There seems to be a fundamental disconnect in how we see ourselves as functioning members of society and the implications of the presence of an Other on that identity. If I see myself as “one from many” (E Pluribus Unum—dolla’ dolla’ bills, y’all), and my One identity is equal to—no better, no worse—than the Ones in the Many, my understanding of the Others takes on a mantle of humility, respect, and mutual dignity. However, if I somehow see these Others, the Many, in all their differences, their vulgarities, their beauty, their ugly, their oddities, their strangeness, as ultimately a threat to who I am, then that, eventually, turns everyone into an enemy. What is civil and what is necessary turns into a fight over what is good and what is evil. What is criminal turns into a question of what is sinful. What is permissible, what is a choice, becomes a threat to my sanctity.
It seems that the fundamental disagreement over what constitutes a civil right is akin to the definition of a human life. If we re-read the constitution we will find—in black and white—that only the whites truly counted. And, really, only the white men. And, really, only the white men who were prosperous enough to own land. Which reflects a much larger gap between our wealthy and our poor today. Our constitution reflects a definition of persons that is somehow quantifiable in percentages (what does 3/5 of a man look like anyway?). Thankfully, the Bill of Rights soon followed. Amendments that allowed for a recognition of past wrongs, expanding the definition of Person to include all men. And eventually, thankfully, all women. Though, ask any African-American (or non-white-looking person living in our borders), or look at the tear-streamed faces of John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, the countless others without famous names on November 4, and ask them what it means to be a person in this nation. You won’t hear much taken for granted coming from their lips.