America is unique in its ability to evolve and embrace new ideas. Sometimes change comes slowly, but this happens through patience, turmoil, debate, voting and education. Once women were not allowed to vote. Once blacks were enslaved. Eventually, amendments were voted upon to correct these wrongs. Our ability to change allowed for growth.
Once again the issue of race has come to the fore. Standing Rock, Charlottesville, immigration, deportation, Confederate soldier’s statues, and Prison Reform are but a few of the recent hot topics where race plays a major part. Did you ever think we would be discussing the legitimacy of the Nazis, KKK and White Supremacists? Despite coming a long way it certainly appears that there are many miles left to travel on the journey to understanding.
Creating false equivalencies does not help matters. When equal blame is placed on Nazis and those protesting their hatred we need to question our moral compass. When a race suffers slavery, Jim Crow, economic disparity and is excoriated for having the temerity to protest or speak out, we need to search our hearts for greater understanding. When we violate tribal lands and treaties, employ mascots for sports franchises that humiliate, yet still wonder why anyone would be upset, it is time to go to the history books. Add in walls, along with the weight of the legal system, and it should become clear that Blacks, Native Americans, Latinos and Muslims fear their place in this country.
It is important to point out that we all have challenges before us. In addition, most Americans take pride in making contributions to their families, communities and nation. Some populations have faced bigger challenges (in general) than others. Native Americans and African Americans immediately come to mind. Because of loss of property rights, inherent racism, and laws that prohibited participation in the democratic process, these populations have suffered. All too often we hear that those bad things happened long ago and ‘when are they going to move on’. Many Americans have had their challenges trying to assimilate into the flow of the country, but genocide, slavery and Jim Crow are unique for Indigenous Peoples and Blacks.
I believe that a large number of White Americans feel that they can’t do anything about the Native Americans and Blacks situation. They assert that while feeling bad, for what occurred years ago, it is not their fault. In addition, this line of thought asserts that they are not prejudiced against others. They like Jews, Mexicans, Muslims and Asian Americans (as long as these folks work, speak the English language, adopt our culture, and support the nation’s causes). Folks who think like this assert that such thought is fair and logical. Unfortunately, more is necessary when it comes to assimilation. Racial prejudice, religion, economic wealth, and culture shock are among those considerations. Do we need viable immigration laws? Should we encourage new Americans to learn the English language so that they can navigate through daily life? Should we expect all Americans to abide by the nation’s laws? Of course, of course, of course. But we have become a fearful nation. After September 11, 2001, and the recent economic collapse, many Americans have felt besieged. Unfortunately isolation and “otherism” has ensued. America is greatest when it reaches out and embraces, not when it folds it’s arms and blames the world. We thrive when accepting the diverse input from multiple cultures.
There is no shame in recognizing past wrongs. There is no shame in acknowledging the need for positive change. There is shame, however, assigned when ignoring or revering a past where marginalization occurs and becomes accepted as national practice. Accepting fault and recognition are not the same. Fairness comes when we seek to create opportunity for all. Injustice comes when we hide behind ‘that was yesterday’ and ‘why don’t they get over it’ attitudes. The world looks to America. This nation may not be perfect, but in our philosophical base resides a foundation worthy of angels. We can change. We can evolve into a better country. We can be the light that draws people together. Now, if we can only get past our present fears.
America is a beautiful idea. Sometimes its application is messy. Sometimes we fall short of reaching the platonic ideal. But at the core of this place are virtues and concepts that exceed those posed by any other nation in history. How we interpret all of this is up to “We The People.” God Bless America.
A frequent contributor to these pages, Robert Houghtaling is the director of the East Greenwich drug prevention program.