I attended college in the late-1980s at a small liberal arts school in central Iowa. It was notoriously liberal, sometimes insufferably so: During the 1988 presidential primary campaign tours, Republican candidate Jack Kemp visited but was booed off the stage before he could utter a word.
These occasional mortifications aside, the climate at the school was such that traditionally “outside” groups such as women, minorities, and gays enjoyed a status that was at least a few years ahead of its time. That’s why the notion of female students as wallflowers, afraid to speak up in class, is completely alien to me. At my school, the women were never shy about expressing an opinion or demonstrating their often-fierce intelligence.
Similarly, even though the college was in lily-white Iowa, thanks to aggressive recruitment, our population of African-American kids always mirrored the national average of about 15 percent, and they also had a strong voice. And although the newness of HIV and AIDS back then forced us to navigate the myths and misapprehensions about the illness rather than focus on down-the-road issues like gay adoption and marriage, our LBGT community generally felt empowered and free to be whoever they were.
This is why, when I graduated, uncertain about so much of what was ahead, I knew these historic outsiders, by virtue of nothing more than their very existence, deserved a place at whatever table they chose. This is why, knowing that, I hoped we as a society could move on to the broader goals of building an economy that works for everyone, and of building an inclusive culture that sees beyond surface-level traits and rewards all individuals on their own merits.
This is also why, almost a quarter-century later, I can’t believe we have to keep fighting these battles again and again.
Why do we have to keep re-learning that something as elementary in a democracy as the right to vote must always be defended? Or that young black men in hoodies should be as free as anyone else to take whatever route they choose home from the store?
Why do we have to keep re-learning that gay people simply want to enjoy the same rights as the rest of us, and that enabling that will make them and their children happier and more productive, and create healthier families that will, in turn, immeasurably benefit all of society?
Why do we have to keep re-learning that if individuals, not governments, should be free to run—and make choices about—their own lives, this applies to women as fully as it does to men? Or that issues like rape and domestic violence are always wrong and never funny?
Given the tools of knowledge we now can access, and the global perspectives they’ve opened to us just in the past decade or two, it seems intuitive that we would become more enlightened and intelligent about life’s most pressing and difficult dilemmas.
Instead, too often we seem to be getting stupider and more self-centered and close-minded by the minute. To those who promote themselves as defenders of various kinds of freedom or liberty—and there are far too many who bastardize these once-noble terms for hypocritical ends—your pursuits are meaningless unless they include everyone. Because until we learn and accept that the color of America’s skin, literally and figuratively, is all of the above, the content of its character will remain very much in question.
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Follow 5280 articles editor Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.