Monday, September 17, 2007

Enough Already!

I cropped and clipped just a teeny part of my photo of the sign that went up this weekend. I think the message is clear. "They" want us to believe that we are racists.

But I don't think we are buying it anymore.

Sixty years ago, Americans celebrated. With the Great Depression behind us, Hitler and Hirohito defeated, and the American economy cranking up for a long, healthy run, times were indeed good. The post-war baby boom was but a year old. And the GI-Bill made it possible for millions of young families to afford their own home in the suburbs.

Yet beneath the surface, smoldering like a smoky, Pall Mall cigarette, an eruption of civil disobedience held itself at bay, waiting for just the right moment to break across our nation's front pages and into our national conscience. Racial prejudice, institutional discrimination, and "Jim Crow" thinking still held many white Americans in its ugly grasp, and it would take another fifteen years to bring that putrid, national sin out of its dark, subterranean cavern, and fully into the light of day.

Then television burst onto the American scene. Before TV, newsreels of current events could only be seen on big screens in movie theaters. But suddenly, news began to enter our living rooms instantaneously via the small screen. Within a ten year period, television had taken center stage in American culture.

America was changing, and changing rapidly. Television quickly shrunk our nation, bringing together east and west, north and south. And our attention soon focused on the real and serious scourge of racial inequity in our land.

We recoiled at the story of the hideous, bloody, racially motivated bludgeoning of fourteen-year-old Chicagoan Emmitt Till in 1955, murdered in cold blood in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. Our ears perked up at the story of the brave Rosa Parks and her history-changing, 1957 bus ride. We grimaced as firehoses sprayed students and marchers protesting educational discrimination in Little Rock Arkansas in 1959. We applauded the CORE sponsored "Freedom Riders" program, transporting blacks on buses into the deep south in direct and defiant violation of the "Jim Crow" laws. We marvelled at the brave young black men and women, sitting boldly at lunch counters under signs reading "Whites Only." We wept with the families who lost their daughters in the First Baptist Church fire bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. And we cheered along with the throngs gathered in Washington, D.C. as the oratory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. held us all spellbound.

Yes, America indeed had a problem—a race problem. One hundred years after slavery had passed into history, black Americans still lived as second class citizens.

Soon, rapid-fire changes catapulted our nation into a new era. Cutting-edge laws altered the way we did business and education. Doors, shut for centuries to those with dark skin, began to open and open widely. The American cultural landscape took on unknown contours, fresh forms, and unfamiliar lines.

Those born during or before the 1950's bore witness to a radical shift in American life. For those born since, the acute change in direction is not nearly as striking. We white folks who lived through those pivotal years can say with a fair degree of both humility and confidence, that we changed—we truly changed. The new laws, the mandated affirmative action programs, and the opening of mainstream America to our black neighbors, spawned much personal soul searching. Many of us, indeed most of us, were changed on the inside. Our nation did a one-eighty. It is what theologians call a true repentance.

Television, once the theater of the white, middle class, has long since found itself populated with people of many colors and ethnicities. From early efforts such as The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Sandford and Sons, to the classy Huxtable family of The Cosby Show, we have come to better understand that skin color need not separate us.

Whether in entertainment, sports or music, America, though not yet fully color blind, has opened its arms wide to people of all hues and ethnic backgrounds. And even in the realm of business, African-Americans have made great strides. Oprah Winfrey, for one, is reportedly the world's most wealthy woman.

We Americans faced our shame in the '50's and '60's, hung our collective head in disgrace, and set out to correct the error of our ways. Our federally-mandated efforts to level the proverbial playing field have yielded mixed results, yet few will argue that America has taken huge steps to right wrongs, and to set things straight.

But not all Americans have sprinted to embrace an America that welcomes anyone regardless of race, creed, or color. In late August of this year, worshipers attending a service at the Kehilat Shalom synagogue in Montgomery County, Maryland, discovered that one of their banners had been defaced with obscene writing. Last year in Jena, Louisiana, three black high school students decided to sit under an oak tree where white students normally congregated. The next day, three nooses hung from a tree limb. The provocative action sparked increased racial tensions, and soon, a white student was attacked by six black students in an apparent retaliation. And earlier this month, following the boycott led by Mexicans Without Borders, Ku Klux Klan flyers showed up in a number of driveways right here in our own community.

Yes, racism still beats in the hearts of some.

And so, the work is not yet done. But on the whole, America has made tremendous progress since the "Jim Crow" days.

The vast majority of European Americans who have had a true change on the inside are no longer threatened by the word "racist." To us, that detestable label has grown old and tired. It has lost its sting. It bounces off of us and tumbles lifelessly to the ground. It no longer intimidates.

Furthermore, in the words of a very wise man, "illegal is not a race."


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