How to get along with other Americans


Sam Smith
From The Great American Political Repair Manual

The most important fact about race

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 of power.

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:

The widest 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 slight.

Well, it sure looks 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 for us.

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.

The real 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.

The Catch-22 of ethnicity

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 important.

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 said once:

Something 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.

The most 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 human beings.”

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.

Telling stories

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 own stories?

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 a tale.

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 “boat people.”

“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 students.

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.”

oBut 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.

How Mr. 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 a gift.

Finding 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.

Changing by being together

Janet Hampton, a George Washington University professor whose research specialty 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.”

Some things that help

Be friendly and respectful:

Some things that help

Be friendly 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.

Learn 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 other’s traditions.

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.

Diversity counts within cultures as much as 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.

Share 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.

Find 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

Stop being shocked by racism. 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.

Get 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 with them.

Talk 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

Diversity includes those 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.

Don’t 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.

Go for 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?

Lighten 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.

Timely 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.

Attack 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.”

Stop worrying 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.”

Today, inter-ethnic 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.

Be tough 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.

Make justice 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.

Recogniz that we are all part of 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.

Remember that everyone has an ethnicity. There are no unethnic Americans.

Why a white buy 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.

Black Washingtonians 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.

Black Washingtonians understand loss, pain, suffering and disappointment. They have helped me become better at handling these things.

Black Washingtonians 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.

Black Washingtonians 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.

White Washington always seems to want me to conform to it; black Washington has always accepted me for who I am.

Getting 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 held.

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:

Encourage 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.

Find 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.

Dilute 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.

Find local solutions: 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.

Give 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.

One good 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.

Who’s to blame?

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, too.

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 blacks.

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.

So, what’s next?

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 earth’s creatures.

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.

The Progressive Review An excerpt from
Copyright 1997 Sam Smith


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