Time to deliver promises of declaration to all
“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. -- That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, -- That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
Declaration of Independence
Saturday is Independence Day, when Americans celebrate the rights, freedoms, and promise of a better life first declared by the founding fathers on July 4, 1776.
But this year, more than any in the last half century, there are real questions about how much of that promise has been delivered, especially to minority communities and people of color. Recent protests across the country, sparked by the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, have brought to light systemic racism, discrimination, and injustice in people and institutions across the country and causing many in the country to question the very underpinnings of American democracy.
Is the Fourth a day that can truly be celebrated by all? Has the promise of the Declaration of Independence been delivered to all corners of the country and to all its citizens? Are people of color really given the opportunity to enjoy the full benefit of those “unalienable rights?” How do our laws and institutions do a better job of delivering the great promise contained in the words above? In short, how does the country assure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
Looking back to the time when the Declaration of Independence was drafted, it’s important to consider the context. When the framers spoke of “Men” they were thinking specifically of white, land-owning, respectably-employed males of voting age. Women, slaves, and those considered to be of lesser origins were not really intended to be the beneficiaries of the promises contained in the declaration. Women were not expected to have the same rights as “Men” and were expected to be subservient to their husbands. Blacks and others were more likely to be considered property or commoners than equals.
We’ve come so far. Times have evolved, certainly, but there is still so much more to be done. Have we really reached those lofty ideals? Have they been extended to all the people who populate the United States?
Given what has happened during the past month everyone in this country should be asking themselves those questions. The answers will not be easy, cannot be boiled down to a phrase or a sound bite, and will take real, systemic change “to alter or to abolish” those systems of government that have been limiting or destructive to many of its citizens.
Change on the scale required to overcome the systemic racism and inherent disadvantages that have been baked into our country’s laws and institutions will likely take a number of years. Looking back at another period in time, it was during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that the country last experienced the kind of unrest now on display. There were big advances and much systemic change, including desegregation, the “Great Society” legislation, and more.
But as the ‘70s and ‘80s came and went, much of the change called for was co-opted, rolled back or simply ignored. Voter suppression, blight and neglect in big city housing projects, education inequities, and other systemic imbalances and injustices continue to make true equality elusive for many. That’s not to slight the efforts of those who continued the fight and those who found success despite the roadblocks thrown their way. It’s just pointing out how racism and inequities moved from overt to more subtle versions.
Finding those subtle instances of racism may be the biggest challenge faced by this country. The overt ones, like Floyd’s death, are there for all to see. It’s the little things, like restrictive zoning laws, gerrymandered voting districts, and disparities in education between rich and poor communities, that will be harder to root out and more difficult to reform.
But, if the country is to ever truly deliver on the promises embedded in the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal,” then the effort must be broad, deep, and ongoing.