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The American Dream Struggles to Breathe

Washington D.C. City workers begin painting “Black Lives Matter” on 16th Street near the White House (Photo by CNN)

The murders of Ahmaud Arberry and George Floyd in a southern rural town and a major urban center in the North have awakened us to how the American dream has excluded many U.S. residents for a long time.  We knew that Article I of the U.S. Constitution counted black slaves as only three fifths of a person.  We knew that the freeing of slaves in 1863 was followed by discrimination, degradation and lynching of black citizens in the country.  We might have been awakened by the reversal of provisions of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act by the Shelby v. Holder decision of the Supreme Court in 2013.  We might have known how systematic exclusion of blacks and other persons of color from the American dream drove the campaign that elected Donald Trump as President of the country.

As a student in an integrated, half African-American high school in Indianapolis, I should have learned that the nation’s founding principle in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” still has not been embraced by all our citizens.  Since I didn’t learn it in high school, I should have learned it from what occurred at the 50th Reunion of my Class in 2014.  Our class had seen the School make significant strides toward racial harmony and cooperation in the school and city.

When my brother graduated from Shortridge High School in 1959, fewer than five per cent of the students were black. Five years later when I graduated, there had been significant integration of black students at the School.  Our class was at least half African-American.  We had elected a black girl as Junior Prom Queen for the first time.  A black group was finally selected to participate in the school’s Junior Vaudeville fund raiser.  As Shortridge’s 100th class to study where writer Kurt Vonnegut, former Sen. Richard Lugar and other community leaders had also studied we could take pride in helping prepare the School for continuing its role in the city’s growth.

But whatever contributions we had made to the School’s healthy transition in racial composition and racial harmony was ignored at the 50th reunion.  No mention was made of our struggle with racial issues and the outbreaks of conflict. I had gone to the reunion to celebrate how we had contributed some signs of progress in the easing of tensions.  That none of the speakers nor any part of the program made reference to the example in race relations our class had set disappointed and finally baffled me.

The murders by police of the past month and the post-Obama era retreat from pursuit of racial justice and healing highlights that the vision of this country as championing “all men are created equal” has again been countered by political developments of recent years.  One of the two major political parties has developed strategies of gaining and maintaining power by restricting the right to vote, restricting the path to citizenship, and packing the judicial system with appointees devoted to preserving rule by the minority of whites that continues to wield economic power.

The most significant change in the nation’s recoil from the dream of equal rights for all is the fact that there is now a knee on the neck of many more people of color in the U.S. Blacks are now joined by increasing numbers of immigrants from south of the U.S. border who are dominated by a system that excludes them from acceptance as U.S. citizens while benefiting from their low cost labor.  It has become clearer that the Party controlling most state legislatures, the Senate and the Presidency has deliberately prevented reform of immigration laws as essential to keeping their hold on political power.  It is widely recognized that overwhelming Latinx support for the election of Barack Obama helped put the first African-American in the Presidency. 

In the Minneapolis mural near the site of his death, George Floyd’s name is painted along with that of other black citizens’ fatalities in the hands of police. (Photo by Bebeto Mathews/AP) A photo gallery of Floyd protest murals around the world may be seen at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2020/jun/05/george-floyd-murals-worldwide-street-artists?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

So now in 2020 it is not only white acceptance of African-Americans as full citizens of the U.S. with equal rights that will signal advance in making real the country’s best version of itself.  It is white acceptance of the Spanish speaker, the Asian immigrant and their children, and Arab Americans that is demanded of us all, the whites who also immigrated here and the Africans forcibly brought to these shores.  Our youth know this.  Our youth who are now marching in protest far out number the young citizens whose minds and souls have been poisoned with the old myths of racial superiority.  The protesting youth are bent on moving the country’s reality closer to its dream.

People of all ages are now marching and demonstrating in defiance of the global pandemic and in defiance of the pandemic that has afflicted the country since its founding.  The language and the myths of white superiority have been our original sin and our greatest weakness since the nation’s founding.  Efforts to counter the systemic racism are being led by persons with global roots.  A young Latinx labor organizer friend summed up his work as helping save the nation from itself.  The police, politicians and their supporters determined to keep their knees on the necks of people of color in the U.S. perpetuate the country’s death wish.  I believe they are vastly outnumbered by the persons marching in the streets and their supporters who are crying out for the breath and long life of the dream that could make this nation a great one.  I hope and pray that our democracy has survived the attacks, past and future, on the voting rights of its citizens and that the November election results will reflect the marchers’ demands for real change in this nation.