Free, White and 21

091016Obama_dsc4796sThat’s me.

I had a discussion with a nice young man at TAMU yesterday who probably has never heard this phrase; it’s not him, but the phrase has a nice sound to it, if you don’t think about what it means, and I didn’t for the first couple of decades of my life while it was part of my vocabulary. Even though I was raised by strictly ethical parents who required me to think about what I was saying, for which I am very grateful.

Of course, the reference is to slavery. I didn’t think about slavery either, until later, and I don’t hear the phrase any more, but still it echoes. The most common current echo — I’ve heard it three times this week, has to do with the health care debate and goes like this:

“My son has (a disease) and it will cost us (a lot of money) to take care of him for the rest of his life.” (Voice rises to an emotional pitch, in this case amplified across campus.) “Universal health care would not cover my son. I WILL TAKE CARE OF MY SON.” The emotion in this statement has little or nothing to do with the real facts about universal health care. It is not even logical, because health care is not about your son — it’s about the common welfare of the country as a whole. But this phrase is simply a restatement of the “free, white and 21” ethic that can be applied to any issue in the South.

I heard it again applied to red-light cameras (that is, using cameras to issue tickets at red lights). As we tried to evaluate the implications relative to safety and effectiveness and the Constitution of the United States of America, one man stated that he is “free to drive 90 miles an hour if he wants to.” Quite conversely, a lady who had experienced a terrible accident became angry because we were discussing whether or not the cameras actually reduce accidents. She wants those cameras, even if they do not reduce accidents. Nevermind the constitution — it didn’t save her from an accident.

These people are unable to separate their own emotions from the welfare of the whole or from the whole point of the rule of law, which is the best way we have found so far (given the occasional lapses in human logic and common sense) to provide for the welfare of the whole community. And that is what our “democracy” is about. It’s not all about you — or me — it’s about the welfare of the community.

Folks, we really do have the right to think whatever we want to think, but whatever we then decide to DO — it’s our responsibility to other people. Whatever we decide to say or do affects everyone else in the community of man, and once we understand this reality, it can be very liberating. (I wish I had thought of that sentence while talking with the young student.) We have great power (even though it seems not — if we only are thinking about ourselves) to impact our communities for good or for evil.

Let me tell you what I hear whenever I hear anyone spout:

“I will take care of my family!”

I hear the rest of the sentence:

“I will take care of my family — and I don’t give a shit about anyone else.”

And I think to myself: “You have a right to take care of your family and because of our Constitution you have a right to say so, and if it was just you and your family on this earth you would be free to think, say and do anything you damn well please.

But if everyone didn’t give a shit about anyone else, you wouldn’t have any rights at all. The more thoughtful and caring people in the history of the United States of America would have stayed home and tended their plantations instead of sacrificing their own welfare so that you can have the rights that really are given to you by the Constitution.

Have you actually read it?