I don’t remember how old I was; maybe 10 or 11. And I don’t remember what occasioned the discussion; possibly because my social circle was a rainbow coalition of different races, ethnicities, genders. But I remember what my mother told me one day: Yes, you have to fear all black people, because when we had just moved to this country, your father was mugged by a black man. And maybe I’m just imagining my response to her, all these years later, but to my recollection I didn’t let her say that without push-back. I questioned why I should fear an entire group because of the actions of one person. Although now I’m of the opinion that I am my brother’s keeper, I’m also of the opinion that at some point my brother must answer for his own actions. I don’t own them, only what I do and say. Likewise, the African Americans who come into my library shouldn’t have to answer for the bad decisions of another African American. At some point, we all have to stand alone before the world and justify our actions. The hundred are not responsible for the criminality of the one.
My mother has mellowed as she’s grown older. I’d like to think that my brothers and me have helped her see the ludicrousness of her fears. It also helped that her mother, my grandmother, shuffled off her mortal coil two decades ago; her skin was translucent, her eyes blue, and she made it clear that she was superior to anyone whose skin was even a shade darker than hers. She was the motive force of the racism in my family. But something happened at my library which brought that childhood incident back fresh into my mind.
A young black man—probably not much older than Trayvon Martin—came into my library earlier this week. He had requested some books, and wanted to know if they had come in. I took his library card, looked up his account, and told him that they were in transit, and should arrive either this week or early next. He thanked me and, very politely, asked me if he could go read at a table. I smiled and said “Of course, that’s why we’re here.” He returned some time later, asking if we had any books on the topic of the ones he had requested. I did a quick search, and took him back to the section where we had some relevant material. He looked at me, smiled, thanked me, and then touched my shoulder in further thanks. I looked at him, smiled, but my thought was “No, young man, I don’t think you’re a thug. No one should think you’re a thug just because of the color of your skin.”
Seeing people as people, not demonizing entire groups, is not a “liberal” value. And “conservatives” don’t have to be against it. Doing so is the only thing which will ensure our survival as a species. After 9/11, whether we like to admit it or not, we demonized all Muslims, which made it all too easy to sell the Iraq War to a shell-shocked populace. Every new group which has arrived on our shores has experienced demonization. It used to be the Irish and Italians. Now it’s dysfunctional African-Americans (although, hasn’t it always been so?) and Latinos who, in the words of Steve King, are mostly “drug mules”. Such narratives are not worthy of a civilized society. Part of our Old Testament heritage is to welcome the stranger, for once we were strangers as well. But that’s part of the Bible which many of our so-called Christians seem fit to ignore.
We have to accept cultural peculiarities, as long as they don’t serve oppression, because culture is what makes us human. But we also have to go beyond the tribal, the parochial. We have to stop erecting differences and instead erect commonalities. As President Obama said, we have to expand our circle of compassion. It’s easy to feel sympathy for those who look like you, or sound like you. It is precisely when you embrace the stranger, the foreigner, that you go beyond your tribe, and reach what is truly human. Much like supporting the right of people to speak that which is distasteful to the majority is the mark of a free country, so is eradicating the idea of the Other as an organizing principle.
Sadly, the fear many whites feel is deeply held. It’s not justified, but ignoring it won’t make it go away. The only way to assuage it is to reiterate, at every moment, that we are all children of the same Earth, all dependent on it, and unless we erect walls and minefields it will always be so. Some will never be reached; some will fester in their own fears and hatreds and bemoan the passing of a world which never existed. But most people, despite their fears, merely want to live a secure life. It’s the idea that their security is being shredded which frightens them. Showing them, bit by bit, that in fact their security is being enhanced when our country becomes more fair and more just is the only thing which will make it so. It’s not easy work. It’s not quick work. But it’s the only way forward.
Any world worthy of being left to posterity has to be one in which e pluribus unum becomes a universal value. As the Koran says, God made people into nations so that they may know each other, and learn from their differences. We are a world of strangers, seeking to know each other. I have no fear of that planet. I welcome it.