America’s real divide

Sam Smith – Although we spend an extraordinary amount of time talking about sources of hate in this land and what to do about it, we spend only a tiny amount figuring out how to get along better and have more fun with other Americans. There are a few exceptions, such as the last five minutes of the Lester Holt show devoted to good things and good folks, but even when discussing matters that concern us deeply, such as ethnicity or gender, we primarily approach them as a problem rather than teaching and learning how to make them a positive part of our lives.

My own approach to such things has been different in part not due to intent so much as a result of experiences. My introduction to black culture, for example, was not as an activist but as a jazz musician who, as a 1950s high schooler, had Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Ella Fitzgerald on my list of role models. Later, I was the uncle to four Puerto Ricans and as one of two brothers with four sisters I was early introduced to how women wanted to be treated. I also learned early that other people didn’t always agree with me.

Atypical as these examples may seem, the fact is that most of us learn in part how to behave and regard others by our experiences with them. It is not a philosophical, moral or legal matter but a cultural one and how we approach is not just a matter of logic or fairness but how you see your place in this world, living with others.

Unfortunately, those with the most power, whether used with good or bad intent, don’t see it that way. For example, how many schools introduce young children to the multicultural lives ahead of them at a time when they can discover this as fun, exciting and useful? How many schools offer an assembly at which children get to describe their religions?

In fact, to a degree that we don’t deal with in an honest way, our approach to being an American is determined far less by our real community and far more by things like national TV, politics, big business and public relations.

I learned this in the 1960s as editor of a neighborhood newspaper east of the US Capitol in a community that was 75% black yet only a few blocks from one of the most powerful groups in our land known as the US Congress. We would also have two of the city’s four 1968 riot strips yet the neighborhood recovered better than did many places, because it was a ‘hood with decent and sensible folk, and not just a national symbol of conflict. 

Decades later, I’m living in a small Maine town and am again constantly reminded of how different and more sane things can be at a local level than in the national world of power. One reason is that so much of reputation here is based on how one does something, not on how you promote it or how much you are paid for it. Farmers, lobsterman, or small business owners can’t talk their way into status. And one thing you learn that lying is of little use.

At the national level, though, America often defines itself with words not deeds. The real discrimination is not in ethnicity or gender but in class and power. And the moral values that used to be far more a part of our daily language have been largely replaced ones like success and power.

This is not a new phenomenon. Southern slavery and segregation made poor whites feel superior to others while, in fact, they were also the pawns of the wealthy and powerful. This distortion continues today thanks to the powerful among us acting as plantation owners of modern capitalism.  And because of a powerful media that goes along with this myth we can have endless coverage of ethnic and gender discrimination with little mention of the way that the upper class uses these divisions to prevent those under them coming together.

When I think of this problem, the way schools have changed comes to mind. Teaching civics and guiding students in virtuous behavior has been replaced in no small part by  an obsession with teaching individual achievement with indifference to the communal skills such as cooperation and moral values that make a functioning democracy. 

One matter that also gets little attention has been a liberal leadership that has become far more powerful thanks in part to improvements in its education. Liberal activists don’t seem as capable of relating with the working class as when, as a 13 year old, I stuffed envelopes in a campaign that ended 69 years of Republican rule in Philadelphia. A few years later a graduate of Yale and its law school beat the GOP to become mayor. His approach, however, was definitely not like an intellectual liberal today. As I described it some years ago:

Richardson Dilworth’s mayoral race remains a classic. His most notable campaign technique was the street corner rally, which he developed to a degree probably unequalled since in American politics. Using the city’s only Democratic string band as a warm-up act, Dilworth would mount a sound truck and tick off the sins of the Republican administration. On one occasion he parked next to the mayor’s home and told his listeners: “Over there across the street is a house of prostitution and a numbers bank. And just a few doors further down this side of the street is the district police station. . . The only reason the GOP district czars permit Bernard Samuel to stay on as mayor is that he lets them do just as they please.”

At first the crowds were small. But before long he was attracting hundreds at a shot with four or five appearances a night. One evening some 12,000 people jammed the streets to catch the man who would eventually become mayor.

Dilworth called the GOP chair, William Meade, a “liar” for linking him to communism and challenged him to a debate. To make his point, he marched into the offices of the Republican City Committee and, with press in tow, brushed past the receptionist, and barged into Meade’s private office where the chairman was conversing with two city officials. Dilworth challenged Meade to name one Communist in the liberal Americans for Democratic Action that was supporting him, adding “I say this as one who fought for his country in the Marine Corps. That’s more than you did, Mr. Meade.”

“Maybe I wasn’t physically fit,” replied Meade.

Dilworth continued the confrontation a few minutes longer and then stormed out. The red-baiting subsided and the central issue once more became corruption. Dilworth won and as I read the big headlines, I thought it was my victory too.

How many Yale grads would take such an approach today?

Of course, in order to defeat the negative nature of the powerful today we need more than just people who look like us.  Identity politics doesn’t work if only 14% of Americans share  your identity. The trick is to find what you have in common with others and build coalitions with them. The problem these days is that we’re too much about ourselves and not enough about finding what we have in common with others.

Our capital taught me this back in the 1960s. DC was turning into what would be over five decades of a black majority, but our black leaders not only fought for civil rights but for issues that whites wanted to deal with as well such as the most successful anti-freeway battle in the country, DC home rule and statehood. And as a member of the white minority I always felt right at home. Can we rediscover each other and find what desires we have in common? It depends in part on not treating matters such as ethnicity and gender only as problems but as part of a great asset known as multiculturalism. It depends on finding a common understanding of how the powerful have screwed up our land and how the weak can recapture it if they join forces. If Donald Trump can get many together with lies, we can do it with hope based on  real facts