Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Promises Not Yet Kept

“For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on,
the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
—Senator Ted Kennedy,
1980 Democratic convention concession speech

To be an American is to be an optimist. How else can you explain the whole of American history, from its original settlement to its Revolution and Constitution to its becoming the most powerful and inspirational nation in the world? It has never been an easy journey, but it has been a continuous one, always moving towards “something better for myself and others.” But an optimist can also simultaneously be a realist. How else can you explain the idealism of the Founding Fathers juxtaposed against the necessary steps to start an independent country and a radically new form of government? Or adopting a Bill of Rights for the individual citizen while instituting a strong central government of national laws? Or Abraham Lincoln bending those laws to hold our country together against the divisive issue of the slavery of other human beings? Our idealism inspires us to determine where we seek to go as a country, and to believe that we can get there. Our realism shows us how to get there, which demands that we continually measure how far we have gotten and how far away still is our destination.

Our Declaration of Independence states our inspirational goal in its first paragraph: “… that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It affirms that as an American we all start out with an equal shot at those inalienable rights. It does not guarantee that each of us will accomplish those goals, but America is obligated to give us that chance at it. To that end, our Constitution provides a framework for how these rights will be effected: by forming “a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for our common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

If our aspiration is clear, the same cannot be said about its realization. In the everyday lives of the people, our shortcomings glare in the spotlight of history and current events. That requires us to make a full accounting of our progress, because we have fallen short of our goals. We do this accounting not to minimize or denigrate the very real and substantive accomplishments we have made as a nation over the years, but to refine our current targets and to reenergize our efforts.

The most glaring shortcoming started in our beginning with the importing of hundreds of thousands of African men and women, and subsequently their descendants, to be slaves in the economic service of Colonial masters. Another major shortcoming was written into that Declaration of Independence, which said that “all MEN are created equal,” not only skipping over the enslaved Africans but also the half of our country made up of women. It also skipped over a good number of free men who would come to be deemed as unsuited for full civic rights due to a lack of education, or property ownership, or some other contrived qualification.

So the tug-of-war between our national inspirational self and our actual realized self was there from the beginning. Over the years, we continued to alternate between establishing barriers to the full rights of citizenship, and then to selectively tearing down those barriers. From the barriers set in place to the Africans and to women, we would move on to building barriers to Native-Americans through broken treaties, land seizures, and their forced removal to new, confined reservations. Reservations that would be illegally reclaimed when previously unknown economic value was discovered on the lands (e.g. gold in the Black Hills; oil in Oklahoma). Next would come barriers for the Spaniards and Mexicans who originally occupied the lands of the Southwest and California.  The welcomed anticipation of U.S. citizenship from Mexican dictatorship devolved into yet another version of “native” subservient status.

In the mid-1800s through early 1900s, barriers were focused on immigration status. First came the Irish escaping the potato famine; then came the Asians seeking work; during and following WWI came the Eastern Europeans; and in the 2nd half of the 1900s came the Middle Easterners and Central Americans. In spite of Lady Liberty’s welcoming words, each group encountered new barriers directed at them. Each was met with some forms of cultural, economic, employment, housing, education, safety, religious, and civil liberties exclusion rather than the embrace of freedoms. Immigration and ethnic exclusions often went hand-in-hand with the great economic divide between the super-rich and the destitute poor from the 1880s on.

In spite of breaking down many of these barriers, these exclusions still exist today for far too many of our diverse Americans. Each of these groups can rightly claim “progress made” over the last 150 years; each can also point to the incompleteness of that progress. Today’s battles for women are focused primarily on issues of equality, comparable workplace pay, safety from sexual assault, and control of their own medical and physical decisions against rules established predominantly by men. For African-Americans and Latino-Americans, it is a return focus on voting rights and economic opportunity – a regression from 50 years of progress made. Religious neutrality for all Americans is under siege. Resistance continues against gender-neutral equality in lieu of traditional social relationships.

It is often hard to understand why we continue to put such barriers to human growth in place – barriers often instituted by people whose ancestors were once barred themselves. It is as if extending the American benefits to others is seen as a net loss to the extender, when in fact the giving ultimately comes back around to ourselves. Yet when we may be prone to feel discouraged by what seems to be a never-ending effort, we do well to remember the progress made: the ending of slavery by law, and by war at the cost of 600,000 lives; universal free public education; women’s right to vote; Social Security and Medicare underpinnings for the young and the elderly; the G.I. Bill’s pathway to the middle class; Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s; the ban of discrimination in housing, employment, education and public accommodations; the Constitutional decision for the legality of same-sex marriage; college enrollments mirroring the demographics of our population; the rise of minorities into the middle class.

It is all in process, but it is a process of progress. It should not have to be this hard. But perhaps for some greater purposefulness, it may need to be. Nevertheless, we commit to continuing to move forward.

“Each generation goes further than the generation preceding it
because it stands on the shoulders of that generation.
You will have opportunities beyond anything we've ever known.”
—President Ronald Reagan