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By the Content of Our Character

by on February 21, 2019 5:00 AM


“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.

There are certain words or passages in our nation’s history that always stir the soul every time they’re read or heard. Those words from King thundered through valleys, over mountains and across oceans to inspire people around the world.

Now decades later, the idea of judging each other by the content of our character is under growing pressure. Because ultimately understanding promotes unity, we must learn to appreciate our differences to live with each other.

But we seem to be moving the opposite direction, dividing into the growing camps of confrontational identity politics. We look for the media leverage and fawning that comes by the perception that our group is somehow uniquely oppressed.

Dr. King faced brutal oppression, to the point where he was killed for his beliefs. But as he faced clubs, police dogs, arrest and bombings, he fixed his eyes to the horizon and led others toward a mountaintop he correctly suspected that he himself would never reach.

Now we expect the struggle to be decided by hashtags and online petitions, and to be resolved immediately because we possess virtuous victimization. The pace of dramatic change is not easily expedited. Hatred and resentment among and between groups has been a constant in our complicated history. But today some say it is growing.

There is much to overcome in an America digging the trenches of divisive political warfare.

The social media carnival mirror distorts slim slices of public opinion into grotesquely outsized dimensions. It is easier than ever for “leaders” to assemble groups. They ascend with demands for unconditional surrender by anyone who is not “woke” or is too “politically correct” or is not “normal.”

But at our core, we are blessed to live in a nation where we adapt to an ever-evolving world. For some, change is not fast enough, while it is far too rapid for others.

The blessing and challenge of our society is the diversity of our people. Nations that are religious states, or demographically homogeneous, or authoritarian do not face the same challenges that we do. But those challenges should make us stronger.

Diversity has proven to be part of both America’s steely backbone and our minds. While many of our nation’s founders were white, our course was certainly not charted by them alone. Black soldiers helped turn the tide for the North in the Civil War. In World War II, the Navajo Code Talkers created an unbreakable code. Immigrants were among the innovative thinkers who built rockets, created tech start-ups and still come here to be part of the learning environment in higher education that is the envy of the world. The examples go on and on.

But somewhere along the way, have we have sparked a Balkanization and the divisions that come with identity politics? In 2019, the rhetoric of discord between groups grows angrier, evoking confrontations that have grown threatening and even violent.

America has found ways to overcome divisions before, but this seems more entrenched and more easily manipulated. Our group identity even allows the hypocrisy of holding one set of standards for our members versus the standards to which we hold others.

Victims in our group make allegations that are to be believed without question over the defense of someone from outside our identity. However, allegations against a member of our group must be fully vetted through due process, even aided by campaigns to discredit accusers.

In politics we easily default to the idea that everyone who disagrees with us does so based on identity factors. We make assumptions to explain away the success of others not like us. But just as a black man would not want someone to assume he got a promotion because of his race, neither should the success of a white man be always attributed to “white male privilege.”

But easily hashtagged labels and assumptions give us a shortcut from developing true understanding. Identity and life experience matter as they mold and shape the content of our character.  It is what makes each of us the person we are. If only we’d take the time to allow our actions to form bonds among one another, rather than use our assumptions to rend the fabric of America.

Across history, society’s pendulums swing back and forth. Today the pendulum seems to be moving away from a nation looking for unity in our politics and among our communities. But the dream remains. The pendulum will swing back to where we build bridges and extend open hands engaging one another solely upon the content of our character. Ultimately that is how we build the America that harbors the dreams of all people and all communities.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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