Promise of equality in nation’s founding an elusive goal worth striving for

Supreme Court Affirmative Action

Jose Luis Magana / AP

Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Thursday, June 29, 2023, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor.

The Declaration of Independence did far more than just declare the 13 united colonies to be “free and independent states; absolved from all allegiance to the British crown.” It also declared a series of principles and aspirations that the signatories believed should guide the United States and any government that rules over free people.

Among these principles are the self-evident truths that most of us learned about in grade school: “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.”

Despite the eloquence of these words and their foundational role in forming what we now think of as the American dream, most Americans know that these words did not then, and do not today, reflect reality for most Americans.

Women were neither seen as equal nor reflected in the Declaration whatsoever. It would be more than a century before they gained even basic legal protections such as the right to vote, own property in their own name or exercise some control and autonomy over their bodies. Today, bodily autonomy is once again under fire and women have yet to achieve other forms of equality such as equal pay for equal work.

The same is true for Black Americans, who, for the first 90 years of the country’s existence, could be considered property instead of people. This status left them far from equal, and left their lives, liberty and happiness to the whims of their wealthy owners, some of whom included our nation’s Founders.

It took a war that pitted neighbor against neighbor and nearly destroyed the union to end slavery in the United States. It was another century after that before America secured basic legal rights and protections for Black Americans. Even then, we did not fulfill the promise of the Declaration.

Today, racial discrimination closes off numerous opportunities for Black Americans to pursue liberty, happiness and prosperity. Simultaneously, racial profiling and systemic failures in our criminal justice system allow Black lives to be taken without cause or due process.

The same is true of Indigenous Americans, whose ability to pursue life, liberty and happiness became decidedly less unalienable when Manifest Destiny and the discovery of gold and other precious resources transformed the land they called home for millennia into killing fields. Today, they continue to fight for basic rights such as reliable access to water and other essentials of life, the liberties of sovereign nations with enforceable treaties and the happiness and pride that comes from preserving sacred historic sites and cultural and linguistic traditions.

Women, immigrants, LGBTQ+ people, low- and middle-income people of all races and ethnicities, the list goes on and on of Americans whose basic freedoms face accelerated threats and newly lost rights because of their identity, appearance, culture or wealth.

The vast majority of these Americans aren’t looking for handouts, they simply want a fair opportunity to pursue the American dream. But recent actions by conservative judges and lawmakers aren’t making that pursuit any easier.

Just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court barred the consideration of race in college admissions decisions — a decision that ignores the long history of oppression and discrimination against Black and brown Americans.

Already this year, Republican lawmakers have proposed hundreds of bills across the country that target women, immigrants and Black, brown and LGBTQ+ people. The proposed legislation seeks to do everything from placing government in the middle of health care discussions between parents, patients and health care providers, to silencing the voices of people who have spent decades fighting to have their histories and identities included in U.S. educational curriculum.

All of the proposals seek to relegate people who lack wealth and power to the margins of society. Some of them even promote dangerous propaganda that threatens the lives of individuals who are simply trying to live their lives with honesty and integrity.

This eagerness to strip the rights of others and snarling defiance of the core ideas that make this nation great even extends to wild attempts by the Republican Party to aggressively limit the opportunity to vote itself and, if the vote doesn’t go their way, tamper with the results.

This Independence Day, each American should take the opportunity to celebrate the ways in which the United States has made progress in preserving the rights to life, liberty and happiness for all Americans. But in doing so, we should also reflect upon the ways in which we have failed to fulfill the promises of the Declaration and other inspirational documents in our nation’s history.

Then, we should get to work creating a more perfect union, fulfilling the promises of equality under the law and dignity in the eyes of our fellow Americans.

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