Life, Liberty, and Happiness Remain the Dream, Not the Reality for All
(This is the second in a three-part series of posts by Carlos Braceras, Executive Director of the Utah Department of Transportation. Originally posted on LinkedIn, Dec. 3, 2020.)
I was a boy during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. I grew up with a Spanish-sounding surname and a father who was born in Paris and raised in Argentina. I always thought of myself as open-minded — certainly not biased or prejudiced in any way. But I recently shared that Governor Gary Herbert required his cabinet to participate in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training, and some of the material the governor put us through challenged my assumptions in a really in-your-face way. It was hard to confront this in myself. I think I speak for all of us in the Governor’s administration when I say that I think about the things I learned constantly, and that it has made such a profound impression on me and upon my desire to do better for the people we serve.
Today we are all experiencing raw and powerful emotions as we navigate the impacts of the pandemic and the resulting economic challenges. While they are indeed daunting, beyond anything most of us have ever experienced in our lives, I think we all know deep in our hearts that we will get through this. We will solve our health and economic problems — that’s just what we do here in the great state of Utah. We’ll get through this, and we’ll be fine — at least, on those fronts.
There is one thing that has been amplified for me during this crazy, unpredictable year 2020 — something that, I’m embarrassed to say, I had never really considered before. It is the stunning realization that we as a people have not yet realized the dream of this country. The dream that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The realization that this country has not yet arrived at our destination — the formation of that more perfect union — is both painful and difficult for me, as it may have been for many of you. It’s easier to deny that we have a problem, or to say it’s not me, it’s the other guy. But we all must realize that today in our country, all people do not have equal opportunity. They are not all treated equally. They are not benefited by the same presumptive intent. We are not yet a fair, respectful or inclusive society. Too many have not realized the dream that is this United States of America, while many of us have convinced ourselves that all is well.
This is a hard reality for us to face, because we are good people. I believe that all people are basically good, but as all people do, we just make mistakes from time to time. Many of us have never lived in a situation where we have seen the impact of racism in people’s lives. And because we haven’t seen it or experienced it ourselves, we don’t think much about it and prefer to live our lives blindly believing that racism doesn’t really exist. Others have seen it — maybe even experienced it firsthand. But we don’t know what to do about it. And with everything else we face in our lives right now, maybe some even feel, “Yeah, it’s a problem. But it’s not MY problem.” We don’t want to rock the boat. We’ve grown comfortable with our lives as they are, and we don’t want to take a chance on making things worse if we start reaching and stretching to turn life as it is into life as it SHOULD be.
In both cases — those who have never seen or experienced racism and those who have — the biggest mistake would be in CHOOSING to be blind to the reality of our national shortcomings and REFUSING to acknowledge our own personal responsibility to help fix it.
Let me see if I can help you understand what I’m trying to say. For most of my life I have sincerely believed that hard work, personal initiative and family support can help almost anyone overcome almost anything. In fact, not too long ago I told our UDOT employees that one of my personal values is that “there is no quit in me.” Growing up with dyslexia, a learning disability, was difficult, and I did work really hard to manage and mitigate it. But not everyone with that challenge had the good fortune that I had. I lived in a school district where I was diagnosed early, where teachers and administrators cared about me and had the time and inclination to try to help me. I had a family that wasn’t wealthy by any means, but we had enough to pay for extra help for me. I had a mother who didn’t have to work outside the home, so she could focus on helping me every day. I was able to pay for books I was interested in, so that reading wasn’t such a chore. I grew up in a family that understood the value of education and instilled the desire in me to pursue it as far as I could go. I never thought that I grew up in privilege. But now, looking back at it, I can see how privileged I was — and it’s painful to realize how many people grow up without any of those privileges.
To be honest — and here is where it starts getting uncomfortable for me to admit — I’ve always looked down a little on those who, in my mind, allow themselves to remain mired in mediocrity. I’ve thought, “Look, I’m nothing special. My family and my background isn’t extraordinary. So if I can do it, anyone can do it. You just have to work as hard as I did to overcome whatever adversity you face.” During 2020 I’m humbled to acknowledge that I’ve learned it wasn’t just a matter of hard work — it was also a matter of opportunity.
For me, the opportunity was there to overcome adversity with my work and the support of family, teachers and friends. But for too many people in America today, the opportunity isn’t there no matter how hard they may work. Families lack resources to support growth and change. Schools are too overcrowded and overwhelmed to pay much attention to individual student needs. Entire communities are so focused on survival, on just getting by, that they can’t inspire and sustain a dialogue about personal well-being and quality of life.
Unfortunately, when those of us who have unknowingly and unwittingly grown up with those privileges see such problems — problems of injustice, of inequality, of an unlevel playing field — we tend to blame people, individually and collectively, for their problems or for their reaction to the problems they face rather than acknowledging the weakness and imperfection of a system that allows such injustice to occur. And so “We the Privileged” point accusing fingers at other people — even entire races of people — instead of working together with them to overcome the failure of the system to provide fair and equal opportunity for all of its people. In doing so we add to an already existing atmosphere of disharmony and distrust in which we don’t solve the problem, we amplify it.
Please don’t misunderstand what I’m trying to say. I love America. I believe in the dream of America, and the ideal of being a land of freedom and opportunity and justice for all. Although I spent many of my growing up years in Argentina, I am proud to be an American. In fact, I believe that every one of us is privileged by the fact that we live here in America. I also believe we live in the greatest country on the face of the earth. Great, but not perfect.
We can be better. We have to be better — as individuals and as communities — even if that means making significant changes in ourselves and in the world in which we live.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, would be “to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” Dr. King’s words are even more timely now than they were when he first spoke them. For several years we’ve been saying that we are at an inflection point in the history of transportation — a point at which decisions must be made in order to determine our future direction. That is also true for us as a nation — and for transportation professionals everywhere — with regards to making “justice a reality for all of God’s children.” Are we going to continue to wallow in the quicksands of racial injustice, or are we going to build our future on the solid rock of brotherhood? The choice is ours — beginning here. Beginning now.
For me, there is no question. There is no doubt. I choose love. I choose respect. I choose understanding. I invite you to join me in choosing to make our industry even better than it already is. My experience with the men and women of American transportation has been, once we set our minds and hearts to something, nothing can stop us. Not even 2020.