of the last century when they employed thousands of preadolescents in virtual peonage?

What in the world could the nation’s political leaders have been thinking when they imprisoned 120,000 Japanese Americans in internment/concentration camps during World War II?

What in the world could leaders of all parties and races have been thinking when they made LGBTQ+ people criminals and denied them the most basic of human rights – like the right to marry – right up until 2015?

And, as even a moment’s honest contemplation reveals, new entries continue to emerge (and hopefully always will) in the list of “what in the world could they have been thinking?” questions.

Even comfortable progressives who now smugly contemplate their own relative enlightenment will (one suspects and hopes, anyway) continue to learn and progress and look back years from now on their own blind spots and prejudices and ask, “what in the world were we thinking?”

Of course, the encouraging flipside to this phenomenon is that many people – even some of the chief architects of the nation’s top “what in the world could they have been thinking? moments – i.e., the old, white and privileged men who make up roughly 10% of the population – can and do learn, see the errors of their and their forebears’ past ways, and find paths to growth and progress.

President Joe Biden signs the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law in the East Room of the White House on June 17, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

For a classic example, consider the man who signed into law this week’s Juneteenth national holiday into law three years ago.

As anyone old enough to remember the treatment of Prof. Anita Hill during the U.S. Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas will attest, President – then Senator — Joe Biden was and is no saint. Rather, he was and is an imperfect human being with plenty of foibles and prejudices who was and is capable of having his own “what in the world was he thinking?” moments.

But there’s another thing that this week’s holiday serves to remind us about the president – one that distinguishes him from a large percentage of his peers in the political world: Biden is also a man who can see the past clearly and honestly and who learns and progresses.

Fifty years ago, as a young and “moderate” border state senator, the notion that Biden would ultimately become a champion of civil and human rights, a partner to the nation’s only Black president and vice president, and the proud signatory of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act – something he called “one of the greatest honors I have had as president” – would have seemed absurd.

But today, thanks to his willingness and ability to think and learn and grow and confront the nation’s “what in the world were they thinking?” moments, Biden has become one of the nation’s most impactful presidents when it comes to civil and human rights and an important bridge figure in the nation’s history.

And this, of course, represents a sharp and admirable break with his predecessor – a president who devoted his term in office looking to return to the nation’s past and who never acknowledged, much less admitted and apologized for, numerous direct acts of racial and gender prejudice and discrimination for which he was personally responsible (be it the false and racist “birther” attacks on President Barack Obama, his pre-political career record as a discriminatory landlord, his embrace of white nationalist groups while in office, or his sexual misconduct toward women).

What in the world could they have been they thinking?

This week is a good one to contemplate that question with respect to a lot of moments in American history – even the 146-year delay in recognizing the Juneteenth holiday itself. But it’s also a fine week to think honestly about our modern politics and whether our present-day leaders will have the courage and honesty to keep asking it.

This commentary is republished from NC Newsline, a sister publication of Kentucky Lantern and part of the nonprofit States Newsroom network.