The Declaration of Independence asserts a variation of Locke’s political philosophy, noting that all men are created equal and have the natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Locke, of course, spoke of a right to property rather than the pursuit of happiness; as one of my political science professors noted, the writers had most of the property and did not want the other folks getting ideas.
If this document is taken seriously as a statement of American political philosophy and values, it commits all Americans to the fundamental equality of people and to these three basic rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. While the notion of equality and the specifics of these rights are subject to debate and disagreement, their interpretation cannot stray too far, or they become meaningless or absurd. For example, when South Carolina seceded from the Union the authors appealed to the principle of liberty as a justification for maintaining slavery. Asserting that the natural right of liberty justifies rebellion to maintain the violation of the natural right of liberty is clearly absurd.
While slavery is currently illegal, with a few exceptions, there are still clear violations of the principle of equality and the natural rights. As might be suspected, minorities are often the targets of such efforts. Those who are sceptical of systematic violations often say they see no evidence of systematic violations in their own experiences, so there is no such thing. If examples are offered, the responses tend to be that these examples are mere anecdotal evidence or that the apparent violations are not real violations, but consequences brought about by the individuals in question.
These replies do have some appeal. After all, an appeal to mere anecdotal evidence to establish a general claim is fallacious. There can also be cases in which apparent violations are instead self-inflicted harms. Responding to the charge of anecdotal evidence requires presenting statistical data in support of the claim that such violations exist. Responding to the assertion that the apparent violations are the fault of the alleged victims requires showing that the harms are inflicted rather than self-inflicted.
The statistical evidence for inequality is overwhelming, with blacks and Hispanics in the United States consistently being worse off than white Americans. The disparity begins at birth with infant mortality for blacks being more than double that of whites. It ends, one assumes, at death. The life expectancy of blacks is 75 years, whites 79. It should be noted that “deaths of despair” are increasing among middle-aged whites as they increasingly face conditions that are routinely endured by blacks and Hispanics (notably a shortage of steady, well-paying jobs). While this might be taken as evidence against racism (that social ills are increasingly killing whites, too) it serves more to highlight the impact of economic disparity that has always been present.
Between birth and death, blacks and Hispanics are far more likely to grow up in poverty, less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to be enrolled in college, more likely to earn less money, more likely to lack insurance, and far less likely to own rather than rent. This is not to deny that there are whites who are in dire straits nor is it to ignore anecdotes about the misfortunes of whites. However, this is a matter of statistics and in general blacks and Hispanics are worse-off than whites. While this establishes the statistical evidence, there remains the question of causation.
One explanation is that whites are generally superior to blacks and Hispanics and hence do better at life. This view of racial superiority and inferiority is, by definition, racist. However, being morally repugnant does not make something false.
If there were different races with different abilities, this would show up in genetic testing. However, the scientific evidence is that there is no biological foundation to the categories of race. It could be argued that the differences are undetectable by current science or, perhaps, that they are metaphysical in nature. The obvious problem with such claims is that they are based on an appeal to ignorance. The burden of proof rests on those who claim they know there is a difference. As such, the biological superiority argument fails.
Another stock explanation is cultural: white culture is superior to black and Hispanic culture, so whites do better. This avoids the appeal to biological race and instead attributes negative traits (like laziness or criminality) to the cultures. One point of concern with this approach is defining cultures. After all, Americans share a broad culture and those who embrace the allegedly successful culture should tend to succeed at the same rate as whites. After all, anyone can adopt a culture (or appropriate it) and thus succeed. If it were that simple, presumably inequality would have washed away long ago. Even if the cultural hypothesis is accepted, there arises the question as to why such cultures exist and have the alleged traits.
Given the historical facts of slavery and racism, the most plausible explanation is that blacks and Hispanics inherit many of the residual the harms of the past centuries while the white population inherits the benefits. While there are some remarkable rags-to-riches stories, the United States has low economic mobility and even that has been on the decline. As such, it is no wonder that people whose ancestors were slaves in the United States would still be doing worse than those who owned slaves. After all, wealth provides an enduring advantage and poverty provides an enduring disadvantage.
Some make the argument that since slavery ended over a century ago, its effects cannot possibly be felt. While this is an absurd claim (think of the old money families who owe their wealth to things that happened long ago), one need not rely on an appeal to the impact of the past. One can simply run through examples of and data about contemporary racism.
Those that disagree with this claim will, of course, endeavour to claim that the examples are isolated incidents and that the statistics are either in error or lies. The challenge is, of course, to respond to the data with opposing data of equal or greater credibility. The other main alternative, as noted above, is to persist in arguing that while the harms are real, they are self-inflicted. While people are obviously enough, sometimes their own worse enemy, the evidence is quite solid that many of the harms of inequality are inflicted. These, in turn, impact the liberty and life of those affected—which runs against the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.