Amid next week's fireworks and displays of patriotic fervor on the nation's birthday, it's worth taking a moment to ponder whether America has approached its ideals, or whether it's still very much a work in progress.
Earlier this year, Buffalo Urban League President Brenda McDuffie had an interesting take on that question as she addressed members of a national black sorority meeting here.
Citing the National Urban League's annual State of Black America report and its "equality index," McDuffie recalled the founding of this great country and posed a rhetorical question: How far have we come?
One measuring stick is the 1787 Constitutional Convention and its grand compromise that counted blacks as worth only three-fifths the value of whites.
Fast forward more than two centuries.
The Urban League's socioeconomic index provides a dispiriting answer in a nation founded on the notion of equality and that -- judging by its Supreme Court -- thinks it already has achieved this.
In its aggregate measure of black progress in five broad areas, the "equality index" puts the socioeconomic well-being of African-Americans in 2007 at 73 percent that of whites. As McDuffie noted, that's not very far from the 60 percent figure in the 1787 compromise.
In perhaps the most important component of the index -- given our infatuation with capitalism -- blacks don't do even that well. Looking at economic measures ranging from income and employment to wealth accumulation, the index puts black financial well-being at 57 percent that of whites.
In terms of social justice -- how fairly police and courts treat blacks -- African-Americans come in at 66 percent. In health, it's 78 percent; and in education, it's 79 percent.
Only in the fifth category -- civic engagement -- do blacks actually outdo whites, scoring 105 percent on the index. But that's largely because that category includes government employment, a safety net for blacks who can't get in the corporate door and can't get loans to start their own businesses.
Overall, there's not much reason for a parade, in Buffalo or any city with a large black population.
Not to take the analogy too far. Obviously, the 13th and 14th Amendments and the protections won during the civil rights movement mean that African-Americans today don't face what George Washington's and Thomas Jefferson's slaves had to endure. The presence of a solid black middle class is evidence of that.
It's also maddeningly undeniable that part of the gap today can be attributed to self-inflicted wounds, literally and figuratively. Far too many blacks -- abetted by media moguls, both black and white -- wallow in a counterculture at odds with any hope of true success.
Nevertheless, what a more enlightened Supreme Court once called the "vestiges" of discrimination mean that the socioeconomic head start whites got two centuries ago continues to manifest itself today.
During his famous 1852 address on "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro," Frederick Douglass told a Rochester audience, "Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us."
That distance -- which didn't happen by accident -- has closed significantly. But as the Urban League data makes clear, it is is still too great for any nation that would be the world's moral leader.
Amid the revelry, fireworks and red, white and blue bunting next week, it might be worth pondering ways to close it.