As I viewed the television images of the newly liberated Iraqis cycling through emotions of joy, relief and rage, it underscored once again for me the fundamental importance of the role of freedom in human affairs. Watching the Iraqi celebration also has brought to mind certain ironies concerning our own country: Why, in a society with traditions of economic opportunity and social mobility, do significant portions of the population live as though they are not free? What is to be done?
These are vexing questions, as we witness, in both urban and rural areas, what seem to be generation after generation of families locked in cycles of poverty and suffering, locked out of the real bounty that is available to those willing, as our national zeitgeist has it, to seize the day.
Perhaps the first step is to put a face on some of those Americans to whom I am referring: I will posit an African-American family, call them the Smiths, who live in a public housing project in a poor neighborhood in Chicago. There have been in the Smith family several generations of single-parent households, welfare dependency, no high school graduates (we will leave aside the atrocious state of public education in the city), poor nutrition and health, including diabetes and heart disease, which has led to more than a few early deaths. Over the years, several family members have been debilitated by drug addiction or killed in gang violence. Others have gone to prison on violence or drug charges. Since no significant (legal) economic activity exists in that part of the city, few jobs can be found in their neighborhood. What jobs are available for those with the Smiths’ educational attainment pay minimum wage. With no chain stores for miles, they must travel or pay exorbitant prices (out of subsistence welfare or wages) for basics. The neighborhood is loud, dirty and often dangerous, the police preoccupied with self-preservation and major crime, not routine “quality-of-life” law-and-order issues.
That has been the Smith family’s basic experience, as well as the experience of the vast majority of their neighbors, in the 50 years since they came to Chicago. Earlier generations of the Smiths lived on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta as sharecroppers, grinding out a living through the daily brutalities of the Jim Crow era, with extraordinarily limited prospects for economic advancement, health care or education. Still, the move to Chicago was involuntary. The Smiths were kicked off the land they had been living on since the Emancipation by the landowner when, in the early 1950s, he acquired machinery to replace his army of cotton planters, choppers and pickers. Before the Emancipation, the Smiths had, of course, been chattel slaves, unable to form stable family units or to read or write, and worked like animals for seven or eight generations.
Similar histories could be applied to families in reservations, barrios and small Appalachian towns throughout our country. This begins to explain why those who live under such conditions may not find it a simple task to share in the American bounty of freedom. We can, to make this thought-experiment more universal, imagine another family, also named Smith, who are Anglo. This family of Smiths lives in a virtually abandoned former coal town in eastern Kentucky. Or we can consider a Lakota Sioux family with the Anglicized name of Smith, who live in South Dakota. We can change the name to Gonzales and put them in East Los Angeles or south Texas, or name them Pham to illustrate the difficulties facing Hmong refugees from the Vietnam War who are now live in a town in Maine.
What do all of these families have in common? Besides grinding poverty, lack of educational options and lack of access to health care resources most Americans assume to be routine, the segments of our population who seem to be living amid freedom in an “unfree” manner—be they Native American, African American, Hispanic, Asian or Anglo—all share what might be called sequestered lives. They are literally cut off from the information and resources that enable most Americans to exploit and enjoy the opportunities they find themselves presented with.
I want to refrain from jumping to conclusions about the ways others do or should live. But it is safe to say that freedom is the paramount American virtue, the one that undergirds all that we think we are. “Freedom” is defined in the dictionary as, among other things, “not subject to the control or domination of another.” To those of us with the values of the American middle class, it has one simple meaning: the ability, or liberty, to pursue one’s life as one sees fit, building upon one’s family background and gifts, creating a life as sumptuous, challenging or rewarding as one’s talents and energies will permit.
But is it that simple? Different arenas of freedom—legal, social, economic and psychological, to name a few—each speak to a specific realm of our experience. As Americans, we have legal freedom; we are all citizens and not subjects or slaves. This status, fundamental to any discussion of our society, is guaranteed by our Constitution: The slow expansion of these rights is in many ways the story of our country. What I’ll call social freedom is an outgrowth of our legal freedom, as we have the ability to rise above (or fall below) our births and associate in as intimate (or distant) a fashion with any other person or persons as we wish. Economic freedom is where things begin to get tricky. We as Americans have the freedom, it is certainly true, to accumulate as much wealth as we are able. This area of liberty, however, seems more relative than the previous two, as our ability to earn and accumulate is often tied closely to the sorts of resources with which we begin our lives. That said, the United States is still a country where one can rise to heights significantly beyond one’s beginnings, and with discipline, prudence and good luck enable one’s children to have better life prospects than one’s self.
That leaves psychological freedom, which is the heart of the matter. Psychological freedom is the ability to understand that one possesses the sorts of liberty I have just delineated, and the ability to act upon that knowledge. It is, to my mind, a sort of faith built on experience that grows larger as it is utilized and the benefits are reaped.
Those Americans who are legally, socially and economically free but do not seem to act as such are not, I think, in possession of psychological freedom. They simply do not see themselves as in possession of legal, social or economic liberty, at least not in any instrumental fashion that can materially affect their circumstances. More than a series of rights or liberties, freedom, as Americans live it, is a culture, a set of ideas, habits and practices that work together to reinforce and expand each other. Those who understand and utilize this culture are those who will best be able to acclimate, if that is not too strong a word, to American freedom.
The challenges to this acclimatization are both explicit and deceptive. First and foremost, the mainstream middle class, which is itself now in an ever-tightening economic and health care crisis and feels under financial siege, increasingly resists the expansion of certain opportunities to those who now are seen as competitors. Such opportunities might allow more of the locked-out to change their circumstances (I would include in this, for example, the more and more strident clashes over who gets into what college).
Conversely, the self-protective and often self-defeating habits and folkways of the inner-city and rural poor make it difficult for those who find themselves trapped to rise. The generous and morally driven spirit of social justice that was evident in the United States in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s has congealed into the “winner-take-all” 1980s, ’90s and new century.
Any number of complicated causes have brought about this reality of those who do not act as if they are free. Many rest upon or extend from the injuries of the past and the ways in which we choose to interpret that past. We Americans like to see the past as irrelevant to the present, when in actuality it is the very ground on which we stand.
Those who have been able to transcend disadvantage have been able to do so for equally complex reasons. Individual gifts, personality, temperament, luck and grace combine in a differential equation that works in ways predictable and unpredictable for each individual. It seems that we have fallen down in our ability, or willingness, to teach freedom throughout our society. In this area, something could be done.
Unfortunately, this discussion has become irrevocably entangled with the ideological battles and rhetoric of partisan politics, making it difficult to sketch the relevant issues in even the broadest manner. For me, the key constituents of freedom in our country are health, capital (or wealth) and education, which are inextricably linked. Education produces information of all kinds, which produces health awareness and financial acumen, which allow for the sorts of economic activities that can create and leverage more and better chances of education and health. And so on. Sequestered populations lack access to this matrix of benefits that constitute the basis of the culture of freedom, and as a result do not live their lives in a manner comprehensible to the majority of their countrymen.
At late date, perhaps our discussion should not be so much about how these Americans have found themselves in the positions they are in as about what we can do to help them begin to live lives of American freedom. They are our fellow citizens, and the fact that we accept such exclusion in our midst makes me wonder about our true beliefs as a nation about freedom. We, as those for whom the American promise of freedom has worked, owe the sequestered Americans at least as much as we owe the people of Iraq, and we owe it to ourselves and the future of our country to find ways to teach the skills and culture of freedom here at home as well as abroad. We are charged with this mission in our foundation documents and creeds, which contain such phrases as “all men (and women and children) are created equal” and “freedom and justice for all.”
Anthony Walton is the author of Mississippi: An American Journey. He teaches at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine.