Our country was born proud with a guilty conscience. Its patriotism flowed not from the blood, the land, or a shared ancestry, but instead from a common commitment to a set of abstract principles: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Even as the words were written down, though, our government and citizenry were perpetrating a breathtaking genocide on America’s first peoples and enforcing a system of slavery that violated every principle of human goodness.
Our town’s patron saint, Thomas Jefferson, the author of our scripted virtues, was a slave master whose second marriage was unconsecrated, because it was to a slave woman named Sally Hemings. Their children and children’s children helped build the city we live in. That’s all just to say that our origin story, nationally and locally, contains a paradox: Our pride and shame come from the same place, because through the course of our history we have treated some people as individuals and others as groups.
In the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, President Obama delivered a kind of State of the Races address, which coming from our first black president, was incredibly brave. If you haven’t read it in its entirety, you should. Responding to the notion that we need to “convene a conversation on race,” he said, “I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.”
Our city has been involved in a lengthy Dialogue on Race, and some positive things have come from it. But our generation has a different race problem than our parents’ one did. It is no longer legal to enforce racial inequality, but it will always be legal to be a bigot. This week’s feature on the way the Episcopal Church has reacted to gay marriage shows how small communities founded on love and fellowship can evolve, from a place of strength, beloved traditions that contain guilty flaws.
Our country’s genius comes from its ability to deliver a free, if arduous, path to self-fulfillment. Our economic strength is built on self-interest. Our social fabric is knit together by a communal commitment to the individual ideal. If the right to a gun is guaranteed to all citizens, then so is the right to marriage.
The other thing the president said that’s worth remembering is that we are better than we have ever been before on the issues of racial and gender equality. We are the parents of our dreams. When our children fall, the world doesn’t end. When they excel, we celebrate.