The most consequential right afforded each and every American is that we are entitled to the equal protection of the law. I wish that more people woke up every day appreciating this most fundamental and unique right that unites us.
What is particularly divisive in our country today is what I would call “economic inequality.” Let me expand upon these parallel yet divergent concepts, equality before the law and economic inequality. I will start with that core value which binds us: the rule of law. In order for laws to be just, they must be applied equally and afford the same measure of protection for all — regardless of social class, religious belief, race, gender, or any other consideration.
The Constitution is premised upon the notion of equality, and our laws must be applied to make “equality before the law” a reality. The ongoing debate about affirmative action is really a debate about the equal protection of the law and evidence is mounting that this well-intentioned yet unequal application of the law is backfiring.
No doubt, there is an ugly historical legacy of American slavery, and of its progeny, Jim Crow. But society as a whole is moving toward the direction where equality in fact exists. The last of the Jim Crow laws were struck down more than 50 years ago. We are two full generations removed from a legally segregated society. There are those who continue to peddle race-mongering, victimhood identity politics but I believe society has moved past the revolting chapter in history.
The most compelling proof of this fact is the election of an African-American to not one, but two, terms as president of the United States.
That fact proves that there no longer exists barriers to achievement in the United States based simply on race. One cannot aspire to a “corner office” higher than the Oval Office. For that achievement, all citizens of the United States should be justly proud. Discriminating against anyone, for any reason, in my view, contradicts the fundamental basis of equality before the law. Justice Clarence Thomas has stated that point of view eloquently and persuasively. It is time to move past affirmative action to confront the real issue: economic inequality.
What I believe to be the true legacy of racial discrimination is economic inequality. The way to unite diverse interests is to provide the economic opportunities that allow all of us to invest and fully participate in our society. The fundamental building blocks to economic success are well known: stable family life, good education, safe communities, freedom to worship, access to quality health care, opportunities for meaningful employment. These fundamental components of modern life create the “equal playing field” that allow everyone to achieve what the founders intended, a society where all men — and women — are created equal.
Attacking the wealthy, a course that is now popular, does not equip poverty-stricken individuals with the mentality necessary to create opportunities for themselves or to achieve the fundamental building blocks for success; instead it perpetuates a cycle of blame and dependency. Change needs to come from the inside out, from within the community and within the people of the community, not from blaming others.
In my city of Chicago, economic inequality is a driving force to inner city violence, which not only claims innocent lives but deprives all in the neighborhood of hope for a better life. We need hope. So what are we doing to change that? At Project H.O.O.D.’s Leadership and Economic Opportunity Center, we seek to end violence and help others obtain destiny by focusing on the building blocks and creating economic opportunities. Our programs are centered around building character, leadership and accountability.
In creating leaders, we focus on entrepreneur and technology training with support services so that these businesses become anchors in their own community. We team young men and women with mentors who hold them accountable, provide emotional support, and help strengthen their characters. Our construction training and certification program teaches tangible skills to dropouts, former offenders and low-income individuals in order for them to secure gainful employment. Drug abusers enter our treatment program to repair their lives and relationships. Our corporate partners have proven to be up for the challenge in hiring people from our programs even with hiccups along the way.
It is not an easy road to take, but attacking the root of economic inequality increases the quality of life for all. Our country, as a whole, will benefit.
The views and opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.