Repaying a mounting moral debt


Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — unalienable rights — endowed by our Creator — for all men and women — forever.

That is the promise we made to ourselves 243 years ago in our Declaration of Independence. We then created a Constitution to make these promises so: the guarantee of equal protection of the law — equal justice — for all Americans — for all Americans.

Whatever may be the views of individual Americans, there will never be the domestic tranquility our Constitution promises until those guarantees are the warp and weave — the very fabric — of American lives. Over and over and over again the frustrations of our citizens who do not enjoy these rights explode into national protest and even violence, even if that violence harms first the communities where the victims live. If we cannot see this truth, then the lesson will repeat until we understand and do what is required.

The coronavirus pandemic has made starkly visible those among us who have suffered the most. And they are our health heroes, our first responders, our neighbors who have to go back to work or open up for business even when the danger is still present. They are our vulnerable citizens, those who have lost their jobs and insurance coverage and do not know when they might be able to earn a salary to care for their loved ones, and the young people facing a future once again with narrowed promises. Among these heroes are black Americans, who have the highest percentage of deaths and the lowest percentage of protections.

In the midst of this chaos, we see in full daylight and on video a white police officer, sworn to protect and defend our Constitution, choke to death a 46-year-old black man begging to breathe and calling for his mother already dead two years. The moral debt we Americans owe is mounting once again. It will only be repaid when we treat every man, woman and child before the law and within our society the same way we expect ourselves to be treated.

Those promises we made between and among all of us constitute a social contract to provide what is promised and to receive what is promised. If our fellow black citizens go decades and decades and do not receive what was contracted for, how are we going to convince them to trust the country to keep its commitments?

Words of hate and division, which we have heard many times recently, push farther away the day when the issue of race is treated seriously. What we need is dialogue, people reaching across lines of comfort to listen with respect and speak with respect, and authorities who understand the need for basic fairness and clear protection in our society. Peace will come when equal justice is true in practice not just in principle.

There is no better moment — and there never will be — than now to say Amen — let it be so — and let each of us be a part of making it happen.

Robert Pearson of Pittsboro is a retired U.S. diplomat who worked under six presidents and in more than 50 countries. Pearson, a lifetime member of the NAACP in Maryland, is an active member of Chatham County’s NAACP community. He and his wife, Maggie, live in Fearrington Village.