Freedom is a curious concept in the United States. We often we pride ourselves on being “the land of the free,” for indeed American citizens are afforded many freedoms that people in other places do not enjoy. Yet it's something that so many Americans, namely leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., have had to fight for. Today, there's worry that some of our freedoms are being encroached upon: voting rights, rights to privacy, and especially the “freedom to choose.” This phrase has most often been associated with women’s reproductive rights, but it’s an idea that reaches far beyond that. Ensuring a person’s freedom to choose their identity and path in life free from cultural pressure to behave and look a certain way is a crucial step in achieving justice and increasing opportunity for all Americans.
Now of course, this freedom of choice is an abstract concept that can manifest itself in many different ways. So let me be clear in saying that I recognize that people must exercise their freedom to choose within reason. By no means am I suggesting that people “find themselves” in murder, or bullying, or violence. These are destructive behaviors that tear individuals down, and prevent communities from thriving.
Nor am I suggesting that Americans aren’t already free on a legal level. We have a constitution that guarantees us certain rights, and these constitutional rights lay an important foundation for the way we live our lives. But the freedom I’m talking about is much more nuanced, and is not always guaranteed. This is a cultural freedom to express oneself as one pleases, without being made to feel inferior or otherwise marginalized by a larger society.
True freedom of choice is a black man’s ability to walk down the street wearing a hoodie and not be assumed a criminal. It is a transgender man’s ability to apply for a job, and not worry about whether his gender identity will prevent him from being hired. It’s a woman’s ability to wear whatever she wants, be it a miniskirt or overalls, and not worry about being verbally harassed or raped. This is freedom. This is what we strive for.
When we give our fellow citizens the space to express themselves without judgment or exclusion, we work to solve many of the social issues that plague our nation: racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc. cannot exist where there is respect. Fear and discrimination dissipate when we say to one another, “You and your experiences are valid, and are just as important as mine.” Most importantly, opportunities for richer lives are created when people live without the fear that they are not valued in their society. Self-determination becomes so much easier when people feel free.
It is for ideals like this one that Dr. King fought 50 years ago, and to be sure, enormous progress has been made in reaching these goals. Just this month, a poll out of the Pew Research Center reported that 46% of respondents believe that much progress has been made toward racial equality in the 50 last years. But there is still much work to be done. Thirty-five percent of black respondents and 20% of Latino respondents reported experiencing discrimination within the last year. Over half of black respondents felt that conditions for black Americans are the same as they were 50 years ago. These injustices represent a lack of freedom in the lives of many. They remind us of the steps that still need to be taken to make all Americans feel welcome in their own country.
The good news is that we all have the power to liberate one another. We can give other people the freedom of choice simply in the way we respond to them. By reacting with acceptance and respect when others present themselves to us, we send a message that they are valued, and that they can shape their lives as they choose.
In that iconic speech on the Washington Monument 50 years ago, Dr. King hoped for a day when all people could sing that they are “Free at last!” That day may never come, not because freedom can’t be achieved, but because freedom is a process, not a destination. Freedom must be fought for every day, over and over again, through tolerance and respect.