When I was growing up, America was a place where the privilege conferred on white, Protestant, straight, nondisabled men was not even questioned. This privilege remains strong today, but it now must compete with a growing chorus calling for a fairer, more inclusive nation. Legally and socially, we have made great progress, even if the summit of true equality and justice remains distant.
We often hear about how we need to be more tolerant: to make room for people, ideas, and actions with which we may not agree. This is a prerequisite for a functional democracy. But tolerance alone is not sufficient; it allows us to accept others without engaging with them, to feel smug and self-satisfied without challenging the boundaries within which too many of us live. A society worthy of our ideals would be a much more inclusive one, a more integrated one. It would be a place where we continually strive to create a better whole out of our many separate parts. This is a sentiment that itself stretches back to our founding. Our first national motto was E pluribus unum, “From many, one.” From many states, we are one nation. And from many peoples, we should be one society. Under this framework, building tolerance is a worthy way station to a much grander destination of inclusion. This is a journey that is in our power as a nation to make.
This societal change regarding LGBTQ rights continues to our present time. We know that homosexuality is not limited to any race, religion, or socioeconomic class — it is part of human diversity. Once people had the courage and support to come out of the closet, families across the country, rich and poor, black and white, rural and urban, were forced to confront what had long remained hidden: sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, best friends, coworkers, even fathers and mothers, turned out to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, and transgender. Now how will you respond? Will you shun them and cast them aside? Many did, and do, and the trails of pain, loneliness, depression, and even suicide are long and shameful. The tally of those rejected and disowned is large, and continues to grow. But thankfully many people decided to continue to love those whom they had already loved. They made room in their moral universe not only to tolerate LGBTQ people, but also to include them.
Inclusion on race has been a very different journey, and I worry that for all the progress we have made, we are stuck in the purgatory of tolerance. This may not be a comfortable thought for many who pride themselves on their progressive beliefs, but it is the truth. We have of late seen evidence of a great racial divide that remains, and in some ways even appears to be expanding, more than a half century after the major legislative victories in the civil rights movement. While tragedies like the high-profile shootings of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement get a lot of deserved attention, these are symptoms of a much deeper problem. We are still largely segregated as a society, and our political divisions increasingly fall along the lines of race. The Republican Party has become whiter and more conservative, and the Democrats have become more diverse and progressive. This shapes not only how African Americans sort politically, but increasingly Hispanics and Asians too. Yes, we saw a historic moment in the 2008 election with our first African American president, but how distant all the talk of a “post-racial America” seems today. The election of President Barack Obama was a mark of progress, but the racist and demeaning comments from some of his critics (like the lies about his birth certificate) during his presidency highlighted the intransigent lines of division that remain within our society. This environment has only intensified since President Obama left office in a political climate of greater polarization now emanating from the highest levels of government. The long shadow of slavery, segregation, and racism still looms over this nation.
Building a more inclusive nation for women presents a unique set of hurdles (keeping in mind that LGBTQ women and women from racial minorities face multiple forms of discrimination). As with racial justice and LGBTQ rights, we have made great strides. But I worry deeply that the biases against women have proven difficult to identify and correct within individuals. And this condition doesn’t apply only to men; I have known many women who have great talent and intelligence but who diminish themselves in accordance with the expectations of society at large.
When I was young, we heard often of how the United States was a great melting pot. It is a fine metaphor as far as it goes. But inclusion, not assimilation, should be the key concept in seeking, ever seeking, a more perfect national union. Our own history has shown that we are stronger as a mosaic than a melting pot. Our nation is bound together more by ideals than by blood or land, and inclusion is in our cultural DNA. We should feel proud that we are not all the same, and that we can share our differences under the common umbrella of humanity. To do so, we must confront the voices of intolerance and come to terms with our own complicity in condoning the divisions in our society. We have seen that progress is possible, within ourselves and the nation at large. But it requires perseverance, hard work, and a commitment to respect the dignity of all who call America home.