get along with other Americans
to several hundred million people
who aren't quite like you
The most important fact about
It doesn't really
exist. At least not the way many Americans think it does. There
is simply no undisputed scientific definition of race. What are
considered genetic characteristics are often the result of cultural
habit and environmental adaptation. As far back as 1785, a German
philosopher noted that "complexions run into each other."
Julian Huxley suggested in 1941 that "it would be highly
desirable if we could banish the question-begging term 'race'
from all discussions of human affairs and substitute the noncommittal
phrase 'ethnic group.' That would be a first step toward rational
consideration of the problem at hand." Anthropologist Ashley
Montagu in 1942 called race our "most dangerous myth."
Yet in our conversations
and arguments, in our media, and even in our laws, the illusion
of race is given great credibility. As a result, that which is
transmitted culturally is considered genetically fixed, that
which is an environmental adaptation is regarded as innate and
that which is fluid is declared immutable.
Many still hang
on to a notion similar to that of Carolus Linnaeus, who declared
in 1758 that there were four races: white, red, dark and black.
Others make up their own races, applying the term to religions
(Jewish), language groups (Aryan) or nationalities (Irish). Modern
science has little impact on our views. Our concept of race comes
largely from religion, literature, politics, and the oral tradition.
It comes creaking with all the prejudices of the ages. It reeks
of territoriality, of jingoism, of subjugation, and of the abuse
DNA research has
revealed just how great is our misconception of race. In The
History and Geography of Human Genes, Luca Cavalli-Sforza
of Stanford and his colleagues describe how many of the variations
between humans are really adaptations to different environmental
conditions (such as the relative density of sweat glands or lean
bodies to dissipate heat and fat ones to retain it). But that's
not the sort of thing you can easily build a system of apartheid
around. As Thomas S. Martin has written:
genetic divergence in human groups separates the Africans from
the Australian aborigines, though ironically these two 'races'
have the same skin color. ~ There is no clearly distinguishable
'white race.' What Cavalli-Sforza calls the Caucasoids are a
hybrid, about two-thirds Mongoloid and one-third African. Finns
and Hungarians are slightly more Mongoloid, while Italians and
Spaniards are more African, but the deviation is vanishingly
it sure feels like race
Regardless of what
science says, however, myth can kill and cause pain just as easily
as scientific truth. And regardless of what science says, there
are no Japanese players in the NBA or, as anthropologist Alice
Brues told Newsweek, "If I parachute into
Nairobi, I know I'm not in Oslo."
In fact, give or
take a few thousand years, it's unlikely that those of a Nordic
skin complexion would stay that way living under the African
sun. Similarly, the effects of a US diet are strong enough that
the first generations of both European and Asian Americans have
found themselves looking up at their grandchildren.
In such ways adaptation
mimics what many think of as race. But who needs science when
we have our own eyes? If it looks like race, that's good enough
Further, we are
obsessed with the subject even as we say we wish to ignore it.
A few years back, a study of urban elections coverage found five
times as many stories about race as about taxes.
We can't even agree
on what race is. In the 1990 census, Americans said they belonged
to some 300 different races or ethnic groups. American Indians
divided themselves into 600 tribes and Latinos into 70 categories.
If we are going to insist on dividing
people by race, we should at least use comparisons more up-to-date
than those thought up centuries ago. Here are a few suggestions
based on modern science
Basis of comparison
Ability to digest milk
reason race is important to us
Even as we talk
endlessly of race and ethnicity, we simultaneously go to great
lengths to prove that we are all the same. Why this contradiction?
The answer can be partly found in the tacit assumption of many
that human equity must be based primarily on competitive equality.
Listen to talk about race (or sex) and notice how often the talk
is also about competition. The cultural differences (real or
presumed) that really disturb us are ones of competitive significance:
thigh circumference, height, math ability and so forth. We accept
more easily other differences -- varieties of hair, degree of
subcutaneous fat, prevalence of sickle cell anemia -- because
they don't affect (or affect far less) who gets to the top.
Once having decided
which traits are important, we assign causes to them on the basis
of convenience rather than fact. Our inability to sort out the
relative genetic, cultural, and environmental provenance of our
differences doesn't impede our judgment at all. It is enough
that a difference is observed. Thus we tend to deal neither with
understanding what the facts about our differences and similarities
really mean -- or, more importantly, with their ultimate irrelevance
to developing a world where we can live harmoniously and happily
with each other. We don't spend the effort to separate facts
from fiction because both cut too close to our inability to appreciate
and celebrate our human differences. It is far easier to pretend
either that these differences are immutable or that they don't
exist at all.
And so we come to
the Catch-22 of ethnicity. It is hard to imagine a non-discriminatory,
unprejudiced society in which race and sex matter much. Yet in
our efforts to reach that goal, our society and its institutions
constantly send the conflicting message that they are extremely
For example, our
laws against discriminatory practices inevitably heighten general
consciousness of race and sex. The media, drawn inexorably to
conflict, plays up the issue. And the very groups that have suffered
under racial or sexual stereotypes consciously foster countering
stereotypes -- "you wouldn't understand, it's a black thing"
-- as a form of protection. Thus, we find ourselves in the odd
position of attempting to create a society that shuns invidious
distinctions while at the same time -- often with fundamentalist
or regulatory fervor -- accentuating those distinctions.
In the process we
reduce our ethnic problems to a matter of regulation and power,
and reduce our ambitions to the achievement of a tolerable stalemate
rather than the creation of a truly better society. The positive
aspects of diversity remain largely ignored and non-discrimination
becomes merely another symbol of virtuous citizenship -- like
not double-parking or paying your taxes.
Martin Luther King
must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of men that they
will come together, not because the law says it, but because
it is natural and right.
Sorry, Martin. Our
approach to prejudice and discrimination is not unlike our approach
to drugs: We plan to simply rule them out of existence. In so
doing, we have implicitly defined the limits of virtue as merely
the absence of malice.
important fact about prejudice
It's normal. That
isn't to say that it's nice, pretty, or desirable. Only that
suspicion, distrust, and distaste for outsiders is a deeply human
trait. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote that "all
primitive tribes agree in recognizing [a] category of the outsiders,
those who are not only outside the provisions of the moral code
which holds within the limits of one's own people, but who are
summarily denied a place anywhere in the human scheme. A great
number of the tribal names in common use, Zuñi, Déné,
Kiowa . . . are only their native terms for 'the human beings,'
that is, themselves. Outside of the closed group there are no
Many attempts to
eradicate racism from our society have been based on the opposite
notion -- that those who harbor prejudice towards others are
abnormal and social deviants. Further, we often describe these
"deviants" only in terms of their overt antipathies
-- they are "anti-Semitic" or guilty of "hate."
In fact, once you have determined yourself to be human and others
less so, you need not hate them any more than you need despise
the fish you eat for dinner. This is why those who participate
in genocide can do so with such calm -- they have defined their
targets as outside of humanity.
What if, instead,
we were to start with the unhappy truth that humans have always
had a hard time dealing with other peoples, and that much ethnic
and sexual antagonism stems not from hate so much as from cultural
narcissism? Then our repertoire of solutions might tilt more
towards education and mediation and away from being self-righteous
multi-cultural missionaries converting yahoos in the wilds of
the soul. We could turn towards something more akin to what Andrew
Young once described as a sense of "no fault justice."
We might begin to consider seriously Martin Luther King's admonition
to his colleagues that among their dreams should be that someday
their enemies would be their friends.
If we are to rid
our minds of stereotypes, something needs to fill the empty space.
Nothing works better than the real stories of real people drawn
from the anecdotal warehouses that supply many of our deepest
values, feelings and philosophy.
If you find your
classroom, organization or workplace bogged down in cultural
tension and abstract confrontation -- or perhaps feeling the
silence that comes from being near one another and not knowing
what to say -- why not take a break and let people tell their
In writing this
book, I sat down with a number of people who had crossed the
barricades of culture to some good end. I wanted their wisdom
but I also wanted their stories, for wisdom seldom comes without
If I were just to
tell you that each had experienced "institutional racism"
or had suffered from some sort of "cultural stereotype"
you'd probably forget about it before the end of this chapter.
Here instead are a few of their stories:
Kyung Kyu Lim is
employed by an association of state transportation officials
in Washington, DC. He is active with Young Koreans United and
has worked in multi-cultural coalitions. He believes that "part
of getting Korean-American identity is learning commonalities
with other groups." In the early seventies, Kyung Kyu moved
from Korea to an African-American community in LA. In high school,
through a program ironically called A Better Chance, he ended
up with a white host family in suburban Minneapolis where the
overwhelmingly white student body made him feel "wretched,"
with its clannishness, nice cars, and derogatory comments about
"I felt myself
shrinking," Kyung Kyu recalls.
Things got no better
at McCalester College. The prejudice he found there made him
feel "smaller and smaller." He tried running away by
dropping out and moving to Alaska. That didn't work. Nor did
changing schools to University of Connecticut -- not long after
he arrived, members of the football team spat upon some Asian
Rudy Arredondo handles
civil rights problems for the Department of Agriculture and has
worked with Cesar Chavez and for a city health department. He
came to Texas from Mexico when he was three. By five he was working
in the fields. At six, his mother put him on a bus to go to kindergarten
for the first time. As he sat down, the Anglo passengers started
screaming at him. He knew no English so he did not realize that
the bus was segregated and that he was in the white section.
He knew only that strange people were screaming at him in a foreign
tongue and he was very scared. At twelve Rudy tried to buy a
movie ticket in Lubbock. The clerk pointed to a sign that read,
No Niggers, Dogs or Mexicans allowed.
John Callahan is
editing the unpublished works of Ralph Ellison. He grew up in
the New Haven. At the age of eight -- and a small eight -- he
was sent to a parochial school in the formerly Irish turned Italian
neighborhood of Fairhaven. There he was greeted by some seemingly
friendly (and much bigger) Italian kids who asked him, "Do
you know what an Irishman is?" John said he didn't and one
of the kids said, "A nigger turned inside out." They
pummeled him and one grabbed his Yankees baseball hat, saying
of the team's star, 'DiMag belongs to us.'"
Later, when he was
16 and working as a mail clerk for a bank, he overheard a bank
officer on the phone. The bank officer was looking out the window,
his long legs stretched over a corner of his desk. He was saying,
"If the funny little mick doesn't work out, we can always
bring in a nigger."
But Kyung Kyu, Rudy
and John also told me a different type of story.
For example, Kyung
Kyu remembered that at his elementary school, it was black teachers
who helped him through the wrenching experience of being a young
stranger in a new land. They also taught him how to handle the
kids who taunted him for his poor English -- by saying he was
Korean and proud of it.
Kyung Kyu became
a community organizer and eventually found his way east and to
a MIT program for organizers run by Mel King -- a longtime African-American
activist and one-time candidate for mayor of Boston. King became
his teacher and guide.
When I talked with
Rudy, our conversation turned to Sammie Abbott, an Arab-American
and local activist who had led the local anti-freeway crusade
in the 60s and who eventually became mayor of Takoma Park, MD.
Along the way he taught a Latino organizer and an Anglo-Irish
journalist a lot about politics and life. At his memorial service
I had said that for Sammie, "a cause was not a career move,
not an option purchased on a political future, nor a flirtation
of conscience. It was simply the just life's work of a just human."
Rudy recalled that "Sam Abbott had preconceived notions
about everything. We would have strong arguments." Yet when
Sam became mayor, the town meetings would often run late, because
he "never used a gavel to shut anyone up."
Someone also crossed
the barriers to help John Callahan. Going through -- and dropping
out of -- college, John worked for two African-Americans who
"taught me a great deal about the hard work of becoming
a man." Later still, when John Callahan had become a man
and an academic, he wrote an essay about a black novelist. He
sent a copy to the writer who responded with a long letter and
an offer that they get together if John ever came to New York..
That's how, just
before four p.m. one afternoon in 1978, John Callahan found himself
ringing the doorbell of Ralph Ellison. "We talked like we
were in a Henry James novel," says Callahan. Ellison called
him Mr. Callahan and Callahan called him Mr. Ellison. Then, at
precisely five minutes of five, Ellison leaned towards Callahan
and asked, "John, would you like a drink?"
"Why yes, Mr.
Elli -- ah Ralph -- I would." Ellison excused himself and
returned with two bottles of whiskey, one bourbon and one Irish.
They began to talk again, but no longer as in a Henry James novel
and only for the first of many times.
Much later, Ralph
Ellison told John's mother that if he and his wife had had a
son, they would have liked him to have been like John. Today
John Callahan is editing the unfinished works of a black author
who found something of himself in an Irish kid from New Haven.
Platt did it
In the middle of
the stolid, segregated, monolithic 1950s, Howard Platt taught
one of two anthropology courses available in an American high
school. I was lucky enough to be among his students. Mr. Platt
showed us a new way to look at the world.
And what a wonderful
world it was. Not the stultifying world of our parents, not the
monochromatic world of our neighborhood, not the boring world
of 9th grade, but a world of fantastic options, a world in which
people got to cook, eat, shelter themselves, have sex, dance
and pray in an extraordinary variety of ways. Mr. Platt's subliminal
message of cultural relativism was simultaneously a subliminal
message of freedom. You were not a prisoner of your culture;
you could always go live with the Eskimos, the Indians or the
Arabs. By the time the bell sounded I was often ready to go.
Mr. Platt did not
exorcise racism, and he did not teach ethnic harmony, cultural
sensitivity, the regulation of diversity, or the morality of
non-prejudiced behavior. He didn't need to. He taught something
far more important, something so often missing from our discussions
on race, something frequently absent from college curricula.
Mr. Platt opened a world of variety, not for us to fear but to
learn about, appreciate and enjoy. It was not an obstacle, but
the right words
Linguists say that
when something matters greatly in a culture there are many words
for it. Here in America, we have no single word for a four-wheeled
vehicle. Yet when dealing with issues of race and sex, we have
comfortably settled on racism and sexism, two overburdened
words called to fulfill an astounding collection of functions.
The net effect is to dissipate the power of the most violent
acts and to exaggerate minor transgressions. Linguistically,
we have put genocide and the failure of a professor to assign
any reading by a black author on the same level.
If we were really
going to do something about our problems we would have more words
for them. We would discriminate, linguistically, tactically and
philosophically, between a black saying, "Nigger,"
a white freshman using the epithet and a white politician saying
the same thing. We would be able to describe the difference between
the prejudice that comes from being taught that another ethnic
group is responsible for your economic problems and that which
comes from believing another ethnic group is trying to take your
power. We would distinguish among the misguided, the uninformed,
the victim of warped acculturation, the viscerally hating, the
cynically manipulating, the indifferent, the culturally jingoistic
and the paranoid.
We seldom make these
distinctions and as a result, tend to favor one recipe for all.
It turns out to be no recipe, however, only words as lazy as
our actions. As things stand now, America's cultures are standing
on their separate turfs hurling symbols at each other. And some
have divined in this the message that it is all right to hurl
other things as well.
Working our way
out of this jam will take a willingness to come together, to
think of the future more than of the past, to learn how to enjoy
our differences, and to speak honestly, without violence, of
our fears and, yes, even of our prejudices. It will mean finding
ways of revealing the individual under the mask of culture. It
will above all take a revival of the often forgotten faith that
there is a powerful advantage in doing these things. For without
that, everything else we do will be a lie no matter how politely
we treat each other.
by being together
Janet Hampton, a
George Washington University professor whose research speciality
is Afro-Hispanic studies, grew up black in Kansas. She exudes
a cheerful calm suggestive of having lived around a lot of love,
so you might not suspect that she has taught ethnic relations
to cops at the local police academy as well as having been on
the faculty at both mostly white and mostly black universities.
Here's how she handles the first day of class: "I ask the
students to tell a little about themselves. If some one is from
a cultural enclave, I tell them about other students from their
school or place who have really done well." She pays particular
attention to those who come from "pariah nations" like
Iraq. She told a student from Eritrea that he could be very helpful
when the class discussed the American Civil War.
I asked her about
ethnic slurs. Let's say, Jan said, that a black student uses
the word wetback. "I would make him apologize but
I would also say that we don't want to lose his point."
Corrected but still valued.
Janet informs her
students that "As long as you are never disrespectful, you
can say anything you want. ~ We will change by just being together."
and respectful: In
a culturally varied society, it is easy to transmit signals that
are misunderstood but, fortunately, kindness, friendliness and
respect come across clearly. Make good use of them.
about other cultures: We
typically try to resolve inter-cultural tensions without giving
people a solid reason for liking one another. Mutual enjoyment
and admiration provide the shortest route between two ethnicities.
Education is one thing that we know reduces prejudice. Yet for
all our talk about diversity, this isn't so easy to come by.
For example, after three decades of the modern civil rights movement,
the University of Wisconsin is the only place you can get a degree
in African languages and literature. We could well spend less
time on abstractions of racism and more on the assets of each
We could be teaching,
in high school anthropology classes and college seminars, the
variety of the world as something to explore and enjoy, not just
as a problem or an issue. You don't have to teach diversity.
Diversity is. You don't have to defend it in lofty liberal rhetoric.
Studying humanity's medley is not a moral act; it is simply intelligent.
Limiting one's understanding to the "western intellectual
canon," makes as much sense as teaching leeching to medical
students or limiting one's knowledge of the universe to that
data available to Copernicus. It's not that it's evil; it's just
not very smart
And you don't have
to learn it all in school. France became a haven for black exiles
earlier this century in no small part because of French enthusiasm
for jazz and African art. Similarly, jazz clubs and concerts
were among the few places in segregated America that apartheid
was regularly ignored.
Today we are sometimes
more hospitable to foreigners than we are to strangers in our
own land. One notable exception is the ethnic restraurant. Why?
In part because all parties involved get a fair deal out of it.
In part because it is enjoyable. In part because it is natural.
No one is self-conscious; no one is made to feel uncomfortable.
The owner makes a good living; the customers get a good meal.
within cultures counts as well as that between them: Just because jazz is important
to black culture doesn't mean all blacks like jazz. Or that colleges
shouldn't recruit black cellists as well as black forwards. Or
that just because someone's white, they have to be Anglo-Saxon
or a Protestant.
power fairly. One
of the clearest manifestations of decency is equitable power.
In a society wedded to winner-take-all solutions, sharing power
can be difficult to achieve. But it's worth trying. One way is
to learn from children. Notice how much time they spend on whether
the game is "fair." They're on to something.
in common that's more important than what's not: It can be a political goal,
a sport, an avocation or a business. I've seen it work in situations
as diverse as a project to train church archivists or a kid's
team headed for a playoff. The importance of ethnicity is often
inversely proportional to what else we have on our minds
shocked by prejudice.
We have attempted to exorcise racism much as Nancy Reagan tried
to get rid of drugs, by just saying no. It has worked about as
well. Once we recognize the unpleasant persistence of human discrimination,
once we give up the notion that it is merely social deviance
controllable by sanctions, we will be guided away from puritanical
corrective approach towards ones that emphasize techniques of
mitigating harm, and towards activities and attitudes that become
antibiotics against prejudice.
real; When not
on the podium or in front of a mike, people in politics talk
real talk about real things. Like how you're going win the black
vote or carry a Polish ward or not piss off the gays. Elsewhere,
when the subject of ethnicity or sex comes up, the discussion
often turns disingenuously circuitous or maddeningly abstract.
This is one time when the politicians are on the right track.
Lay problems and feelings honestly on the table and then deal
about it but not too much: At
a meeting called to discuss racial problems, a black activist
said, "I don't want to talk about race unless we are going
to do something specific about it." It's not a bad rule
for every public discussion of race. Unproductive talk can leave
people feeling more helpless and frustrated than when it began.
includes people you don't like.
Even liberals don't talk about this but a truly multi-cultural
community will include born-again Christians opposed to abortion,
Muslims with highly restrictive views on the role of women, prayer-sayers
and atheists, Playboy readers as well as Seventh Day Adventists.
Remember that you're not required to express -- or even have
-- an opinion about everyone else in the world.
sweat the small stuff. Common
sense is a great civil rights tool. Even in a multi-cultural
society, loutish sophomores are going to use tasteless language,
fundamentalists will sneak in private prayers on public occasions,
and eight-year-old boys will grab girls where they shouldn't.
Hyper-reaction to such minor phenomena hurt and trivialize the
cause of human justice.
the important stuff.
One of the reasons the little stuff gets such big play is because
of the lack of a clear and meaningful agenda of social justice.
People wouldn't be talking so much about who said what to whom
and in what tone of voice if there was a serious effort underway,
for example, against discrimination in such long-neglected areas
such as housing and public transportation.
avoid putting virtues in competition: School bussing placed the virtue of integration
in direct conflict with the virtue of neighborhood schools. Often
such conflicts can be avoided or mitigated by choosing other
tactics. For example, why was there so much attention to bussing
and so little to residential integration?
up on the lawyers. While
of great assistance in securing basic rights, lawyers are not
well equipped to deal with complex human relationships. We need
to train large numbers of people who can serve as peace-keepers,
mediators, and referees.
courage helps: When
anti-Semitic attacks began in Billings MT, the town responded
quickly -- getting rid of Nazi symbols and posting paper menorahs
in the windows of homes. A little early courage at such times
works better than a lot of belated hand wringing.
economic discrimination, too:
After every group gets its rights, the powerful among them will
discriminate against the weak and the wealthy against the poor.
As Saul Alinsky said, "When the poor get power they'll be
shits like everyone else." Opposition to affirmative action
might have been much less had the programs been based on zipcode
as well as on race and sex. Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out
in 1964 that "the white poor also suffer deprivation and
the humiliation of poverty if not of color. They are chained
by the weight of discrimination, though its badge of degradation
does not mark them. It corrupts their lives, frustrates their
opportunities and withers their education."
so much about language.
It provides a warning sign and serves as an inter-cultural safety
valve. Paul Kuritz, in an article on ethnic humor in the Maine
Progressive, pointed out that "as early as 1907, the
English-speaking rabbis and priests of Cleveland united to protest
the Irish and Jewish stage comedians. ~ The suppression of crude
ethnic humor both accompanied the economic exploitation of the
lower-class work force and paralleled the dismissal of the lower
classes' tastes as 'offensive' to the newly refined sensibilities
of upwardly-mobile second and third generation Americans."
Kuritz, a third-generation
Slovak, was arguing that the real problem with a recently fired
French-Canadian radio host was not that he had made fun of his
own culture but that the full panoply of ethnicity was not also
represented on the air. This would have allowed all these groups
to experience what anthropologists call a "joking relationship,"
helping to reduce tensions between potentially antagonistic clans.
Said Kuritz, "As a general rule of thumb, an attempt to
suppress speech as 'offensive' or 'disempowering' is not a signal
to lessen the amount of talk, but to increase the amount."
joking is mainly found in rough-and-tumble enviroments such as
the modern vaudeville of comedy clubs or in sports and politics,
but is frowned upon by those whose social status leads them to
presume that manners create reality. The problem is that under
the latter ground rules, words often disguise feelings, sidetrack
action, and no longer serve to keep tension and hate apart.
on leaders, not on followers: Those
with tightly defined ideas about how we should behave often make
little distinction between people who merely accept the values
of their culture and those who market and manipulate them. It
helps to remember that we are all creatures of our cultures and
often speak with their voice. This may not be an admirable characteristic
but it certainly is a human one. After all, if it weren't for
Rush, dittoheads would have nothing to ditto.
pay off: The
modern civil rights movement started with a bus boycott -- and
many more economic actions soon followed. Its leaders understood
that one of the easiest ways to get people to give up a prejudice
is to discover that it's costing them money. That's why you may
find more racial mixing at a shopping mall than you will in a
nearby church, club or neighborhood.
that we are all part something else. By dint of exposure to TV alone, it is
virtually impossible to live in America and not have absorbed
aspects of other cultures. We all, in effect, belong to a part-culture,
which is to say that our ethnicity is somewhat defined by its
relationship to, and borrowing from, other cultures. There are
almost no pure anythings in America anymore. The sooner we accept
and enjoy this, the better off we'll be.
that everyone is an ethnic something. There are no unethnic Americans.
white guy likes living in a black city
Despite a widespread
yearning for better cultural and ethnic relations, we too often
only talk about problems and tensions. So let me tell you a different
kind of story. I offer it not as anything special, but simply
as an example of the sort of things we could be telling each
other but rarely do
I'm a native Washingtonian
and have lived in DC most of my life. DC is two-thirds black.
When someone asks me where I live and I tell them, they sometimes
look at my fifty-something white face and say, "You mean
in the city?" What they mean is: with all those blacks?
I don't live in
DC out of any moral imperative. I'm not doing anybody except
myself a favor. I live here because I enjoy it. Beside, I'd rather
be in the minority in DC than in the majority in a lot of places.
Here are a few reasons why:
I've found black
Washingtonians exceptionally friendly, decent, hospitable, and
morally rooted. They're nice folks to be around.
will talk to strangers without knowing "who are you with?"
White Washingtonians, especially in the political city, are often
far more formal and distant. -- and more likely to treat you
based on your utility to themselves. Not knowing anyone at an
all-white event in DC can be pretty lonely; not knowing anyone
at an all-black event in DC means you soon will.
understand loss, pain, suffering and disappointment. They have
helped me become better at handling these things.
value humor; many white Washingtonians try (as Russell Baker
once noted) to be somber under the illusion that it makes them
serious. I like to laugh.
value achievement as well as power. Teachers, artists, writers
and poets are respected in the black community. As a writer,
I like that.
Living in close
proximity with another culture provides a useful gauge by which
to judge one's own.
The imagery, rhythm
and style of black speech appeals to me far more than the jargon-ridden
circumlocution of the white city.
Many black Washingtonians
are actively concerned about social and political change; much
of white Washington is seeking to maintain the status quo.
always seems to want me to conform to it; black Washington has
always accepted me for who I am.
along with minorities of the mind
One of the hardest
things for many of us is the conflict between what might be called
ethnicities of the heart -- the things we believe deeply, the
clashing moral cultures by which we choose to live.
For example, some
of the worst recent violence in this country has not involved
race at all, but the issue of abortion. Attacks on abortion clinics
come out of a hypertrophied sense of self-righteousness and the
belief that one is entitled to not only judge but to punish those
with whom you disagree.
Those favoring abortions
have responded without violence, but with no less certitude,
and thus many of our communities and much our politics has become
enmeshed in bitter conflict.
Worse, there are
the seeds here of far more serious problems, for it is when both
sides deny the existence of moral doubt that cultural values
can become deadly. The slaughter in Bosnia, Rwanda, Northern
Ireland and the Middle East is not the inevitable product of
beliefs, but of the unmitigated rigidity with which they are
Consider, for example,
that three-quarters of Americans believe abortion should be permitted
when a woman' health is at stake, the fetus has a serious defect,
or a woman has been raped. Roughly half of Americans believe
an abortion should be permitted for unmarried women or mothers
who don't want more children.
These figures haven't
changed much in twenty years. Neither pro- nor anti-abortion
activists have been particularly successful in changing people's
minds. We can assume that we will remain deeply divided on this
issue for the foreseeable future.
So what are we going
to do about it? And what about a country that will continue to
include both Christian fundamentalists and people who don't practice
religion at all? Feminists and orthodox Muslims? Gun-owners and
animal rights activists? Gays, heterosexual adulterers, and people
who believe in the sanctity of the male-female marriage.
Too often there
is mostly the implicit notion that those who are outnumbered
should shut up or go away. Periodic discussions of how many gays
and lesbians there are in America, for example, seem to imply
that the answer should make some policy difference. In fact,
there is no minimum threshold for protection under the Constitution.
The theory of that document is that even one of us counts.
Being American means
living in close proximity with people whose values, intrinsic
nature or behavior may not just be different, but which you may
not like at all. Does that mean we just sit on our front porches
and glare at our neighbors? Or worse? It doesn't have to be that
way. Here are some things we can all do, regardless of what we
feel in our hearts:
debate not hysteria: Whether
at a meeting, speaking to a friend or calling a talk show, we
can affect not only the substance of a debate but its tone. Keeping
the discussion civil is not just a nicety; it's practical --
it makes it easier to find a solution when you need one. Not
only do well-run debates inform, they take the edge off demagoguery.
Besides, most people would rather be convinced than manipulated.
ways to talk: Even
implacable foes can carry on surrogate discussions through a
third party. Communities can establish cross-cultural mediation.
Everyone should be encouraged to try talking before filing a
law suit. Communities should hold regular common ground conferences
at which the broadest possible spectrum of citizens -- from the
prominent to the pariahs -- come together to find things about
which they can agree.
divisive issues with unifying ones: Finding issues that bring antagonists together
can help mitigate the anger they feel towards one another. A
rifle-owning abortion opponent might be an important member of
a committee to save the park or a progressive might join with
conservative libertarians on a ballot access issue. Remember:
nothing scares politicians more than seeing people get together
they'd rather have stay apart. Besides, once you start working
with these folks, you might find you actually like them.
Communities are great places to find workable solutions to problems.
Actually knowing people makes it much harder to see them as walking
bumper stickers. Remember that behind most law suits and mangled
public solutions to human problems was somebody's complaint --
and the failure of others nearby to do something about it. Communities
are where many of these problems start and where many of them
could be resolved.
each other some space. I'm
a non-churchgoing seventh day agnostic. My wife Kathy has taught
Sunday School and has been a vestry member and church archivist.
Somehow we've managed to work it out so neither of us has felt
the need of a class action lawsuit to maintain our respective
views of organized religion. The same could be true of most communities.
But we need time and space to do our thing, play out our rituals,
speak our minds, even express our annoyance and disagreement
with one another.
rule is this:
you won't have to get the judge's answer if you can work it out
first. The 1st Amendment not only doesn't restrict free speech,
it doesn't prohibit accommodation and compromise. Come up with
a solution with which everyone's comfortable and the ACLU never
has to be the wiser.
The increase in
ethnic tensions in recent years is no surprise. When an economy
starts to falter, people start looking for someone to blame.
The answer they often come to -- with considerable help from
politicians and the media -- is that some other group of Americans
is having all the fun.
Economist Leon Keyserling
once observed that when the Titanic sank, the men drowned
and the women and children were saved. A modern sociologist looking
at this, he suggested, might conclude that the men died because
of some particular characteristics of men. In fact they died
because there weren't enough lifeboats. This happens in the economy,
It's easy to cite
the wrong causes. In 1995, a survey found that over half of white
Americans thought blacks were doing as well or better than whites
in the job market -- this at a time when black unemployment was
twice as high as white. The poll also showed that those who were
wrong about such basic facts were twice as likely as other whites
to favor cuts in food stamp spending, 50% more like to oppose
affirmative action and nearly four times as likely to believe
that discrimination against whites was greater than that against
On the other hand,
data compiled by Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute,
shows just how complex the issue of who is really getting what
actually is. For example, white men with a high school education
or less have seen a dramatic drop in earnings. Yet instead of
attracting sympathy, they are often stereotyped as racists. Women
seem to be doing well until you realize, for example, that women
in the poorest paying jobs earn about $100 a week less than men
at the same level and that women lawyers' incomes lag behind
those of males by tens of thousands of dollars. Black men are
blamed for taking white jobs when in fact they not only suffer
far greater unemployment but are losing ground in wages. Black
men blame black women for taking their jobs. And so forth.
At least until we
all become much better than we are, working things out with other
Americans is going to require a lot of trial and error, a lot
of patience and a lot of forgiveness. Having a sense of humor
won't hurt either.
Neither will a sense
of history. We humans have come a long way from the days when
we couldn't deal with anyone more foreign than our extended family
or tribe. While genocide still occurs, the world regards it as
an appalling remnant of a primitive past and has organized to
prevent it -- although often not effectively. Slavery is now
inconceivable to most societies. Perhaps someday obsession with
race will also be a considered a part of a cruel past rather
than an accepted way of relating to each other.
Some scholars believe
that the mixture of inherited and acquired characteristics we
call race once served a useful purpose. When humans spread throughout
the world, they did not, like other creatures, need to split
genetically into new species in order to adapt to new surroundings.
We changed physically only in very limited ways. Says anthropologist
Robin Fox, man "did not have to redevelop his hairy coat
in order to survive in Arctic climes -- he could invent clothes."
In the end our ethnic and physical variation allowed us to live
almost anywhere in the world, an astounding feat for one of the
Ethnicity will not
disappear. We will continue to be different from each other if
for no other reason then because we come from different traditions
with different stories. And because we are rightly proud of these
stories and will try to protect them just as we protect those
of our more immediate family.
At the same time,
however, our notion of -- and need for -- race will undergo steady
change. The stages will, of course, overlap: we watch the results
of ethnic massacres in Bosnia on CNN, then switch channels for
a dose of benign ethnicity on BET or energetic, happy multi-culturalism
on MTV. Some may fight against racism yet just as strongly oppose
ethnic intermarriage. Some will never lose a sense of the sacredness
of the old ways. But increasingly race and ethnicity will be
the place we came from and not where we're going. It will remain
at the core of our experience but it will no longer determine
the limits of our dreams.
In the end, how
well we get along will be decided not by our cultural differences
but by the significance we place upon them. We may all be creatures
of our own culture, but we are also all free to determine just
what that means. Most important, the future is the one culture
-- for better or worse -- we will all inevitably share and all
help to make. We are, each of us, brothers and sisters in the
tribe of tomorrow.
An excerpt from
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Copyright 1997 Sam Smith