America's future in black and white

Racial healing at home can make a difference around the world


Jay Walljasper | June 2005 issue

These words, which I am scribbling on a train heading home, mark the first full year of my column for Ode. Much to my surprise, I have written mostly about America—trying to explain the political direction of my homeland to the rest of the world, to my fellow citizens and to myself.

A year ago, I’d happily imagined using this page to explore new ideas about how we can make this planet more green, more compassionate, more joyful. But, sad to say, I’ve come to realize that attitudes and actions originating in Washington, D.C. frequently diminish the influence of these kind of noble initiatives. Among the most recent evidence: the Bush Administration’s nomination of a right-winger often hostile to the United Nations to represent the U.S. in that global assembly; and the appointment of another hard-liner, who drafted documents justifying the use of torture on prisoners of war, to head—of all things—the U.S. Justice Department.

Many Americans wonder what the world thinks as it watches the spectacle of American politics today. The folks I meet in Europe, who fall in at different spots along the ideological spectrum, are unfailingly polite—but they leave no doubt about their concern, bordering on panic, about what’s going in.

I share their shock. And I worry about the future of my country. Military and economic dominance keeps a nation invincible for only so long. Someday nations from other parts of the globe will, to use that most American of metaphors, take their turn at bat. What happens then?

Of course, the overwhelming fear across America is that 9/11 was the foreshadowing of things to come. That’s why President Bush’s tough guy act won him re-election.

But my own personal experience of 9/11 suggests a different future for America. I first learned of the terrorists attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center from an older African-American man who was walking down the sidewalk in front of my house. I will never forget him saying, with tears in his eye, “those are our people.” For someone like me who grew up in a segregated Illinois town, where as a kid I rarely encountered blacks anywhere outside the basketball court, his response was a powerful message of unity.

I felt something similar in the spring air these last few days during a family vacation in Chicago. When I lived there in the 1980s, racial tension dominated life all over town, from the mayor’s office to the local street corner. Now there’s more of a sense of peace. No doubt racism is there, but buried deeper thankfully, and segregation is still out in the open for everyone to see. Economic inequality, too. But the city that Martin Luther King famously gave up on in 1967 during his campaign for civil rights seems a changed place. You witness an ease in interactions between blacks, whites and Latinos that’s new to me.

Travelling around America today I get a hopeful sense many places that 400 years of ethnic strife and harsh racism are slowly winding down. Indeed, even some of the leaders setting the right-wing policies in Washington that I so deplore, are themselves African American or Latin American. That’s an odd measure of progress, I know, but significant in a land whose history is so entwined with racial divisions.

I’m an incurable optimist who loves his country enough to hold it to high standards, so I can’t help but believe this thawing of old antagonisms will chart a new course for America. As Americans of all races learn to accept each other as individuals, allies and friends, this new spirit will change how we think about people around the globe. The roots of our long mistrust of the world has been a deep mistrust of “others” here at home. Finally healing these long-festering racial wounds can bring meaningful change in how America conducts itself in the world.

Solution News Source

America's future in black and white

Racial healing at home can make a difference around the world


Jay Walljasper | June 2005 issue

These words, which I am scribbling on a train heading home, mark the first full year of my column for Ode. Much to my surprise, I have written mostly about America—trying to explain the political direction of my homeland to the rest of the world, to my fellow citizens and to myself.

A year ago, I’d happily imagined using this page to explore new ideas about how we can make this planet more green, more compassionate, more joyful. But, sad to say, I’ve come to realize that attitudes and actions originating in Washington, D.C. frequently diminish the influence of these kind of noble initiatives. Among the most recent evidence: the Bush Administration’s nomination of a right-winger often hostile to the United Nations to represent the U.S. in that global assembly; and the appointment of another hard-liner, who drafted documents justifying the use of torture on prisoners of war, to head—of all things—the U.S. Justice Department.

Many Americans wonder what the world thinks as it watches the spectacle of American politics today. The folks I meet in Europe, who fall in at different spots along the ideological spectrum, are unfailingly polite—but they leave no doubt about their concern, bordering on panic, about what’s going in.

I share their shock. And I worry about the future of my country. Military and economic dominance keeps a nation invincible for only so long. Someday nations from other parts of the globe will, to use that most American of metaphors, take their turn at bat. What happens then?

Of course, the overwhelming fear across America is that 9/11 was the foreshadowing of things to come. That’s why President Bush’s tough guy act won him re-election.

But my own personal experience of 9/11 suggests a different future for America. I first learned of the terrorists attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center from an older African-American man who was walking down the sidewalk in front of my house. I will never forget him saying, with tears in his eye, “those are our people.” For someone like me who grew up in a segregated Illinois town, where as a kid I rarely encountered blacks anywhere outside the basketball court, his response was a powerful message of unity.

I felt something similar in the spring air these last few days during a family vacation in Chicago. When I lived there in the 1980s, racial tension dominated life all over town, from the mayor’s office to the local street corner. Now there’s more of a sense of peace. No doubt racism is there, but buried deeper thankfully, and segregation is still out in the open for everyone to see. Economic inequality, too. But the city that Martin Luther King famously gave up on in 1967 during his campaign for civil rights seems a changed place. You witness an ease in interactions between blacks, whites and Latinos that’s new to me.

Travelling around America today I get a hopeful sense many places that 400 years of ethnic strife and harsh racism are slowly winding down. Indeed, even some of the leaders setting the right-wing policies in Washington that I so deplore, are themselves African American or Latin American. That’s an odd measure of progress, I know, but significant in a land whose history is so entwined with racial divisions.

I’m an incurable optimist who loves his country enough to hold it to high standards, so I can’t help but believe this thawing of old antagonisms will chart a new course for America. As Americans of all races learn to accept each other as individuals, allies and friends, this new spirit will change how we think about people around the globe. The roots of our long mistrust of the world has been a deep mistrust of “others” here at home. Finally healing these long-festering racial wounds can bring meaningful change in how America conducts itself in the world.

Solution News Source

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