The first assertion of liberty in the U.S. Declaration of Independence reads as follows:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.
Is there any American that would stand up and say – no – that’s wrong? It’s impossible to imagine.
And yet, there are those that would bar persons of color from their neighborhoods; that would deny blacks and Latinos equal access to mortgages; that would strive to make it more difficult for any minority they denigrate to register and vote.
Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Rights proclaims that:
All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.
Is there anyone that would take a contrary position in an open debate? I predict there would be no takers.
And yet, among the many police dedicated to fulfilling their role in society there are some others that would refuse to act when a person of color is in need of protection; who would actively intimidate a member of a minority; who would use excessive force, even to the point of death.
How is this possible?
It’s possible because we have never lived up to the high-minded standard our societies have set to regulate our behavior. It’s possible because those in power are willing to shield those acting under their authority when they violate the trust placed in them. Most of all it’s because too many white people are willing to look the other way when people of color are oppressed.
The shame and the tragedy of recent events arises not from the fact they have happened now but because they have never stopped happening since Europeans first set foot on the continents of Africa and North America.
There was no new news when Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down and shot while jogging. Travon Martin was tracked by George Zimmerman and shot when Martin had the audacity to object to being stalked on a public street.
And there was no new news when George Floyd was asphyxiated. Black men – and even black children, like Emmett Till – have been strangled at the ends of ropes since the times of legal slavery.
It’s possible because anti-lynching laws have been introduced and defeated in Congress since 1918. The most recent attempt at passage of such a bill is currently being blocked by Representative Rand Paul.
It’s possible because the haves would rather enjoy what they have than share with those who have not, and care more about lowering taxes than raising the standard of living for those who suffer.
It’s possible because those that enjoy the reality of favored positions in society do not take the time to understand the reality of those trapped in an underclass. How many white people, for example, can get their heads around the belief of many people of color that they would be better off with no police at all?
And finally, It’s because people like me have been outraged for their entire lives about the plight of people of color and have done little about it other than voting responsibly.
Borrowing from the world of standards, it is axiomatic that a standard has neither validity nor utility unless it is pervasively adopted and uniformly applied. The historical problem in this country is that we have never universally adopted the standards to which the founders pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.
The way to redeem the vision that launched the first modern democracy is to fully embrace that dream, despite the original sin of the founding fathers, many of whom were slave owners.
The way forward to a truly just society may seem hard, but the first step could not be simpler. It’s no more complex than pledging to treat all persons as if they have truly been created equal.
If there is a cause for hope, it lies in the myriad white faces to be found in the footage of last week’s demonstrations across the globe. True, there were idealistic, mostly young freedom riders who left their comfortable lives in the north in the 1960s to support the civil rights movements in the south. Some of them were even killed. But the faces of the demonstrators back then who were being beaten by police and set upon by dogs were overwhelmingly black.
Today’s videos show thousands of white faces of all ages, but particularly young ones. Faces of people who have truly embraced the concept of equality, people who are willing to be seen and heard in support of that ideal. People willing to mass in tight proximity during an epic and deadly pandemic and in the face of ongoing violence by a minority of public servants.
It seems too much to hope that after so many centuries of falling short that we will, this time, finally and forever, universally adopt the standard upon which the legitimacy of the Declaration of Independence was based. In theory, it can be done.
But will it?
The answer can be yes, and the way forward as simple as pledging allegiance as a multitude to a standard that is inarguable rather than to a flag tainted by the actions of a few. And the answer must be yes, because common decency and the validity of our society demand nothing less.