On this week when we celebrate the 247th anniversary of the creation of the United States of America, we are reminded of the wonderful words in the Declaration of Independence: “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.” The words reflect the admirable side of America, a country created in pursuit of an ideal, where each person would have the individual liberty to pursue their goals in a society that gave equal opportunity to everyone. This central, positive Enlightenment ideal is part of the very heart and soul of the United States, built by persons who fled the control of religious and political powers in Europe that imposed their rules against individual freedom.
That ideal has created wonders, America’s incredible entrepreneurial creativity is possible only in a country where individual initiative is prized, where the government does not impose excessive constraints, where hard work can lead to virtually unlimited success, where the real possibility of accumulating financial wealth acts as a positive motivation for the creation and development of great businesses, discovering and exploiting fabulous new technologies that enrich society, contributing to progress in every domain. In the same spirit, Americas can be so generous, charitable, caring for each other, and much of what we see operating at the local level shows the generous, concerned with their fellow man, sharing, side of the American character.
It is this generous characteristic of America during the Administrations of John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson that introduced Affirmative Action, a concept to help advance racial equality. It was a bold step, recognizing that Blacks did not have equal opportunity in America, to help compensate for this deficiency it was necessary to implement policies that would favor Blacks over others, to level the unfair playing field. I remember at the time feeling proud to be American, a country of generosity and fairness. I also recognized that by favoring one category of Americans, it could mean disfavoring another, and that such a policy raised serious ethical questions that did not have easy answers. Nevertheless, I was convinced that Affirmative Action was a positive step for the country, helping it progress in dealing with a fundamental flaw in the US ideal.
The ideal of individual freedom and opportunity for all that is so much a part of American DNA was warped from the beginning. For the Founding Fathers, freedom and equality only applied to a selected portion of the population: white men who already had a certain level of wealth, specifically excluding anyone else. The history of the US is created on three huge fault lines of exclusion, often violent: i) of the indigenous Indian population; America has yet to fully recognize and atone for the enormity of the crime against entire nations of Indians, ii) of black slaves, the free labor of which created the wealth of half of the country over centuries; dealing with the profound consequences of slavery defines much of the history of the country and continues to define many of the conflicts of today, and iii) women, the area where the most progress has been made to give half of the population equal rights, even though America is still far from treating women on an equal basis with men, there lingers many vestiges of a society that considered women as second class citizens.
America is a country of profound contradiction, a near split personality, so much positive and yet so much negative. And it is sad to observe that in our national politics, and in particular in a large portion of the Republican Party, the Party of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis and even Mitch McConnell, we see a side of America that clings to the past, a callous world where power is held by rich, white men, who manage it for maximum financial gain, leaving little room for those who are different, whether they be Black, Latino, Gay or otherwise not fitting the mold. Any evolution towards a different, multiracial, egalitarian, generous, more democratic model is to be prevented at all costs.
Affirmative Action is a policy that flies in the face of such a vision of America, it recognizes the cruelty of the country’s racial history, the systematic abuse of Blacks. Ever since its promulgation by the Federal Government in the 1960s, it has faced a backlash, culminating in the current conservative Supreme Court’s decision declaring it unconstitutional and henceforth illegal in its use in selecting students for certain college admissions. The decision will lead to limiting any Affirmative Action in many other areas. Although I recognize that there may be some ethical justification to consider it unfair to favor one group over others, I have no doubt that this decision is a step backward for the country. What is equally troubling is the broad impact this particular Supreme Court is likely to have in many areas of American life, promulgating in multiple critical decisions a conservative vision that in many areas will slow the progress that American needs to make towards a balanced, multiracial, dynamic and tolerant society.