Where Are We Going?

Jewish Light Editorial

“It’s my normal to live in a society that’s had a long history of racial strife. We’re in a much better place than we were when I was a young man here, but we have much work to do, particularly in our profession. Leaders in my position need to put their careers on the line to make sure we do things right.”

— Dallas Police Chief David Brown, Dallas Morning News, July 11

It is not easy to look on the bright side during perilous times. But we have to both remember from whence we came, as the highly regarded Chief Brown reminds us, and utilize those lessons to offer hope for the future.

The story of course precedes Brown’s nascent adulthood. It starts a couple centuries earlier, with a principled statement of independence and a set of constitutional laws that paved a roadmap for a progressive future.

Even with that, it took another century for the country to come to grips with some of its most serious moral flaws. Even then, after a bloody and protracted civil war, the battered and bruised union didn’t come wholly together as one, with resentment teeming from the losing side, and racism lingering under the pretext of states’ rights.

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It took more decades of industrially fed reconstruction and immigration to recognize that the inscription on France’s gift to us wasn’t simply a platitude, but an acknowledgment that all, from no matter where, were to be afforded equal treatment.

It took another couple of decades after that for the country to come to grips with the then-radical suggestion that “all men” being created equal should also include women.

And then, after defending our nation and the world along the way, it took several more decades for us to figure out that segregating our young children into race-divided classrooms was not the preferred way to promote equality.

And then it took the bravery, perseverance and sacrifices of many to insist on laws that would punish behavior that discriminated in housing, employment and other critical components of life based on race, gender, religion and more.

And thanks to all sorts of new inventions, time sped up and space got smaller, and the rights of still others who had been ostracized because of their sexual orientation, and then those who had been ostracized because of their gender orientation, were afforded as new laws and protections were adopted.

And just as we thought we had defeated unfairness and inequities, after all that, after so many painful and hard-fought progressions, we find ourselves in an era of real-time knowledge by everybody about everything, and we’re forced to look at our deepest flaws in the worst possible light.

Make no mistake, the flaws are real, and they are serious. Hate is bad enough when it seethes in the shadows, but when it roars in broad daylight, it reflects on us all and despite our progress, makes us question whether we can ever overcome our obstacles.

But here’s the thing: We have overcome, time and again, and we will do so in the future, time and again.

If anything, the immediacy and relentless nature of media today force us to examine our problems more directly, more emphatically. Unlike the past, when we could retreat to our respective corners, the issues are in plain view and, quite frankly, inescapable. This makes things uglier, and the temptation is to throw up our hands and concede defeat.

But ultimately, that has never been the case with this country. For the miracle of America is not its flawlessness, but its ability to confront its flaws and move ahead in a better way. 

It surely doesn’t seem like that’s possible when things like Orlando and Baton Rouge and Minneapolis and Dallas occur. It feels like there’s an utter lack of learning from our past transgressions. How could we possibly be this country, after all that we’ve faced, all that we’ve learned?

The answer, of course, is that progress is not linear. It comprises steps forward and steps backward, with success defined as achieving more of the former than the latter. 

We most definitely have taken many more steps forward than backward. That is no doubt of little solace for those whose lives have been surrendered as a result of our blunders. But if we take our cues, and our aspirations, from those who came before us, we know that despite our fits and starts, the promise of a better nation, and of a better world, is the reason that America came to be.