In a 2012 speech at Georgetown University, the Irish singer Bono observed, “Ireland is a great country, but it’s not an idea. Great Britain is a great country, but it’s not an idea. America is an idea. That’s how we see you around the world, as one of the greatest ideas in human history.”
Country singer Rodney Atkins croons in “It’s America,” “Now, we might not always get it right.” However, there is no other country that consciously, though often reluctantly, confronts the distinctive challenge of creating one nation from the motley masses journeying from all over the world to its “teeming shores.”
E Pluribus Unum — Out of Many, One — is the traditional motto of these United States. However, excuse my grammar, it ain’t always easy.
The complex and persistent issue of race in America emerged once again after a graphic video appeared of George Floyd, a Black man, being killed on a Minneapolis street by Derek Chauvin, a white policeman.
Anticipating that young people, many of whom likely engaged in protests, will return to campus with a renewed spirit of activism, The Chronicle of Higher Education featured a challenging commentary, “We Can’t Ignore This Issue: How to Talk With Students About Racism.”
Similarly, National Geographic and UNICEF recently highlighted articles on talking to younger children about race, the latter subtitled, “How to Start the Conversation and Keep It Going.”
Parents often worry about exposing children to issues like race and discrimination at an early age.
However, University of Toronto Professor Kang Lee finds that babies notice differences in skin color, eye shape, and hair texture by 6 months old. By 9 months they demonstrate bias in favor of members of their own race and bias against those of other races.
The evidence suggests it’s never too early or too late to engage in discussions that go to the very heart of the American idea.
Last week’s Star editorial was on point that conversations about race are difficult but crucial. This may be why Columbia University Professor Derald Wing Sue titled his book, “Race Talk & the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding & Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race.”
Race, like religion, politics, sex, and money, is among the topics deemed, “Inappropriate for polite conversation.”
Cyndi Kernahan, a University of Wisconsin Psychology professor, writes, “We have been taught to think about racism as individual acts of meanness,” which result in discrimination. “Racism is a much bigger system.”
For Boomers who engaged in the Civil Rights movement, frustration, even anger, can emerge because racism continues to persist.
This may be due to confusion about reducing discrimination, which can be achieved through laws, and ending racism, which requires a profound moral transformation.
An American “implicit cultural assumption” is that we can solve any problem and do so in a brief period of time. While this “can do” spirit has produced remarkable achievements, it often leads to what has been called The American Issue Attention Span.
Politicians, the public, and the media “suddenly” notice a complex problem that actually has long existed, such as racism. Simplistic solutions are proposed and applied, yet the problem fails to magically disappear.
Frustration, anger, and boredom follow, and attention turns away from the issue until it re-emerges again. The cycle then repeats.
Simply put, as we age, we’re disappointed that we won’t get to see how the story ends.
As I watch diverse young Saint Helenans leading and joining recent protests against racism, Dr. King’s hopeful observation comes to mind, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
It takes courage for a nation to hear the painful stories of those who have differing perspectives on their American Experiences. One of the most difficult aspects of this listening is that white people, in particular, can feel they are being judged “guilty” of having a character defect.
However, University of Michigan Professor Alan Johnson cautions, “The words are not about me; they name something much larger than me, something I didn’t invent or create, but that was passed on to me as a legacy because I was born in this nation.”
Those babies aren’t “guilty” of noticing differences and having biases; they’re just being human.
Professor Sue concludes, “Everyone who is socialized in a society inherits the biases, stereotypes, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of that society. None of us are born with preconceived notions, stereotypes, racial bigotry, or hatred.”
Nonetheless, we can choose to examine, challenge, and change our beliefs, attitudes and behaviors — or not.
Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to: firstname.lastname@example.org