Of the many qualities woven through America’s social fabric and national identity, aspiration is a defining characteristic. We strive to improve our individual and family circumstances. We work as volunteers on behalf of our communities. We celebrate the underdog, cheer on the winners and pledge allegiance to an indivisible nation aspiring to liberty and justice for all.
While serving as an American diplomat for more than 25 years, I saw again and again how appealing our aspirational culture is to other peoples who see America as a land of opportunity, where all are free to seek and succeed. I’ve been thinking about that perception in the context of work that ACT for Alexandria is undertaking to promote racial equity in our community.
In 2019, ACT conducted seven workshops to stimulate conversation about the ways in which racial discrimination manifests in our society. Last fall, I participated in an ACT training on racial equity, which I found thought provoking and impactful.
I spent a professional lifetime developing an understanding of and work- ing to promote America’s interests in other places and cultures, but I won’t kid you – since these more recent experiences centered around racial equity, it occurs to me that many of my perceptions about my own society were underdeveloped and naïve.
To me, democracy is people participating in decisions that affect their lives. They have agency to act, advocate and participate in civic life to achieve their aspirations. Non-democratic societies do not permit their residents the agency to act, proscribing that agency in a myriad of ways ranging from mild to exceptionally brutal.
U.S. policy has long showcased and promoted our democratic values, and during the Cold War, our national leaders were conscious of how the imagery of race in America presented overseas. That imagery seemed to prove that America would fail at realizing the American Dream and was a potential victory for our adversaries. But the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the American Civil Rights Act inspired legions of activists in any number of other countries to aspire to agency and individual freedoms.
Today, we still need to think about agency and racial equity in America. A 2018 study that linked census and income tax data followed 20 million children born between 1978 and 1983 across three decades to see how they moved up or down in rel- ative economic status. It demonstrated significant disparities in economic mobility across generations, especially for black men, that cannot be explained by socioeconomic factors. It’s a rigorous and powerful analysis, and its conclusions are bracing.
In my last Foreign Service role as the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, I conducted multiple exchanges about human rights policy with foreign governments. Foreign interlocutors repeatedly criticized race disparities in the U.S., particularly with regard to policing. I was always proud to respond that a free press and an aspirational justice system worked to expose and rectify such issues.
Part of what I have come to understand, however, is that the disparities today are the legacy of policies explicitly created to advance the interests and economic stature of some Americans – white Americans – relative to other, non-white Americans.
I have found that harder to reconcile with my notions about aspirational America and the concept of individual agency to seek and achieve.
Many communities in the U.S. started conversations about racial equity during the last 15 years, and I’m proud to be part of similar conversations in Alexandria. ACT is planning six one-day events to talk about how to build bridges to ensure equity, opportunity and inclusion for everyone. Two are scheduled for March 24 and May 14, with additional dates to be announced. See ACTforAlexandria.org for more information.
A tiered society runs counter to America’s aspirational nature and our interests, whether at home or abroad. We have the capacity to examine and correct, build and learn, aspire and achieve. I hope we will do that as a community and for our community, in the finest American tradition.
The writer was in the Foreign Service from 1992 to 2017, moving in and out of Alexandria, and is currently involved in national security and community affairs.