I recently made a comment on television that made some people very angry. I said that despite all the flag-waving since Sept. 11, "I personally never wave the flag because America's greatest symbol has no stars or stripes on it that represent me."
You can't travel far today without seeing a car or porch outfitted with the red, white and blue. I must wonder: How much time and thought was spent considering what the symbol of freedom really means and the responsibility it implies? And where were those flags before Sept. 11?
My point was simply that while my passport says I'm an American, my experience says I'm not. Most Americans don't need civil-rights laws to function as citizens. Whites generally enjoy their constitutional protections under the Constitution. Although they take it for granted, that document is strong enough to keep them safe. But for many other Americans, the same has not held true.
Some accused me of being un-American. They charged that I am disloyal because I chose to express my personal view just as this nation suffered terrorism, that just as many of our youth are risking their lives to defend freedom, I had the temerity to be critical of our country.
"In what other nation would you have the right even to say such a thing?" was a common question. It is with pride that I can answer "few or none."
But I didn't just begin to express my feelings about the persistent abuse of minorities in our country it's just that many have only begun to hear me.
It would be cowardly of me to hold such a bitter view about America but only whisper it in some secluded back room. Nor would I earn respect if I shared it only with trusted friends who would not expose the depth of my despair concerning this nation's racial divide.
When a person is convinced of the truth of his ideas, is willing to state them openly, and accepts the risks and consequences of his words, that person truly honors freedom. That person is the truest of patriots. He or she needs no flag or symbol to demonstrate his faith that his nation is just.
This is precisely the time to challenge the flag-wavers to live up to the true principles of Americanism. It occurs to me that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he refused to stay his protests and marches when well-meaning friends implored him to wait. He did not hesitate but went forward to challenge the racial inequities that then existed. He argued persuasively that "the time is always right to say and do what is right."
South Africa's Nelson Mandela was also right when he refused to compromise his principles to gain his freedom from prison. Was he to concede, after nearly 30 years behind bars, that his commitment to equality for his people was unjust? I don't think so.
What I learned from these two men, and countless others, is that a nation is not improved by citizens willing to gloss over its imperfections to keep the peace. By covering up our nation's faults or worse, by pretending they do not exist we do not shore up freedom but dilute it.
When we acquiesce in the face of obvious mistreatment of certain citizens women, Asians, Hispanics, blacks and others we demonstrate no love of our country. Instead, we support persistent racial intransigence, ensuring that such attitudes and behavior will persist, regardless of how far and wide we wave the American flag.