Tag Archives: personal behavior

What America Got Right

President Obama made a speech in Kenya that has received very little attention, and that’s a shame, for many reasons. As Amanda Taub wrote at Vox,

While his remarks focused on Kenya, they might as well have been about the United States. And this is what was so striking about the speech: the degree to which Obama seemed to articulate a worldview, and thus a foreign policy, rooted in the lessons of America’s history of racial discrimination. Obama was offering not just a prescription for one African country, but a diagnosis of how discrimination and hatred can endanger any society — one he seems to have drawn from his experiences engaging with America’s domestic struggles during his presidency.

The speech focused upon the structural nature of discrimination and the fact that social attitudes–about the proper role of women, to take just one example–shape systems that operate to perpetuate rules and actions based on those assumptions even after majorities of citizens no longer hold them.

As important as it is to examine and address these discriminatory structures, it was the President’s other point that really struck me.

He reminded the audience that Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dream was not just of an America without segregation, but of a world in which people would be judged by the content of their character, without prejudice or bigotry. “In the same way, people should not be judged by their last name, or their religious faith, but by their content of their character and how they behave. Are they good citizens? Are they good people?”

As I tell my students, one of America’s most striking departures from prior systems of government was this focus on behavior rather than identity. The rights of citizens were not to depend upon caste, religion, ethnic identity, or the other categories that determined  civic status in the old world; the new American philosophy (if not always the reality) held that citizens should be judged and treated as individuals, on the basis of their behavior, and not as members of favored or disfavored groups.

We have not always lived up to that standard, but the trajectory of American jurisprudence has been in that direction.

Ours is a view of citizenship and equality that is still rejected by many countries around the world–not to mention a distressing number of citizens here at home. As the President forcefully pointed out, however, basing rights on who people are rather than how they behave isn’t just morally wrong; it inflicts real damage on a society.

“When we start making distinctions solely based on status and not what people do, then we’re taking the wrong path and we inevitably suffer in the end.”

This emphasis on government’s obligation to treat people based upon their actions–not their wealth, not their religion, skin color, sexual orientation or gender– is at the core of what it means to be an American.

That principle–not our wealth or military power–is what is “exceptional” about America.