By Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Speech to the Center for Social Cohesion on the issues that divide and separate Americans

June 13, 2011

Speech to the Center for Social Cohesion on the issues that divide and separate Americans
Type: Speech
Location: The Center for Social Cohesion

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Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor lead off a day long discussion on the social, economic and political forces that divide and unite Americans today. Following her remarks, the panel examines whether Americans as a society, or more divided today than in previous generations. This is hosted by the Center for social cohesion, a joint project of Arizona State University and Socolow public square, in partnership with the New America Foundation partnership with the newest panel is an hour 20 minutes

Unknown Speaker
see, we are a new Think Tank dedicated to studying the forces that shape our sense of social unity. To kick things off today, I'm very pleased to introduce Mr. Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University.

Michael Crow
So thank you, Gregory. And what I think what I would like to say today, before I have the opportunity to introduce Justice O'Connor, is just the fact that even from Arizona, of all places in Southern California, where there are tremendous forces for social change and tremendous stresses that are manifested every day in the behavior of politicians and citizens. The one thing that we think is absent from this mix is intellectually rigorous, focused, thoughtful debate. And so what we have been working toward with the launching of this center and through other things that we do is to help within that complex mix of forces that are out there to make certain that at the end of the day, we have a part of the debate and a part of the discussion about the future of the United States, the future of our social fabric, being something that's actually guided in a way where it's more thoughtful than some of the discussions that have gone on. To do that. One has to have a purpose or a direction. And we believe very much that this notion of cohesion, social cohesion, linkage, and connection is a high order purpose. It's an objective that we've worked toward, at various points in American history. We've had various levels of success or failure along the way. It's certainly a work in progress. And it's something that we think is worthy of time and attention.

Today, what we thought we would do is continue this discussion, if you will, by focusing on this notion of the United States itself. Its structure, its design, its its orientation, its, its evolution. And we thought that related to that, as we've gone through history, and we've gone through a number of dynamic forces, who better than Sandra Day O'Connor to help us to think about some of the complexities associated with the design of our country. We were just chatting. Briefly, I you know, to some extent, you hear occasionally people talking about how might we divide the country up the governor of Texas, you know, reminding people that Texas can somehow leave the union is some condition of its admission to the union. And and I could have swore that there were two decisions that were made along the way. One was the manifest replacement of the Articles of Confederation by the Constitution. And the second was the civil war that basically said, somehow along the way that this was a United States of America, and always would be.

And so it's with that, that Arizonan Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has agreed to offer us some of her thinking today, I won't walk you through her resume, and she asked me to be certain that I didn't. What I'll do is make certain that everyone remembers that she grew up on a ranch long ago, went to Stanford Law School was one of the first women to graduate from Stanford Law School. And then the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States. And in her life after having left the Supreme Court, as a an active justice apparently remains active throughout the country, still hearing cases and moving forward. But let me say to you, that back in Arizona, how many of you are Arizonans, I suspect not very many of you? Yes. Back in Arizona, in Arizona, she is continuing to work for solutions and problem solving through what is now called O'Connor House, which is a place where people gather her her original home in metro Phoenix with her husband, and her family has been converted and moved to a separate location where people gather to actually solve problems rather than just argue about problems. And so, it's this notion of finding ways to raise the level of discourse, even from a place like Arizona, which at least in the national eye has appeared to have had something other than civil discourse, the last couple of years, we still strive for that. So Justice O'Connor is going to offer some of her thinking with us. And she has a small issue today where she preferred to sit. So. Okay.

Sandra Day O'Connor [automatically transcribed, may contain inaccuracies]
I wish it were, that would be a lot simpler. And I apologize. Thank you, Michael.

Sandra Day O'Connor [automatically transcribed, may contain inaccuracies]
Dr. Michael Crow, as most of you know, is president of Arizona State University. And he's doing a wonderful job under very difficult circumstances, because the state is run out of money, they say. And so it makes it a little hard if you're trying to run a good university, to be told there an't any more money. And somehow he's working things out. But he's a miracle worker. And I'm sure he'll have some good thoughts today. And I'm very glad to be here.

This is an interesting topic, and a good topic for discussion. And I look forward to listening and learning something, too. Can the United States remain united? Well, I certainly hope so. I'm sure you do, too. Now, many nation states around the world are united by blood or ethnicity, or religion, or historic territorial identity or some other immutable characteristics. And the United States is different from most of those places, because it's united, based on none of those things, and all of them. What do I mean, we have a unique conception of our role in ourselves. And our concept of citizenship is one that is open and voluntary. The people who became Americans came here because they wanted to, and they wanted to experiment on our new continent. And I think we had, from the beginning, we have placed value on freedom and democracy. And we look to our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, for our guidance.

And we're united by a certain number of values that we think we share their opinions, other forms of unity, of course, that are not what we're putting for ethnicity, or race or religion. And so we put those aside and reach for something else. And it's the relationship between the American identity and the various sub identities that American citizens also hold that, I think bring you here today to talk about it. And the sub identities in our US population, capture only a part of what we are. And I guess the question we're going to talk about today is whether the over line identity as Americans, as citizens of this country, developed as it is, are sufficiently strong to overcome the divisions that we see, based on the other issues that surround us today. And certainly we have them. And I hope the answer, of course, is yes.

We've said for years that our strength as a nation is founded, on the strength of all the immigrants that came to this country, they brought diverse backgrounds, and they brought expertise from various parts of the world. They made our melting pot in our country. And we have a history that is certainly shown a number of failures in our ideals, the idea that we would have had slavery for as long as we did is rather amazing considering what we thought we were doing. But I guess we got over bad. We have a lot of discrimination in this country as an outgrowth, or along with the slavery. We've had all kinds of things like literacy tests are voting, and lots of other things. And many of the things we've experimented with are not designed to make people feel welcome and included. Now some of these problems do continue today, because of economic disadvantage, because of language issues and ethnicity. I live in the southwest, and we have a great number of Hispanics living in the southwest in some areas more than non Hispanic. And that certainly is true in Southern California. So how do we address that? And what is that dynamic today? And how do we handle it?

I think we've had major issues in the country based on some of these concerns of language, ethnicity, and class. So we're going to hear from a number of x experts today to talk to us about these different aspects and see what we do. Now, I had a very simple solution. When I was in the legislature in Arizona and had a leadership position there. How could we reach a chord in that group? And I'll tell you what I did. It was pretty simple. I get everybody together and cook Mexican food. And we'd sit around outside and eat Mexican food and drink beer and make friends with each other. That worked. So how as a nation, can we sit around and eat Mexican food and drink beer and make friends? That's the question. If we can do that, on a broader scale, I think they'll come out of it. All right. But I look forward to hearing some other ideas that aren't quite as off center as my own. And I will welcome the discussion and take notes and see if we can come up with some better solutions. Thanks for letting me be here.