Pride and Principle in America

Part Two of Black History Month: David Cappella asks if America has cashed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “promissory note” for racial justice in 2016.

“America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just.”

-G.K. Chesterton

“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

The United States was founded on the principle of a government accountable to the people—a government concerned with granting citizens the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This idealism has become deeply embedded in American national identity over time, it has become melded with its characteristic entrepreneurial, religious, and democratic spirit. Liberty and justice is as proudly American as baseball and apple pie. But does this apply for all Americans?

As this election year transmogrifies before our eyes into something not seen since the days of George Wallace and William Jennings Bryan, perhaps it is time we, as citizens, take a hard look in the mirror and ask tough questions. Freedom, equality, and opportunity are heady words, but the record of American history, particularly Black History, has revealed them to also be hypocritical and duplicitous words. We have reached a time where we need to reexamine our nation and the extent to which words meet actions.

If we are about freedom, why do we have such high rates of imprisonment? If we are about equality, why is Mr. Trump, who advocates banning entrants to the U.S. on the basis of religion, a leading candidate for president? And if we are about opportunity, why do we observe a school achievement gap between students from lower income families and the rest—when we have known for decades that socioeconomic conditions of the family are the greatest predictor of achievement?

These are complicated questions, critical questions. Necessary questions. They hit at gaping moral blind spots in American identity and character, they cut deep. But they should not lead to destructive self-vindictiveness. An overweening conscience can tear apart morality, divide, and bring numbing paralysis. We must forgive our mistakes, but forgive vigorously, with a renewed passion for rebuilding national character in clear recognition of those who have been wronged.

African Americans have contributed so much vitality to national life already, giving America groundbreaking artists, thinkers, and orators—just imagine what they, along with Latinos, will bring when they are all able to equally access social and economic life. This recalls the vision of Dr. King—a faith in the transformation of the “jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

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