The current infatuation with Tulsa, slavery and critical racial theory has left me feeling a bit out of it all. I thought you were meant to discover how to get along with others and not merely recite the sins of the past by some. Sure, you learn from history, but one of our jobs on this planet is to make things better than history, not just keep talking about it.
I suspect that part of my problem is that I am – in the manner of reporters, detectives, and doctors – an inductive thinker. I think from the bottom up, basing my theories and conclusions on facts and observations rather starting with general theories and working the other way, as is popu1ar among many intellectuals these days. Thus, I notice things like a multi-ethnic bunch of kids playing happily in a playground and wonder why we adults have so much more trouble. And how athletes hide their ethnic differences in behalf of a better mutual score.
There is stunning little discussion of how those of different ethnicities can get along better, aside from dealing with a wealth of rotten behaviors. But while banishing police chokeholds is a totally worthy and necessary goal, it hardly is enough to build warmer cross-ethnic relationships.
Puzzling over this, I thought about my own past and some incidents that affected my ethnic relations came to mind For example, in the in the 1950s I started the first jazz band my high school had, inspired in no small part by black musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Fats Waller, who had near hero status in my mind. I didn’t think about ethnicity; it was the music that counted.
A few years later I went to college and one of my favorite books was not on any course reading list. It was Stride Towards Freedom by Martin Luther King. In it he said, “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 becauseitis natural and right.”
I had recently graduated from a Quaker high school, half impressed by, and half cynical of, the experience. It was where I used to say things like, “The trouble with Quakers is they don’t fight hard enough for what they believe.” Now I had left the peaceable kingdom of the Friends for the oscillating values and tumult of college and King’s book proved more than a highly valuable introduction to the civil rights movement. It helped straighten out messages I had received about a lot of things, but had never quite understood.
I was too lusty and too enthralled by politics to think that simply being good and not bopping people on the head was a sufficient approach to life. King helped to explain it in new terms: “My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not nonresistance to evil. . . Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate.”
His four pages on Marx also appealed to me. I had just been introduced to Marx and, unlike college students of a later generation, thought him dreary and opaque. I found it difficult to understand how revolutions had risen on his words. Those classmates who were interested in Marx I also found somewhat dreary and opaque, but since they were getting better grades, I listened to them and tried to remember what they had said for my blue books.
King approached Marx with curiosity and analysis and when he was through, concluded, “My reading of Marx also convinced me that truth is found neither in Marxism nor in traditional capitalism. Each, represents a partial truth. Historically, capitalism failed to see the truth in collective enterprise, and Marxism failed to see the truth in individual enterprise. Nineteenth-century capitalism failed to see that life is social and Marxism failed and still fails to see that life is individual and personal.”
So Martin Luther King came to me not only as a civil rights leader but as a philosopher-friend, the first non-mushy pacifist I had run into, and a guy helping me get through Marx. King synthesized wandering feelings, giving them a point and words: “When a subject people moves towards freedom, they are not creating cleavage, but are revealing the cleavage which apologists of the old order have sought to conceal.” Try to say that as succinctly when you’re a sophomore.
And then, in the 1960s and now a college graduate and still in my twenties, I took part in a protest against a DC Transit fare increase. Over 100,000 DC Transit riders – both black and white – stayed off the buses that day. Never had so many Washingtonians done anything so irregular and contrary to official wishes. I drove 71 of them to their destination. After the bus boycott, I wrote an article about it and a letter to its leader congratulating him and offering to help in the future. Not long after, the leader, Marion S. Barry, was sitting in my apartment talking about how I could help in SNCC’s public relations. I readily agreed and became Marion’s PR guy. For the first time in my life I had joined a movement. Years later, Barry would describe me as “one of the first white guys who would have anything to do with me.”
When I mention to activists these days the value of finding issues that can appeal across ethnic lines, they often move on to another topic. But, as with Washington’s anti-freeway and statehood movements, in DC such actions created an alliance that would eventually spur a half century of black mayors among other things, thanks to power started in no small part by activists like Barry and Julius Hobson who found issues that joined different identities into a common cause.
We now live in a time in which progress is seen as something that can be institutionalized and where policy is treated as action. In fact, we are still human beings and our minds are driven in no small part by personal experience and relations. History can be a useful tool for us but it doesn’t create the alliances, enthusiasm, and common interest that make change easier to come by. A successful multicultural society can’t be built just on anger on one side and guilt on another. It needs those in it learn to appreciate others, work with them, and share some dreams.