The concept of justice, blind and impartial, was made a part of the foundation of the United States since its beginnings as a nation. Provided for in the U.S. Constitution and in the other foundational documents, justice is undoubtedly an ideal we, as a people, have attempted to use as a guiding principle.
However, acknowledging that, we must also acknowledge the incongruity that even at the time these foundations were laid, they were done so imperfectly.
The Declaration of Independence, for instance, makes reference to “merciless Indian savages” and many of the framers of these foundational documents were themselves participants in another of the greatest injustices to have ever been committed on American soil — the slave trade.
The beautiful thing about our nation and what has set it apart for generations is that it has the ability to make changes within the confines of the Constitution and other foundational structures that acknowledge that sometimes change is necessary.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, is a primary example. The landmark legislation outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
The basic aim of this legislation was to bring justice where justice was absent, particularly as it pertained to African Americans. This change didn’t come about spontaneously or simply out of the goodness of the hearts of those who pushed it forward.
It came about due to upheaval, at a time when the weight of the collective oppression of a great number of United States citizens became too much for them to bear and they forced change through collective action. In no way was that the final word on civil rights. In fact, many of the same grievances that pushed people out into the streets in the 1960s are the same grievances that are being aired on the streets of our cities today.
When the oppression becomes too great, the oppressed will cry out, make no mistake. This is injustice. This is the collective injustice of our nation bursting to the surface.
One of the key problems is that those who must agree to make the change — the majority — must first see the problem. It’s often difficult to understand these kinds of oppressive structures from within them.
However, another key problem, and perhaps the most pervasive, is that inequality, injustice and oppression often benefit the oppressor to the detriment of the oppressed. In other words, the correction of inequality and injustice comes at a cost for those benefitting from the injustice.
The corrective measures of the 1960s reduced, only slightly, the power of those in power. It brought us just a little closer to the true culmination of the stated goal of America — a nation in which all the people hold the power.
If anything has become clear, however, in recent weeks, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn’t get us there. Those taking to the streets in frustration, in rage, in desperation, make that clear. We cannot ignore those voices. We do so at our own peril.
Injustice is an insidious thing. It becomes embedded both in our systems and in our hearts like a virus, hidden beneath the surface, doing its damage incrementally until the symptoms arise and reveal the sickness beneath.
In the coming weeks and months, we will see change. We will see change unlike that seen in previous generations. Our nation will not emerge out the other side of this the way it went in.
Each of us must ask ourselves where we stand and, if we stand opposed to the change which appears perched on our doorsteps, why we feel that way. We must come to the table with our guards down. Yesterday, today and tomorrow will not look the same. We must acknowledge that change is inevitable.
We must also ask what we can do to contribute. How can we make the American dream a reality for all, instead of for a few?
If one person or a group of people are subjected to injustice, the entire system falls down under the weight of its collective guilt.
Our imperfect founders had a vision in mind when they laid the foundations of this nation. There are aspects of that vision which are better left in the past. However, the overarching idea — that justice is the cornerstone — is something we must not ignore.
Will we make this nation more just, more equitable, more like what it should be? Or will we drag our heels and watch the future pass us by?
The choice, as always, is ours.