In the wake of the hatred, bigotry, and violence on display this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the wide perception that the President of the United States was slow to clearly condemn the white supremacist movement that lay behind it, the African American CEO of Merck Pharmaceuticals, Kenneth Frazier, resigned from a presidential advisory board related to American industry. His conscience would not allow him to remain a member, and I respect him deeply for his decision.
In his statement, he included the following: “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry, and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal (emphasis added).”
While I agree with the point Mr. Frazier is making, and while I fully endorse the idea that all people are created equal, I’m afraid that Mr. Frazier’s statement makes a critical error by saying that this notion that all people are created equal is an American ideal. The sad truth, I’m afraid, is that it is not, and it really never has been.
Mr. Frazier is not the only one to make such statements in the aftermath of this weekend’s violence. There have been many invocations from all sorts of different people extolling the American ideal of equality and its betrayal by the white supremacist movement. But I think it is important that we not distort our own history, which is closely tied to our current reality.
If one were to ask where this alleged American ideal of universal equality is to be found, most people would point to the Declaration of Independence, which reads, in part, “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….” At first glance, this statement would seem to support the alleged American ideal of universal equality. Until one stops to consider what the signers of the Declaration understood the words “all men” to refer to. First in their definition would have come white men. And then, perhaps, white women — although, they did not see women as possessing the same rights as men. For example, when the new republic was set up, women were not given the right to vote. Their definition of “all men” did not include black men or women — and, indeed, some of the signers of the Declaration were slave owners, who did not see their slaves as really being fully human.
All of this points to one clear truth: that the men who were most intimately involved in establishing the ideological and philosophical foundations of the American Revolution and of the republic which was born out of it did not believe in universal equality. They did not believe that all human beings regardless of sex or color were all the same. And realizing this should cause our mental image of early America as a light to the nations to flicker more than a little.
I do not wish to imply that the founders were not visionaries in their own way. They imagined a form of government that had never existed before in our world, and they expanded the boundaries of democracy, self-governance, and opportunity further than they had ever been pushed before. But they did not push them as far as they could have. For all their genius, for all their vision, they stopped short of enshrining any notion of universal human equality into our foundational documents. And as the American project got underway, the notion that there were those who were not entitled to full equality lingered in American society.
The impact of the limits of human equality in American life erupted in the Civil War, whose conclusion was indeed the elimination of slavery, but not the abolition of the idea that African Americans were somehow less than white Americans. The result of the Civil War was, perhaps, that African Americans began to be seen more as human beings and less as property, but they were certainly seen as second-class human beings. This legacy erupted again in the Civil Rights movement, whose conclusion convinced many white, liberal Americans that the problem of racism in America had been definitively dealt with — though I suspect non-white Americans could have told us that wasn’t true, and probably tried to do so, though most of us were no longer listening.
Now, in 2017, we see another eruption of the myth of American equality: that there continue to be, in the heart of our nation, people who do not accept the idea that all people are created equal, and are prepared to loudly proclaim their belief that Native Americans, African Americans, Jews, Mexicans, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and others who do not look or act like themselves have no place among us. They were not born with these beliefs. They have been taught to believe these things, and that teaching follows a lineage that moves all the way back to the founding of the country, and of the failure of the American project to truly embrace the full equality of all.
So let us not say that universal equality is an American ideal. It is not, and it never has been. But that is not to say that we should not seek to make it an American ideal. Just as there are many in this country who do not believe all people are equal, there are many who do. Many more than lived in this country when it was founded. But this will not be an easy goal to reach. We must come to terms with our true legacy, which is one of exclusion. We must come to terms with the limits of the vision on which America was founded. We must learn to take from that vision what is true and lasting, and reject what needs to be cast aside. We must begin the American project again, and dedicate ourselves to a proposition that is entirely absent from our founding documents: that all people are truly created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.