E pluribus unum. “Among many, one.” So says America’s traditional motto as it appears on our Great Seal – and has since Congress approved its inclusion in 1782.
On October 31, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in cases reconsidering the legal and constitutional status of affirmative action. This reconsideration leads to a broader one about what makes us Americans.
The motto acknowledges that differences have always existed between citizens. Americans adhered to different religious beliefs, including great diversity among Christian sects, but also a Jewish population, which we know in part from President George Washington’s famous letter to the Hebrew congregation in 1790. William’s Pennsylvania Penn is a shining colonial example of this plethora. also religious groups.
Americans reflect various nationalities, races and ethnicities. From our early years, we have incorporated people from many countries. This diversity has only increased over time. Yet our motto sees these many as one in America.
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On what basis is this unity established and maintained? First and foremost, our community results from our principles. Founder Thomas Jefferson called the Declaration of Independence “an expression of the American spirit”. The American mind believes that the standard of justice derives from “the laws of nature and the God of nature.” This standard tells us, as an “obvious” truth, that all people are created equal.
As a status tied to our creation, our equality is inherent in our very humanity. We are equal by the fact that we are human. Moreover, this equality is expressed in our “inalienable rights”, which include “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. All human beings have these rights. All deserve equal protection of these rights by governments. Just laws exist to accomplish this noble goal.
That we believe we can unite around common ideals shows a vision of man as essentially rational and moral. It thus recognizes and respects human dignity — that we are created in the image of God. The principles of human equality and natural rights have been our compass, pointing us to the “true north” of justice. The abolition of chattel slavery, the establishment of women’s suffrage, and the end of racial segregation all owe a great debt to America’s elaboration of these founding ideals. We understood that the color of a person’s skin, in particular, is an arbitrary distinction for the purposes of government.
This view creates a presumption against the affirmative action programs that have developed over the past 50 years. Despite their best intentions, they make government actions reflect inequality before the law. In contradiction to their common humanity, people are treated differently based on the color of their skin. Justice John Marshall Harlan rightly viewed the “color-blind” Constitution as the proper application of our fundamental commitments.
However, we must be careful how far we push the principle of color blindness. It rightly manifests itself in equality before the law. But the unity we create in our humanity under law does not mean that the many who make up that unity lose all right to express their differences in the community.
Our differences in religious beliefs, political opinions, race and ethnicity are not erased by the recognition of equality – nor should they be. Socially and culturally, we can and should recognize, even celebrate, those qualities that make us different. Expressing these differences in our lives is a manifestation of our natural right to freedom. It even gives a fuller window into our national character, as different beliefs and cultures have contributed to American history in vital ways. American music, food, religion, moral values, and other culturally powerful areas owe their vibrancy in part to the diverse contributions made by diverse people.
These contributions reside well alongside a color-blind Constitution, which only sees the human with rights to protect, not a skin color or creed with special privileges in distinction from others. It strikes the right balance between our universal personality and our particular characteristics. Affirmative action programs upset this wise balance.
The Supreme Court should take notice. This combination of legal color blindness and social recognition of diversity meets both elements of our motto. She rightly sees the link between equality and freedom. A commitment stemming from our oldest past, it should therefore define the future of our nation.
Adam Carrington is an associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.