Those Funny Words On Our Coins

Deutsch: JFK 1968, Half Dollar, Rückseite, E P...

Deutsch: JFK 1968, Half Dollar, Rückseite, E PLURIBUS UNUM (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Diversity is hard.” Sometimes a sentence can be painfully obvious and wonderfully insightful at the same time. Such is the case with those words, spoken with passion, and compassion, by the amazing Heather McGhee at this past weekend’s Justice Works conference in Albany, NY. The entire conference was great, but Heather’s keynote speech was particularly rousing, as she spoke of the runaway income and wealth inequality in our country and  how the various intersections of oppression came into play to create that.

She spoke of a time in this country when industry, the government, and organized labor worked together to create a social safety net that would protect the most vulnerable among us because they understood that is what would keep our society safe and keep the wheels of economy moving. In this setting we saw our country take its place as the wealthiest, most powerful in the world, and saw the creation of a true middle class with, and I paraphrase Heather here, the freedom from worrying about where their next meal or paycheck would come from. For two and a half decades this system worked, and worked well as we expanded our social safety net further. Then, as time passed, we decided we did not like that system so much.

There are many reasons for this, and Heather spoke of all that I could think of, but one of the most important was the cultural shift that took place in this country in the sixties and seventies. Suddenly women, people of color, and LGBT folk wanted a place at the table. Simply being from a list of undesirable countries no longer locked you out of being able to immigrate to America. All of this social welfare was great, when it was for white men, but now they had to share with others. They had to acknowledge others as equals.

“Diversity is hard” she said, and it became painfully obvious as our push for social change became the motivation for an engine of economic disparity. We are, as was pointed out this weekend, a nation of dozens of tribes. The “Melting Pot” myth, has always been just that, a myth. The only metals we wanted to add to that alloy have been from Western Europe, and not even all of Western Europe. We fight hard to integrate and understand ideas outside a very narrow concept. That said, we have tried with greater challenges, and more success, than any other nation in the world (one need only watch the racial struggles in Sweden recently to understand that.)

Despite all of our failures, our missteps, the gross injustices we visit on those not born straight, white, cis-males, and the general level of ignorance of each other, we have done OK. Which is not to say there is not work to be done, a lot of it, because we are so very far from where we need to be, but in a nation with so many cultures, so many ideas, we need to be eager and patient all at once. No small order, to be certain, but necessary if we want to rise to the greatness I, and I suspect most of you, believe we can achieve. “Diversity is hard.”

E Pluribus Unum. That’s what it says above the eagle on our quarters. “From the many: one.” Roughly translated, of course, it has been thirty years since I last studied Latin. It is an idea that we have tried, however unsuccessfully, to claim as part of our heritage as Americans. It is obviously an idea important to us. We are a country of countless faiths, ethnic backgrounds, ideas and hopes. If we are to be true to that dream, that dream of so many coming together to truly make one community, we need to do that hard work of diversity, so we can all live in peace and prosperity, and live free from the fear of deprivation.


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