“All men are created equal” seems central to the American Dream. America not only possesses a huge land-mass, but is possessed by aspirations, dreams, beliefs in a land of opportunity and fairness, "with liberty and justice for all." Yet "who is all" has been a work in progress.
Only White Persons May Apply?
In 1922, the Supreme Court rejected the application of a Japanese resident, Takao Osawa, to become a citizen because he was “not of the Caucasian race.” A year later, the same Court rejected an Indian immigrant, Bhagat Singh Thind, who pleaded that he, as a Caucasian, deserved citizenship. Abandoning their reliance on the pseudo-scientific “races of Man” scheme, the same justices ruled that the “common understanding of race among ordinary white citizens" excluded such dark-skinned people. (1)
Only “free and white” persons could become citizens the 1906 Naturalization Act had declared—the legal outcome of a century of widespread belief that the U.S. was meant to be the home of the racially superior “Anglo-Saxon Civilization.” Rooted in ethno-centric prejudice, a "science of race" developed that confirmed it. When Hitler's Aryan superiority myth led to horrifying results, that prevailing American white supremacist belief retreated to fester in marginal groups.
The African-American writer Ta-Nahisis Coates asserts that the “American Dream," is maintained by an “obligatory historical amnesia” — a cultural habit of forgetting the ugly parts of our past (2). But no ugly past stays silent in the past, returning in forms both old and new. America is currently faced with a resurgent, and somewhat disguised, version of that old exclusionary vision.
America: A Creedal Nation
The United States is a visionary country, a creedal nation—the first creedal nation in the world’s history, inaugurated by a Declaration and Constitution embodying its tenets. The American Creed sets forth a humanistic vision of a community commited to certain “inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Over time, the application of those rights has extended beyond the original northern European population to all other European immigrants, women, African Americans, and, finally, to the likes of Takao Osawa and Bhagat Singh Thind.
Our history involves the same process of “new light breaking forth” from the words of our founding Creed as do the evolving interpretations of religious scriptures. As the Old Testament scholar Margaret Barks observed, religions consist of symbols, rituals, creeds and customs the meaning of which “the followers disagree about repeatedly.” The primal DNA of the American Creed, "all are equal," has eluded all our attempts to bind it into narrow ethnic or racial boxes.
The past: veto of the future or foundation for it?
Our current, fractional Presidential campaign embodies these creedal disagreements amply. Competing visions of America clash, partly obscured by a level of personal venom and invective seldom seen since the 19th century. Lurking behind the crippling stalemate of Republican and Democratic establishments, overlapping visions of involvement in a multinational world and marketplace thrives. Outside those establishments the regressive vision of America for “us, free of foreign contamination and entanglement" rises again, the very spirit of the Courts 1922-23 decisions.
Neither political establishment, Right or Left, has adequately addressed the dislocations thrust upon America by that changing world culture and a global marketplace, leading to the discontent fanned by the resurgent Regressives. We are in an in-between moment, searching for the next embodiment of the American Vision—a moment rife with new ways people are excluded from equal access to the "pursuit of happiness." The vision we choose for our future will have lasting consequences. Creeds can lock us into to our past or can also inspire us to live into the further implications of their values.
This fourth of July is not a time to gloat in how "great" we are or were, but to ponder how great we may yet become if we take our creedal DNA seriously.
1. See Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_v._Bhagat_Singh_Thind and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ozawa_v._United_States
2. See Ta-Nahisi Coates Between the World and Me—a piercing account of the Black experience in America.