There was a certain comfort I had as a child growing up, learning the Preamble of the United States Constitution, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and, of course, the words found in the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal.” I took comfort in believing that our country was the greatest in the world, due to our democracy. No, things were not perfect, but at least there was a chance here for justice, where that did not seem to be the case in other countries. If some of us did not have justice, we could certainly fight for it and perhaps achieve it. That was the ultimate American “dream” onto which I held.
I believed that in spite of racism and sexism, which made injustice a daily reality for blacks and women, especially, but for other people of color, too. I believed that the words of justice could ultimately translate into actions of justice, because, well…because this was America. I learned the words to the song and sang it in district glee club in Detroit, where I grew up, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” Yes, if there was a chance for justice to be had, in spite of all the injustice about which I was keenly aware at a very early age, it was here.
We didn’t learn much about American injustice in school. We celebrated our beginnings. We learned about the Boston Tea Party and how American patriotism was born. How much more noble could any words be, “Give me liberty or give me death!” That was the American way, the American spirit, the hope that Americans were encouraged to carry and in which to believe.
But as I grew and studied history more, I began to realize that the American dream of “justice for all” is just that – a dream. Brian Stevenson, the executive director and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) said it best: “In this country it is better for you if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.”
Whenever injustice is done to another person, the natural reaction of those left behind is to seek justice. For some, the desire for “justice” and “revenge” may be interchangeable, but the desire is the same: we want someone to pay for hurting us or someone we love. In America, due to our Constitution that says we are all entitled to due process of law, and that we have a right to a trial by a “jury of our peers,” it should not be difficult for any American to attain the justice they seek.
We are at least as good as was ancient Babylonia, aren’t we? That country had what is described as a “sophisticated” legal system. Adam Cohen writes in his book Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck that the Code of Hammurabi, which came out of Babylonia, had 282 distinct laws. Even though we have picked up from the code that there should be “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” there was, says Cohen, contained within that code an “eloquent statement of his own purpose, which was to “bring about the rule of righteousness in the land … so that the strong should not harm the weak.” (p. 12)
That would seem American in spirit, because this land touted in its founding documents a belief in freedom and justice. The Pledge of Allegiance, written years later, contained the phrase “with liberty and justice for all.” I believed those words. I believed in the inherently “good” character of America. I believed that with a little fighting, all who were American citizens could receive justice.
But that is not the case. White supremacy has made sure that there is justice for some. It has made sure that certain people and groups are so dehumanized and criminalized that the masses are quick to believe that some people do not deserve justice. There is no belief in the inherent equality of people; there is disdain or perhaps an outright dismissal of a theological construct which says that God made all people equal, and, therefore, worthy of justice. In contrast, the American state, supported by American churches, has taught that God made people unequal, some more worthy of justice and fairness than others.
What makes the disparity in justice so troubling here is that our rhetoric says that being unjust is not who we are. American rhetoric is like an orchestral masterpiece, with music swelling at pivotal times to enhance the grandeur of a given emotion being expressed. Our “grand emotion” has been equality and fairness and opportunity available to all because of how our Founding Fathers constructed this nation.
We do not learn, most of us, that not even they believed in the powerful words they penned. They never meant for all people to have justice and they hardly believed in a democracy where the masses had power. No, they believed that it was up to a select, wealthy few to take care of and govern the masses; anything else, some wrote, would lead to anarchy.
There are far too many people in this country who yearn for justice but who have not received it – from the very poor, to the working poor, to people of color, to women, and to people of different faiths. The rhetoric that gave me security when I was growing up has proven to be just that – rhetoric. And with the current administration, the little bit of hope that I and so many others had for progress in the area of securing “justice for all” is lessening.
There is no justice for all, not even in this land we call America.