Some time ago I involved myself in a discussion on Facebook with an old friend about different forms of discrimination. The details of that discussion, while important in their own right, aren't important to my purpose in writing today, so I'll not share them now.
In many ways my friend is traditional and conservative, and that brings us into conflict from time to time. I can't speak for my friend, but I've always tried to treat him and his views with respect. He works hard and tries to live his life the right way, with compassion and common sense. He's intelligent, and he can be funny and self-effacing and charming. And even though we often disagree about how we make things better, I know he shares the modern core American values of equality and essential justice.
Near the end of our discussion, which as between him and me was awfully civil (others couldn't help but insert their own insults and name-calling), my friend asked, "Where are my defenders? Who is protecting my civil rights?"
These are excellent questions.
Earlier this year, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It would be no exaggeration to call that law one of the most important laws in American history. Its importance is attributable in many ways to the fundamental shift it represented in our view of what it means to be American. Before the Act, and before the Civil Rights Movement generally, the general viewpoint was that the essence of America, our most important value and virtue, was individual freedom--the right to plan and execute one's own life according to individual choice, constrained only by ability.
The changes to the laws that happened in the 1950s and the 1960s, including Brown v. Board of Education (and a handful of cases that preceded it), down through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and several other pieces of landmark legislation, succeeded in shifting--to some extent--the view that our most important value is equality. That doesn't mean that we don't value individual freedom now, just as it doesn't mean that we didn't value equality before. But it's a shift in what occupies the top spot.
These laws, to be sure, were reactionary. By that, I mean that they became laws in response to situations that had become intolerable. Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 focuses on (and bans) discrimination in public accommodations based upon race, national origin, skin color, and religion because many individuals and many state governments used the guise of individual freedom to make life harder for minorities.
As such, it's not unreasonable for white people today--most of whom have never intentionally discriminated against racial or religious minorities--to view the Act as a special accommodation for racial and religious minorities that has no application for themselves.
The truth is that there are times when white people are targeted for discrimination, or for something that appears to be discrimination. Sometimes it can seem that racial minorities in particular are given special, undeserved consideration for things like promotions in employment. In some cases, that inference is legitimate, mostly because of well-meaning people who inappropriately apply principles, like affirmative action, that were designed to help qualified members of underrepresented minorities get considered for positions, to unqualified members of underrepresented minorities in a bid to appear more racially diverse. That kind of laziness helps no one, but it perhaps illustrates how far we have to go yet.
Sometimes that viewpoint leads some white folks to believe that minorities have access to a special, more generous form of welfare that white people can't access. They don't, but the idea that they do has been planted and stoked by conservative politicians who hope to motivate white people to the polls in order to cancel out the influence of "welfare queens" who drive Cadillacs and eat steak on the taxpayers' dime.
As I see it, part of the fundamental difference of opinion that has made us Americans more divided politically than we have ever been is rooted in the silent debate about the shift from individual freedom to equality as our highest American value. We don't talk much about that in the abstract; instead, we fight proxy wars over the minimum wage, welfare reform, immigration policy, government spending and taxes, and a thousand other seemingly binary issues.
What we don't seem to understand is that these concepts need not be at war with each other. In the hierarchy of American values, what we are striving for is not individual freedom or equality but both, in the form of fundamental fairness. We all need help from time to time, some of us more than others. We all need defenders. We all need civil rights. We all need the empathy of others. Perhaps most importantly, we all need second and third and fourth chances, even if we don't deserve them, strictly speaking. We are all Americans, and we Americans are all in this together.