“When the Declaration of Independence was written these words were used: ‘All men are created equal...endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.’ Ever since, the greatest hesitation of American democracy has been to apply that word ‘all’ regardless of race, religion, or region. It is a disturbing little word and it has irritated our souls for 200 years. It will not let us go and we cannot let it go. It has given us no rest nor will it until we can say ‘all’...with complete abandon.”
Our Quote of the Week addresses the promise of equality in the United States, a promise that we continue to struggle to achieve. As we process the US Supreme Court’s decision to end affirmative action in higher education and we prepare for Independence Day, Sargent Shriver’s words have an undeniable poignancy today.
Shriver spoke these words at his 1961 Address to the Catholic Interracial Council in Chicago. They were part of his introduction in a speech that focused on Peace Corps recruitment. While he does say that the “genius” of Peace Corps was to see people as people, regardless of their identities, he also says: “The Peace Corps wants Negroes, and is seeking them. The Peace Corps wants Jews, and is seeking them. The Peace Corps wants people of all races and all religions, because we want qualified Americans.” With these words, Shriver emphasizes that to achieve broad representation, to find the “qualified Americans” who are willing to serve, we must cast a wide net and be intentional about where we search for talented people and how we invite them into our institutions.
Reflecting on this week’s Supreme Court decision to end affirmative action in higher education: In her dissent on the Supreme Court’s decision this week, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote about the dangers of ignoring race in our efforts to achieve equality:
”... deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life. And having so detached itself from this country’s actual past and present experiences, the Court has now been lured into interfering with the crucial work that UNC and other institutions of higher learning are doing to solve America’s real-world problems.”
“No one benefits from ignorance. Although formal race-linked legal barriers are gone, race still matters to the lived experiences of all Americans in innumerable ways, and today’s ruling makes things worse, not better. The best that can be said of the majority’s perspective is that it proceeds (ostrich-like) from the hope that preventing consideration of race will end racism. But if that is its motivation, the majority proceeds in vain. If the colleges of this country are required to ignore a thing that matters, it will not just go away. It will take longer for racism to leave us. And, ultimately, ignoring race just makes it matter more.”
And, in remarks that are reminiscent of Sargent Shriver’s, President Biden stated this week:
“America is an idea — an idea unique in the world. An idea of hope and opportunity, of possibilities, of giving everyone a fair shot, of leaving no one behind. We have never fully lived up to it [emphasis ours], but we’ve never walked away from it either. We will not walk away from it now.”
There are no easy paths to achieving equality for all, but one thing is certain: we will not be able to use the term all “with complete abandon” without directly addressing the discrimination and marginalization that continues to exist throughout our society.