The history of race in America has largely defied the collection of values that served as the foundation for the country’s founding. Due to its mixture of races and citizens of various religions and socialization, America is the most diverse nation on the planet. Historians claim that America is the nation that accommodated those who believed in their dreams and wanted a place to live out those dreams, resulting in the influx of people of various races through immigration. The founders of the United States saw diversity as a strength and established governance values that accommodated everybody in the country. However, there are evident instances in history and still today where social injustices, prejudice and other problems peddled through racism have contradicted the ideals that formed the birth of the United States. The objective of this research paper is to demonstrate the contradiction between race and American ideals.
The American Dream outlines the American ideals rooted in the Declaration of Independence, which states that “all men are created equal” with a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” (Douglass, 1975) The set of ideals is democracy, liberty, rights, equality, and opportunity. The founders stipulated the set of ideals with the aim of providing the same plane of prosperity for everyone in America regardless of their race and circumstances of birth. The philosophical problem of contradiction regarding race and American ideals exists when racial segregation, prejudice, and social injustices hinder the opportunity for success and progress of every American (Douglass, 1975).
One of the most memorable demonstrations of an American contradiction was demonstrated by Fredric Douglass when he addressed six hundred people at the invitation of the Ronchester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society in New York’s Corinthian hall. Douglass sought the answer to the question “What to the slave is your Fourth of July?” The answer he gave cut across the hypocrisy of America and the great contradiction of the values used during the declaration of independence on July 4th, 1776. Douglass said that to the Afro-Americans the Fourth of July was “a day that reveals to him [the slave], more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” The statement meant that America’s support of oppression of free Afro-American was against its commitment to liberty and human rights. Douglass charged that America fell short of its ideals for allowing and permitting a freedom-loving nation to provide a platform for some citizens to benefit from the oppression of their fellow countrymen (Douglass, 1975).
Those who drafted the first ideals in the constitution were socialized to believe that slavely and oppression of the Africans and Afro-Americans was a normal way of life. Thus, one could say Americas expected the contradiction. There were also racial assumptions and prejudices of the subsequent legislatures who made amendments and ratified the initial draft of the constitution. For example, even after the declaration of the 1776 “equality” of all people, the Bill of Rights written there after did not protect the free black population from laws that deprived them of a majority of the rights enumerated in the first ten amendments to the Constitution (Douglass, 1975). The nation that was adopted after independence continued to propagate the original characteristics of slavery and oppression.
The modern day contradiction of race and American ideals is evident when the rhetoric and racial attitudes of sections of the population are against the professed ideals of freedom and equality. For example, after the 2016 presidential election in the United States pitting Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, there are of the opinion that the country became more divided along racial lines than before. Instances of blatant racial abuse and discrimination by police and citizens make it hard for peace-loving Americans to reconcile the American reality as enshrined in the Constitution and the American rhetoric.
It is necessary to focus on how race has contradicted the various ideals above and also highlight instances in history and currently that exhibit the thesis statement.
Democracy is at the heart of America, and one of the key aspects of democracy is a right to vote for all citizens. The democratic ideal of being American has been frustrated by laws and policies that favor some while discriminating others. For example, even after the 1787 ordinance that outlawed slavery in the North West, the Congress passed a law that allowed only free white males to vote. Moreover, in the period before the Civil war, the Congress enacted legislation that prohibited African Americans from voting on account that race was the determinant for being an American citizen and, therefore, most African Americans did not fit the bill (Douglass, 1975). In modern America, the US system of voting has brought a lot of controversy and more evidence of the contradiction of America. Contention characterized the 2000 presidential election in the US over the voting laws and the eventual declaration of George W. Bush as the winner (Landy, 2001). Many people claim that the existing laws were exploited by unscrupulous legislatures to deny tens of thousands of Afro-Americans their democratic right to vote. However, the Supreme Court that was predominantly Republican still declared George W. Bush the winner with support from the Republican legislatures, the Florida legislature, and the Congress.
The methods used to bar sections of the population from voting are not a new phenomenon in the US. For example, in 1857, the Supreme Court had ruled that a slave named Dred Scott who was seeking his freedom could not make his case before the federal court because Afro-Americans were not citizens and neither could they receive recognition to be citizens and, by extension Scott did not get his wish to vote (Douglass, 1975). In Modern times, during the elections between Al Gore and George W. Bush, the Chief Justice Rehnquist claimed that Bush won the presidency despite the electoral irregularities. According to Landy, Rehnquist said when it comes to the presidency “there is no right of suffrage” and that the Constitution mandates only the ruling class and not the “common” people to choose a leader. Some of the tricks used to frustrate democracy by prohibiting Afro-Americans to votes are false criminal accusations, police roadblocks in black neighborhoods, claims of “lost” registrations and identification documents. Also applied by robbers of democracy are missing ballot boxes, closing the polling stations early due to the racial attitude that black people do not keep time, unavailable interpreters for none-English speaking voters such Haitians and Puerto Rican and much more (Landy, 2001).
The racism in America has historically refused to accept some races as a singular unit fully and instead uses labels to describe an individual people thus contradicting the ideal of liberty. According to Du Bois in his book “The Souls Of Black Folk,” the black race is seen as the last resort of all races after the Indians, Egyptians, Europeans, Romans, etc., who are considered the superior races (Du Bois, 1999). Du Bois opines that the black man has been denied the right to be in touch with his consciousness in his unique way and instead black people are only allowed to see themselves through the revelations of the other races. The “superior” races only see the minorities as two parts of the whole, for instance, an American and a black person or an American and a Muslim. Thus, there exist two warring ideals in the same person that utterly contradicts the national ideals of liberty and equality regardless of color or religion (Du Bois, 1999).
Inequality and Opportunity
Another unfulfilled American ideal that speaks volumes to the indifference in the American society is the lack of opportunities for the minorities and the inequitable distribution of resources. America is one of the richest countries on Earth yet much of the population of the minorities have remained poor for the last two centuries. For example, in 1890, ten thousand black men and two thousand white men lived in the rich Black Belt of Georgia, and yet the people were poor and living in deplorable conditions as labor farmers of the country farms. The laws in Georgia were such that the black men would always have more expenses than income thus the beginning of the culture of debt for the Afro-American families and generations. The wasteful economy of slavery regime further spread the lack of opportunities for the Afro-Americans. On the other hand, white families had opportunities to work and receive an education that taught the culture of saving to attain commercial credit (Dubois, 1999).
Modern day lack of opportunities is evident through the inequitable distribution of infrastructure among the different communities. For example, the schools of black community neighborhoods in most cases require enough quality teachers, proper social amenities, and the general quality learning. Students who study in schools in places such as Harlem in the Souther side of Chicago do not benefit from the same quality education as students who study in predominantly white schools or upper and middle-class neighborhoods (Du Bois, 1999). The same segregation applies for the Hispanics and other minority groups.
The lack of equal opportunities at the foundational level of schooling carries on to unfair indexes in the working places and home ownerships. For example, traditionally, the homes of African American families were characterized by one-room cabins, built in front of dusty roads with no windows, glass or porch (Du Bois, 1999). Currently, minority community neighborhoods have project housing used to accommodate street children and low-income families, for instance, in New Orleans and Chicago.
In modern America, lack of equal opportunities is more prevalent in working place in industry and government. For example, after the conclusion of the US presidential elections, the House Speaker Paul Ryan was accused of hiring only white interns to the United States Capitol Hill. Many people took to social media and media discussions citing a lack of diversity as was evident from a picture that the Speaker Ryan took with the group of predominantly white staffers. Still, in 2016, controversy arose after Afro-American actors and actresses claimed that there was favoritism for the white stars due to few Afro-American nominees in 2016 Academy Awards. Many legendary movies stars such as Will Smith took to social media to highlight their disappointment at what they termed as “Oscars so white.”
It is clear that the history of race in America has significantly contradicted the set of ideals that formed the basis for the birth of the United States. Since the days of slavery until today, there are traces of national approach to issues in a way that contravenes the national ideals with the issue of race being at the center of most national debates. Americans who embrace diversity have made efforts to spread the message of unity and equality but there is room for improvement and need for further interventions. Liberty, justice, equality, opportunity, rights and democracy are American ideals that should apply to every American.
Douglass, Frederick “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” in Philip S. Foner, ed., The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass (New York: International Publishers Co., Inc., 1975), pp. 181–204
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls Of Black Folk. 1st ed. New York: New York, 1999.
Landy, Sy. “Racism Rules: The Fraud of U.S. Democracy”. Marxists.org, 2017.