Greg Brecht In 1776, The Declaration of Independence announced in ringing words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…” This was a wildly radical notion at the time. There’s a possibility that our Founders got carried away by their rhetoric, because in 1776 not all men were equal. Even in the world of white male privilege, there was little equality. Factors such as possession of property, religion, and family connections conditioned that brave notion of equality. That vaunted equality characterized a small minority of the people then living in what became the United States. Women were largely excluded, as were slaves, free blacks, the Native peoples, children and poorer white males. Few then would have seen in the “all men created equal” as implying that men of differing races were equal.
So are we to conclude that the Founders who wrote those powerful words were hypocrites, who both praised equality and systematically denied it? By the standards of this 21st century, yes they were hypocrites. By the standards of their patriarchal time, they were wild-eyed radicals. All the signers of that document were at risk of being hanged as traitors. The Declaration has something of an in-your-face-King George flavor to it, as if a fraternity party of the colonial movers and shakers was having a wonderful time thinking up ways to insult their king. What they really did was open a Pandora’s box of unrelenting social change. Those radical words about all men being created equal changed early into an alleged universal manhood suffrage that came to include all white men, although not black men or Native men. That we lauded ourselves for high principles we did not actually honor has created a dynamic between hypocrisy and idealism. We claimed to be better than we actually were, and somehow that has inspired generation after generation of dogged hopefulness.
At Seneca Falls in 1848, the movement for women’s suffrage began, with a Declaration of Sentiments, saying that “all men and women are created equal.” One of the signers of that Declaration was Frederick Douglass, escaped slave and abolitionist activist. At another women’s convention in 1851, Sojourner Truth, another escaped slave and abolitionist activist made her famous “Ain’t I a woman?” speech. The fight for women’s rights and the fight to free the slaves were closely related. In theory, racial equality could have followed the emancipation of the slaves following the bloody Civil War. Black soldiers formed a tenth of the Union armies, and shed their blood to subdue the South, just like white soldiers did. Instead a raft of riots and decades of racial repression followed, as the white power structure in many areas fought a successful holding action against the notion that all people really were created equal.
The white power structure in California and elsewhere successfully pushed for laws limiting the immigration of people from Asia, and limiting the rights of Asian people already here. In the Southwest, the white power structure pushed aside the rights of Mexican Americans and limited them for decades. The rights of Native peoples continued to be denied, and in some cases worsened, as officials repressed Native religion and many customs, and took away large areas of land. Race riots and systematic police brutality maintained the white power structure in some areas of the country. But that powerfully subversive notion of all of us being created equal continued to motivate activists who really thought we could be as great as we said we were. That got women the vote a century ago, and some concessions to Native peoples, such as being given citizenship in 1924. Fast forward a century, through the rise of the Civil Rights movement, black and brown activism, Stonewall, and some solid achievements in gaining rights for people of color. In this year of 2018, we can celebrate some major achievements in racial equality.
But we can also rue that there are so many facts to the contrary. African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate five times as high as that of whites. The median net worth of households headed by whites is almost thirteen times the median net worth of households headed by blacks. Once again we are hearing calls to consider race in immigration, and an occupant of the White House prefers Norwegians to Haitians. We are once again seeing an intensification in the long-lasting antagonism between hypocrisy and hope over the notion that all are created equal.
Hope has won some important victories in the cause of racial and gender equality, but hope alone will never achieve full racial equality in the face of an established and powerful resistance to progressive ideas. There is a sea change happening, though. The combined percentage of Americans of African, Asian, Hispanic and Native origin is pushing 40%, and the majority of babies born since 2015 in the United States are majority minority.
Demographic change coupled with idealism and increasing political power of what for the moment are designated “minorities” promises better things in coming years. Racial equality may actually be achieved, but it will require more struggle. Finally the radical idea of more than two centuries ago, that everyone is created equal, may actually become real. Why there is such resistance to the idea that people of color are just as American as anyone is one of those historical factors that will leave historians of the next century scratching their heads at the incomprehensibility of it.