There is a song that always brings tears to my eyes, “The House I Live In” (music by Earl Robinson, lyrics by Abel Meeropol, under the pen name Lewis Allan, in 1947). Combined with additional lyrics by Paul Robeson, this adds meaning to the image of our nation we aspire to have, but have never quite attained. Here are a few verses:

What is America to me?

A name, a map or a flag I see,

A certain word, “Democracy,”

What is America to me?

The house I live in,

My neighbors white and Black,

The people who just came here 

Or from generations back,

The town hall and the soapbox,

The torch of Liberty,

A home for all God’s children,

That’s America to me.

The house I live in,

The goodness everywhere,

A land of wealth and beauty 

With enough for all to share.

A house that we call “Freedom,”

The home of Liberty,

But especially the people,

That’s America to me.

Democracy is the bulwark value attributed to the United States of America. Today we are at a fork in the road. We can veer off toward a modern and dangerous form of McCarthyism, or we can reclaim our commitment to democracy and live up to it.

For over 400 years, African Americans, and other people — especially of color — have been demonized, caricatured and stripped of human and civil rights by local, state and national governments. From 1938 to 1974 the FBI (led by J. Edgar Hoover), the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Senator Joseph McCarthy persecuted people seeking civil rights and justice. Peaceful protesters who spoke out against racism and injustice (e.g. Americans such as Leonard Bernstein, Paul Robeson, Hazel Scott, Canada Day, Orson Welles, et al) were met with hatred, hostility and ostracism. Many were interned in camps, fired and/or “blacklisted” (a practice recently used against Colin Kaepernick) which destroyed their careers and their lives.

Too much legislation today stokes racism; seeks to eliminate citizens’ voices by obstructing voting rights and criminalizing peaceful protests; encourages violence against people of color through legislation (e.g. special exemptions for police officers who kill unarmed citizens and for people who mow down protesters with their cars); criminalizes certain citizens; and refuses to acknowledge that there are racial problems with profiling, enforcement, protection and fairness in our criminal justice, social and educational systems. These and other such measures eliminate peaceful choices that people have in seeking justice. This is not the way a democracy is supposed to work, and it will only lead to desperation and violence. 

We have to decide what kind of nation we want and what kind of people we want to be. More than half of us want a democracy where all citizens have equal rights, equal voice, equal opportunity and equal justice, but many Americans seem to fear what that will look like. Is it fear that “they” are “going to come for ‘us’” or that “they” are going to “take something from ‘us’” or that “strange or ‘foreign’ values will be imposed on ‘us’”? 

No, but what it does mean is that we have to live together in peace and tolerance (which does not mean, “I will tolerate you.” It means, “I respect your right to be who you are and to live your life as you wish, and you respect my right to do the same.”) Live and let live. It means there will be liberty and justice for all. Isn’t that a key American value that we teach our children? Isn’t that what we ask our children to say every day in school as part of our “Pledge of Allegiance”? If we don’t believe in that, we should stop pretending that we do. Let us be judged by what we do as well as what we say.

If we believe in democracy and the rule of law, we must demand that all units of our government function that way. Now is not a time to cower in fear. Americans must speak up and demand that our governments reflect and work for the collective good of all of our people, our nation and our world.

Lynn Allen, and Oak Park resident, was the longtime director of the District 97 Multicultural Education Center.

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