What happens when we cannot go outside? Many of us travel inward on journeys of thought and reflection. In the short term, the Covid-19 pandemic has wrinkled the fabric of our lives, but in the long term it may well stitch the canvas of a new social consciousness. We have peered out of our stays-at-home and our shelters-in-place, and we have discovered deep cracks in the glass windows of our society.
The question of human rights stands outside the polarities of politics and the mallet of protest hammering across the country is not being wielded by a Republican or a Democratic, but rather an American hand. The question of liberty and justice for all, pledged by millions of schoolchildren to the flag, is not as simple as it may have seemed when we were standing, hands on hearts, reciting those familiar words.
Changing laws is a starting point but changing laws does not change minds or circumstances. Stating that everyone should be equal and creating a world in which everyone is equal are two entirely different undertakings. Does telling a bullied boy that he is equal to the popular athlete or a disadvantaged young woman that she is equal to the daughter of millionaires change anything?
We fought for the idea that all men are created equal nearly 250 years ago and, yet, even the Founding Fathers took such a narrow perspective on the meaning of “men” as to strip those words of all meaning by the standards of today. Much of the civic history of our country has been a fight against that word — a bloody, multi-century war to transform the word “men” into “people” — people of all races, genders, and identities.
The fire that forged our country was an oppressive British system in which American colonists were treated as second class citizens. Yet, even as the last of the redcoats were sailing back to British shores, the victors were putting in place their own system of second class citizens and slicing open a multi-generational wound in the body of its populace. We must neither turn away from the depth of this wound nor imagine that its healing can be accomplished by nothing more than a changing of the laws.
The restoration of rights and opportunities to races and genders oppressed for centuries requires as much thought and commitment as their oppression required thoughtlessness and ignorance. The banners on our streets and the blood on our sidewalks is stark testimony that we have miles to travel before we can proclaim mission accomplished.
For too long, we have been a society fixated on law and order: our airwaves filled with police procedurals and our media awash in sensationalized criminal cases. We have been programmed to blindly trust the words of prosecutors and police officers, forgetting that they too are people and all people are fallible. When minds are filled with law and order, there is precious little space left for liberty and openness.
That is why more than 2 million people sit in our prisons, more than any other country in the world, including countries with the worst records of human right abuses. That is why more than 20 million people walk around with the life sentence imposed by the word “felon” — it may as well be branded on their skin, for they are asked it for all the things that matter, from jobs to housing. Is it right that a man who sold marijuana as an eighteen-year-old high school student in a disadvantaged neighborhood is still called a “felon” as a fortysomething father of four?
The wind of change sweeping across our nation is an opportunity to look inward and to rewire our internal programming — our hidden, or not-so-hidden, biases against people that are different from ourselves. Trusting a uniform, but not a sweatshirt; believing one skin color, but not another; seeing gender, but not ability. The future of our society lies in our daily micro-decisions and only each one of us has the power to change those.
As for law and order, we can only hope that the wind of change at long last enters its corridors — blowing from the hallowed halls of its courts and legislatures to the subterranean walkways of its police stations and prisons. For too long we have been good at punishing, but not rehabilitating; considering the crime but not the circumstance; hammering down the symptom but not the cause. Perhaps the right starting point to address this disease is to take a page from the wisdom of medicine — imagine the possibilities if our law and order system, and the media that supports it, can embrace a new guiding principle: first, do no harm.