Saturday, July 14, 2012

Is America Possible? A Mid-Summer Reflection

A spirit of harmony can only survive if each of us remembers, when bitterness and self-interest seem to prevail, that we share a common destiny. – Barbara Jordan
The Fourth of July came and went this year in the midst of a summer heat wave. During a mid-week flash of high temperatures and humidity, the sweltering sun and oppressive air lingered deep into the evening twilight hours. The large oak trees surrounding our house in Jenkintown politely offered a gentle shade but little relief from temperatures exceeding 100 degrees over much of the country. I decided a new grill could wait.

Within a few days began major league baseball’s annual mid-Summer break, a brief solace from the long, daily grind of the 162-game season that is America’s pastime. As I watched on television these elite ballplayers, the best of the best, compete in this year’s All-Star game, I was struck by the amicable diversity that is baseball today; whites, Latinos, blacks, and Asians, some hailing from far-off lands and speaking the languages of their native tongues, playing an American-born game in a uniquely American setting; a medley of cultures and personalities bonded by the common language of baseball. It is America at its best, a socially harmonious meritocracy, where the competition is fair, the grass and dirt between the foul lines lacking prejudged barriers. It was not always so, but for most of the past sixty-five years, ever since Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby broke baseball’s color barriers in the National and American Leagues, baseball has helped America become a better reflection of itself.

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . The Declaration of Independence, authored by Thomas Jefferson and signed 236 years ago by 56 of our revolutionary forefathers, remains a powerful reminder of the possibility of America. These words continue to resonate, and speak to us, for they inspired a new nation and laid the foundation for sweeping social movements, for the end of slavery and the embrace of civil rights, to create a recognizably modern United States.

Still, there remains a lingering sense of dissatisfaction. The Declaration embodies an ideal of what the nation could someday be, but has not yet achieved. “I, too, sing America,” reminded the poet Langston Hughes in 1931. “I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen.” For 175 years before our declared independence, and for the first seventy years of our national existence, nearly one of every eight people on the American continent, many brought here by whips and chains, were treated as chattel, recognized neither as citizens nor persons. “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” asked Frederick Douglass in 1852. It is, he answered, “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

By 1860, nearly four million people in the United States (out of a total population of 31 million) were the property of slave owners. In Mississippi and Louisiana, the number of slaves exceeded the number of free citizens; in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, close to half of the population was enslaved. It took a violent and bloody civil war that cost the lives of 618,000 Union and Confederate soldiers to finally abolish slavery on the American continent. It took another hundred years before America’s promise could become possible with the defeat of Jim Crow and the end of legalized segregation. Even then, from the descendants of slaves and the sons and daughters of sharecroppers and cotton pickers could be heard Hughes’ cry, “America has never been America to me.” For many of the black underclass in our inner cities today, the poetry of Hughes continues to hit home: “O, let America be America again – The land that never has been yet – And yet must be – the land where every man is free.”

In the annals of history, no nation on Earth can boast of a perfectly just society. That America sought “to form a more perfect Union” as set forth in the Preamble to our Constitution, is a testament to our high aspirations, the uniqueness of the American ideal, and our peoples’ willingness to engage in an historic struggle to better humankind; to open minds and mend hearts. But to fulfill a national promise and pursue an ideal takes time. Advances come slowly.

When I was nine years old, I read From Ghetto to Glory (Popular Library, 1968), an autobiographical account of the life of St. Louis Cardinals pitching great, Bob Gibson. Born in the slums of Omaha, Nebraska, the youngest of seven children, Gibson described what it was like to grow up poor and black in America, before Brown v. Board of Education and the civil rights advances of the 1960’s, when segregation and racism prevailed throughout much of the country. This one book, about a childhood hero of mine, did as much to influence in positive ways my sense of racial justice as almost anything else in my life at that time. It is often the little things, a book (To Kill a Mockingbird), a movie (The Help, The Great Debaters), or a play (A Raisin in the Sun) that permits a nation to develop the empathy and understanding needed to slowly transform hearts and minds.

. . . that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Perhaps no phrase better personifies the American Dream than the right of Americans to the “Pursuit of Happiness.” To choose one’s profession or occupation, buy a home, educate our children, and enjoy the fruits of our land’s abundant resources are what drive American optimism and middle-class dreams of a bright future. But here, too, we have disappointed. In too many aspects of life, in matters of economics, politics, and finance, housing and health care, education and opportunities for advancement, money and wealth matter to an unhealthy degree. Not since the eve of the Great Depression has inequality and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a small few been greater than it is today. When the top 1% of income earners boasts of more net worth than the bottom 90%, and the top 0.01% of households (about 14,000) receives more income than the poorest 25 million households; when corporate money maintains undue influence over our political life and public purse, and the Supreme Court fails to distinguish between free speech and unfettered corporate power, the idea of America remains unfulfilled.

“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor,” said John F. Kennedy on a cold, bright January day in 1961, “it cannot save the few who are rich.” Only when homelessness and large-scale poverty are things of the past; when good jobs are guaranteed to all who want to work; when health care is a right and not a privilege and our public education is among the best in the world; when racial and ethnic disparities are eliminated and children of all backgrounds have a fighting chance to succeed on equal terms with everyone else; only then, will America truly be America.

Is America possible? In some areas of American life – in sports, art, and music; in public accommodations; in the ethnic and racial makeup of our elected leaders in many of America’s largest cities – the idea and promise of America has taken root. African Americans today are listed among the ranks of CEO’s and Congressmen, news anchors and police chiefs, military generals and big city mayors. Four years ago, we elected our first African American president. We are, indeed, a land of opportunity, where class and race and prejudice can be overcome through hard work, education, and a little luck. But as I walk the streets of Philadelphia, I see another, darker side of America; an America where the mentally ill homeless wander the streets, beg for food and sleep on park benches; where pockets of extreme poverty and despair exist on the outskirts of high-priced condominiums and four-star restaurants, hidden from tourists and commuters. Black unemployment in our major cities is more than double the national average, fueling the scourge of drugs, crime, and violence that has plagued us for decades. For the forgotten underclass, America has not yet arrived.

I love America and its boundless energy, the diversity of its people, its natural beauty and abundant resources, its creativity and ingenuity. For me, a white man with a middle-class upbringing, a loving and supportive family, and a good education, America has been everything it promised, a land of free choices that allows the individual to pursue happiness and struggle with disappointment on his or her own terms. But some people seem to love a country that never existed and despise the country we have become. For those willing to impose a higher, more honest standard, we must acknowledge that the promise of equality in the Declaration of Independence, our aspirations “to form a more perfect Union” in the Constitution, our dreams of “liberty and justice for all” in the Pledge of Allegiance, have at times fallen short. To express genuine love for one’s country requires not uncritical praise, but an honest dialogue with a true friend. We should celebrate our accomplishments and appreciate our history. We must also recognize our failings and press for change.

When we work together and embrace our common destiny, we can do great things. Like a good baseball team, we do best when we strive to achieve our individual potential while supporting, backing up, and recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of our teammates, regardless of ethnic and racial differences. Together, we have created a rich and vibrant democracy, with a spirited and noisy public square; we have developed some of the world’s greatest universities, museums, research centers, newspapers, and public institutions; we have a dynamic and innovative economy and a strong work ethic; we are a land of diversity and beauty and energy. But we must never lose sight of our aspirations. “We have flown the air like birds and swum the sea like fishes,” said Martin Luther King, “but have yet to learn the simple act of walking the earth like brothers.

1 comment:

  1. Mark,

    I no longer have the energy and, apparently, I'm a bad teacher. Fortunately, Bill Whittle has lots of energy and his writing, presentation and logic are flawless.

    Rich R.