Progress, Diversity, and the American Project

Fifty years ago yesterday, I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, enthralled by this real-life version of Star Trek. Thinking back, I remember how this fed my belief that Americans can accomplish anything given the necessary will and a common goal. What I saw on TV, fact and fiction, gave me the idea that with Americans leading the way humankind could achieve a society without hatred and bigotry that provided for everyone.

I was only 11, and soon learned that we had a lot of work to do when I lived through desegregation in the sixth grade.

Many of the men who fought the British and established our Constitution were privileged white males who owned slaves. Their high-minded words about inalienable rights that come from our Creator and belong to each of us ring hollow to descendants of slaves who had to fight for freedom and women who had to fight for the vote. But I believe they intended to establish a democracy that would embrace people of all backgrounds and religions. I believe they wanted the nation they founded to become an example for everyone around the world who shared the idea that human beings of all backgrounds could live and work together in liberty and tolerance for other cultures and ideas.

This project is now at risk. Many Americans would preserve liberty only for those who look and think and worship as they do. They tolerate no others. They want so badly to exclude others that they appear willing to end the American democratic visionto achieve this goal. They manipulate voting processes and draw favorable districts so they can take power while holding no kind of popular majority. They have managed to elect one of their own as President and if given the chance they will destroy the American experiment in liberal democracy. We have to stop them.

Americans have proven the power in our diversity. Immigrants built great cities like New York and Chicago and Detroit and Miami and San Francisco. The United States won two world wars with the help of slavery’s grandchildren – men and women with arguably no duty to a system that forced them to live and work apart from those with whiter skin. We unlocked nuclear secrets in a very short time by applying government resources and the know-how and labor of men – and women – of all backgrounds and nationalities. 

And we went to the moon in only a few years with the same technology and engineering and manufacturing systems that gave us the 1967 Ford Mustang. In the process we began the research – funded by government – that let us later develop computers and cell phones and flat-screen TVs and stealth fighters and safe rocket engines and food that could travel long distances and last weeks without spoiling. We did this by together harnessing the power of government directed by a healthy and educated and diverse population.

Conservatives would use authoritarian methods to block progress and participation in American democracy by people they don’t like. They would define “American” as dependent on skin color, culture, and religion. This is not what the Founders intended when they started the American Project, and we cannot let conservatives end it.