Jack Kemp to USC Graduates: We're Defined by our Beliefs, Not Bloodlines
Updated: Jul 12, 2022
The following is an excerpt from Jack Kemp's 1997 commencement address to the students of the University of Southern California:
Graduates… I want to issue to you three great challenges.
First, I urge you to recognize that you have not only an opportunity, but an obligation to those who are living outside of the growing umbrella of democracy. A changing world demands your involvement. A struggling world deserves your concern and compassion. The emerging world needs your example and the transforming power of freedom and free enterprise.
We create the conditions for true peace through the advance of democracy, the progress of free enterprise and the expansion of free trade. These are the things that diminish famine, combat poverty and defeat despair. We build global security by bringing a greater and greater portion of the world into the democratic zone of peace and prosperity – a goal that guided both Truman Democrats and Reagan Republicans…
But some of both extremes of the political spectrum are threatening our ability to lead the march for freedom and democracy around the globe. The refrains from both the far left and far right are familiar: “Come home America,” “America First” – and, in some cases, “America only for Americans.” But their message is the same; they think the age of heroic ideals and global acts has ended – and the age of narrow and personal interests has begun. This narrow view implies that America’s vision is reduced to material things – to the mere calculation of costs, benefits and comforts.
But the revolution of 1776 was not meant for us alone. Our moral commitments to human rights, human dignity and human freedom must not stop at our shores. If they apply to us then they must apply to all people, whether a college student standing in Tiananmen Square, a Sudanese Christian, or a Bosnian Muslim.
But it is not only in the far reaches of our globe that we face serious struggles for freedom and human dignity. We need look no further than our neighbors in east or south central L.A. – or innumerable other pockets of despair across this country, to see first-hand, the effects of bondage, hunger and despair.
And that brings me to my second challenge to you today. The inward mission of your generation is to our inner cities, which have often become devoid of hope. We are finding that despair cannot be overcome by force – by prisons and police. It must be overcome by hope – the hope of an education, a job, or just a decent shot at the universal dream of improving one’s lot in life. We have seen that human dreams are durable when they are given half a chance to flourish.
But in America that chance is often squelched because our nation is essentially divided into two economies. The one we are most familiar with is democratic, capitalist, market-oriented, entrepreneurial and incentivized, and it works well for those who have the means. But there is another economy that is similar to the old Eastern European “socialist” economies and it predominates in the pockets of poverty throughout urban and rural America. The irony is that the second economy was set up out of a desire to help the poor, alleviate suffering, and provide a basic social safety net. But while the intentions were noble, the results led to a counterproductive economy and the destabilization of the family.
We cannot let another generation down. We cannot stand by while this second economy perpetuates itself. This is where the example of the Good Shepherd applies to public policy. We prove our love for the 99 by doing whatever necessary to save the one stray lamb. We must dismantle the failed system but we must also step into the breach by establishing enterprise zones, by extending the availability of quality education, and by removing the tax and regulatory burdens which drive away businesses and jobs along with them. These are the kind of affirmative efforts, or affirmative action if you will, that the government should be involved in – giving people access to jobs, education, capital, credit, ownership and opportunity.
Finally, you will continue to encounter those who fear diversity, either through racism or through isolationism. Sadly, many are still threatened by, and even hostile toward, other cultures, colors, religions, or even genders. Ladies and gentlemen, it is your responsibility to finally end this struggling, but persistent strain of hatred still in our midst.
The small-minded, rootless stereotypes which poison our hopes of a society based on equality of opportunity must end. I believe the greatest fear which still permeates the climate of race relations, in this country and in the rest of the world, is the fear that one’s values will be threatened by strangers from another culture, another class, or another race. It is the same fear which infects attitudes toward immigration, as voices from both the left and the right argue that we should turn our backs on a legacy of liberal immigration policies and family reunification.
But we cannot listen to those fears. We must heed instead the words of Father Hesberg who said that we must close the back door of illegal immigration in order to keep open the golden door of legal immigration. We need to pay closer attention to the experiences which have taught us that, regardless of race or religion or ethnic origin, the people who came to this country… turned hard work into businesses, sweat into capital, and their children into examples of education and accomplishments. They have proven, contrary to some people’s fears, that our best values are shared across cultural borders – values and qualities such as generosity, ambition, optimism, perseverance, faith, compassion and family strength.
We should not be defined by our bloodlines, but by our beliefs. We have inherited a set of ideas and institutions that create a nation out of nations, overcoming the centrifugal force of our differences. Those fundamentals of American identity are found –not in our ethnicity or our culture – but plainly declared in the Declaration of Independence. Our unity is discovered in universal concepts like freedom and equality, open to all people. And we recognize that our rights come from our Creator, not from the state.
In America, we have proven that diverse people can be children of the same creed…That creed has inspired the world. It can still inspire the next generation. It built our nation, it can still bridge our differences. But only if we defend it with confidence and pass it along undiminished to the future.