A wry combination of I.F. Stone, Will Rogers, George Seldes, E. B. White, along with a dash of Molly Ivins and Dorothy Parker, Smith is America’s unknown national treasure of punditry, an essayist unafraid to think original thoughts and habitually deft at offending the guardians of the stale conventional wisdom — of every stripe — even while those stale thoughts are still being treated as penetrating insights from the “think” tank denizens.
For more than 50 years, using only his wit and his pen as his weapons. Smith lived and wrote in Washington, D.C., and he went into battle for a better America daily, practicing what Orwell called the hardest thing in the world: seeing what is right in front of your nose.
OregonPEN is proud to reprint this exceptionally timely essay, by kind permission of the man who should get a White House nod as “America’s Prose Laureate” but who is far more likely to be left off the guest list entirely for being an unrepentant and recidivist truth teller extraordinaire.
One of the sad things about the ethnic conflict that has increasingly defined our land is the lack of movements that produce change rather than merely more anger. While the victims of such things as police brutality have more than enough reason to express this anger, that doesn’t mean the anger will produce results by itself.
Even when alternatives are proposed, the media continues to show its bias for conflict over resolution. For example a check of Google found that in the last month less than 5% of online news mentions of Black Lives Matter also included a description of the group’s list of police reforms it is seeking.
Then there are those of liberal bent who seem to prefer semantic and symbolic change over more substantial improvements. For them, to remove the sign on a building named after John Calhoun or to label a whole ethnic group as possessing “white privilege” takes the place, say, of actually changing how a police department operates.
In fact, the number of whites in poverty is almost twice as large as the number of blacks and the number of whites earning a minimum wage or less is more than twice the combined black and latino figure. And because it is considered acceptable by many liberals to ‘dis lower class whites, it is not surprising that so many have sought salvation on the right.
To deal effectively with the issues that confront us, we need alter our language, convert justified anger into effective action, and build cross-cultural alliances that are currently ignored or disparaged. At the present time, for example, blacks comprise only 13% of the population, far too few to achieve righteous goals without the aid of a large number of whites. Lumping the latter into a constituency of privileged racists is not only wrong, it’s not going to change anything for the better.
As the new book, Third Reconstruction, based on the important work of the Moral Mondays movement, points out:
Often the groups most impacted by injustice have been convinced that they are enemies. Fusion politics is about helping those who have suffered injustice and have been divided by extremism to see what we have in common. We do this by bringing people together across dividing lines and helping them hear one another. We have no permanent enemies, only permanent issues, rooted in our deepest moral and constitutional values.
Some of the authors’ other important approaches can be found here.
And here are a few other ideas we could be talking about and acting upon, some of them excerpted from my book, Great American Repair Manual.
Stop using the word race: There is simply no scientific definition of race. What are considered genetic characteristics are often the result of cultural habit and environmental adaptation. As far back as 1942, anthropologist Ashley Montague called race our “most dangerous myth.”
Yet in our conversations and arguments, in our media, and even in our laws, the illusion of race is given great credibility. As a result, that which is transmitted culturally is considered genetically fixed, that which is an environmental adaptation is regarded as innate and that which is fluid is declared immutable.
Many still hang on to a notion similar to that of Carolus Linnaeus, who declared in 1758 that there were four races: white, red, dark and black. Others make up their own races, applying the term to religions (Jewish), language groups (Aryan) or nationalities (Irish). Modern science has little impact on our views. Our concept of race comes largely from religion, literature, politics, and the oral tradition. It comes creaking with all the prejudices of the ages. It reeks of territoriality, of jingoism, of subjugation, and of the abuse of power.
DNA research has revealed just how great is our misconception of race. In The History and Geography of Human Genes, Luca Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford and his colleagues describe how many of the variations between humans are really adaptations to different environmental conditions (such as the relative density of sweat glands or lean bodies to dissipate heat and fat ones to retain it). But that’s not the sort of thing you can easily build a system of apartheid around. As Thomas S. Martin has written:
The widest genetic divergence in human groups separates the Africans from the Australian aborigines, though ironically these two ‘races’ have the same skin color…. There is no clearly distinguishable ‘white race.’ What Cavalli-Sforza calls the Caucasoids are a hybrid, about two-thirds Mongoloid and one-third African. Finns and Hungarians are slightly more Mongoloid, while Italians and Spaniards are more African, but the deviation is vanishingly slight.
If we were to come to accept the fact that our social identity is best defined far more by the ethnicity and culture in which we are raised and live than by biology, we would, for example, pay more attention to the fact that our first “black president” spent considerably more time with the Harvard Law School then with a black parent. And that the color of his skin was not the best clue to who he really is.
The real reason race is important to us: Even as we talk endlessly of race, we simultaneously go to great lengths to prove that we are all the same. Why this contradiction? The answer can be partly found in the tacit assumption by many that human equity must be based primarily on competitive equality. Listen to talk about race (or sex) and notice how often the talk is also about competition. The cultural differences (real or presumed) that really disturb us are ones of competitive significance: thigh circumference, math ability and so forth. We accept more easily other differences — varieties of hair, degree of subcutaneous fat, prevalence of sickle cell anemia — because they don’t affect (or affect far less) who gets to the top.
We don’t spend the effort to separate facts from fiction because both cut too close to our inability to appreciate and celebrate our human differences. It is far easier to pretend either that these differences are immutable or that they don’t exist at all.
The Catch-22 of ethnicity: It is hard to imagine a non-discriminatory, unprejudiced society in which ethnicity and sex matter much. Yet in our efforts to reach that goal, our society and its institutions constantly send the conflicting message that they are extremely important.
For example, our laws against discriminatory practices inevitably heighten general consciousness of race and sex. The media, drawn inexorably to conflict, plays up the issue. And the very groups that have suffered under racial or sexual stereotypes consciously foster countering stereotypes — “you wouldn’t understand, it’s a black thing” — as a form of protection. Thus, we find ourselves in the odd position of attempting to create a society that shuns invidious distinctions while at the same time — often with fundamentalist or regulatory fervor — accentuating those distinctions.
The most important fact about prejudice – It’s normal. That isn’t to say that it’s nice, pretty, or desirable. Only that suspicion, distrust, and distaste for outsiders is a deeply human trait. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote that “all primitive tribes agree in recognizing [a] category of the outsiders, those who are not only outside the provisions of the moral code which holds within the limits of one’s own people, but who are summarily denied a place anywhere in the human scheme. A great number of the tribal names in common use, Zuñi, Déné, Kiowa . . . are only their native terms for ‘the human beings,’ that is, themselves. Outside of the closed group there are no human beings.”
Many attempts to eradicate racism from our society have been based on the opposite notion — that those who harbor prejudice towards others are abnormal and social deviants. Further, we often describe these “deviants” only in terms of their overt antipathies — they are “anti-Semitic” or guilty of “hate.” In fact, once you have determined yourself to be human and others less so, you need not hate them any more than you need despise the fish you eat for dinner. This is why those who participate in genocide can do so with such calm — they have defined their targets as outside of humanity.
What if, instead, we were to start with the unhappy truth that humans have always had a hard time dealing with other peoples, and that much ethnic and sexual antagonism stems not from hate so much as from cultural narcissism? Then our repertoire of solutions might tilt more towards education and mediation and away from being self-righteous multi-cultural missionaries attacking yahoos in the wilds of the soul. We could turn towards something more akin to what Andrew Young once described as a sense of “no fault justice.” We might begin to consider seriously Martin Luther King’s admonition to his colleagues that among their dreams should be that someday their enemies would be their friends.
Telling stories: If we are to rid our minds of stereotypes, something needs to fill the empty space. Nothing works better than the real stories of real people drawn from the anecdotal warehouses that supply many of our deepest values, feelings and philosophy.
If you find your classroom, organization or workplace bogged down in cultural tension and abstract confrontation — or perhaps feeling the silence that comes from being near one another and not knowing what to say — why not take a break and let people tell their own stories?
How Mr. Platt did it: In the middle of the stolid, segregated, monolithic 1950s, Howard Platt taught one of two anthropology courses available in an American high school. I was lucky enough to be among his students. Mr. Platt showed us a new way to look at the world.
And what a wonderful world it was. Not the stultifying world of our parents, not the monochromatic world of our neighborhood, not the boring world of 9th grade, but a world of fantastic options, a world in which people got to cook, eat, shelter themselves, have sex, dance and pray in an extraordinary variety of ways. Mr. Platt’s subliminal message of cultural relativism was simultaneously a subliminal message of freedom. You were not a prisoner of your culture; you could always go live with the Eskimos, the Indians or the Arabs. By the time the bell sounded I was often ready to go.
Mr. Platt did not exorcise racism, and he did not teach ethnic harmony, cultural sensitivity, the regulation of diversity, or the morality of non-prejudiced behavior. He didn’t need to. He taught something far more important, something so often missing from our discussions on race, something frequently absent from college curricula. Mr. Platt opened a world of variety, not for us to fear but to learn about, appreciate and enjoy. It was not an obstacle, but a gift.
Be friendly and respectful: In a culturally varied society, it is easy to transmit signals that are misunderstood but, fortunately, kindness, friendliness and respect come across clearly. Make good use of them.
Learn about other cultures: We typically try to resolve inter-cultural tensions without giving people a solid reason for liking one another. Mutual enjoyment and admiration provide the shortest route between two ethnicities. Education is one thing that we know reduces prejudice. Yet for all our talk about diversity, this isn’t so easy to come by. We could well spend less time on abstractions of racism and more on the assets of each other’s traditions.
We could be teaching, in high school classes and college seminars, the variety of the world as something to explore and enjoy, not just as a problem or an issue. You don’t have to teach diversity. Diversity is. You don’t have to defend it in lofty liberal rhetoric. Studying humanity’s medley is not a moral act; it is simply intelligent.
And you don’t have to learn it all in school. France became a haven for black exiles in the last century in no small part because of French enthusiasm for jazz and African art. Similarly, jazz clubs and concerts were among the few places in segregated America that apartheid was regularly ignored.
Diversity within cultures counts as well as that between them: Just because jazz is important to black culture doesn’t mean all blacks like jazz. Or that colleges shouldn’t recruit black cellists as well as black forwards. Or that just because someone’s white, they have to be Anglo-Saxon or a Protestant.
Find something in common that’s more important than what’s not: It can be a political goal, a sport, an avocation or a business. I’ve seen it work in situations as diverse as a project to train church archivists, a kid’s team headed for a playoff, the creation of a city’s major third party, and the stopping of one of the largest planned freeway systems in the country. The importance of ethnicity is often inversely proportional to what else we have on our minds
Stop being shocked by prejudice. We have attempted to exorcise racism much as Nancy Reagan tried to get rid of drugs, by just saying no. It has worked about as well. Once we recognize the unpleasant persistence of human discrimination, once we give up the notion that it is merely social deviance controllable by sanctions, we will be guided away from puritanical corrective approach towards ones that emphasize techniques of mitigating harm, and towards activities and attitudes that become antibiotics against prejudice.
Talk about it but not too much: At a meeting called to discuss racial problems, a black activist said, “I don’t want to talk about race unless we are going to do something specific about it.” It’s not a bad rule for every public discussion of race. Unproductive talk can leave people feeling more helpless and frustrated than when it began.
Diversity includes people you don’t like. Even liberals don’t talk about this but a truly multi-cultural community will include born-again Christians opposed to abortion, Muslims with highly restrictive views on the role of women, prayer-sayers and atheists, Playboy readers as well as Seventh Day Adventists. Remember that you’re not required to express — or even have — an opinion about everyone else in the world. Encourage reciprocal liberty: I can’t have my freedom unless you have yours.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Common sense is a great civil rights tool. Even in a multi-cultural society, loutish sophomores are going to use tasteless language, fundamentalists will sneak in private prayers on public occasions, and eight-year-old boys will grab girls where they shouldn’t. Hyper-reaction to such minor phenomena hurt and trivialize the cause of human justice.
Try to avoid putting virtues in competition: School bussing placed the virtue of integration in direct conflict with the virtue of neighborhood schools. Often such conflicts can be avoided or mitigated by choosing other tactics. For example, why was there so much attention to bussing and so little to residential integration?
Attack economic discrimination, too: After every ethnic or gender group gets its rights, the powerful among them will still discriminate against the weak and the wealthy against the poor. As Saul Alinsky said, “When the poor get power they’ll be shits like everyone else.” Opposition to affirmative action might have been much less had the programs been based on zipcode as well as on race and sex. Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out in 1964 that “the white poor also suffer deprivation and the humiliation of poverty if not of color. They are chained by the weight of discrimination, though its badge of degradation does not mark them. It corrupts their lives, frustrates their opportunities and withers their education.” And bear in mind that slavery was not just ultimate ethnic discrimination, it was also ultimate economic discrimination as well: the master had all; the slave nothing.
Be tough on leaders, not on followers: Those with tightly defined ideas about how we should behave often make little distinction between people who merely accept the values of their culture and those who control, market and manipulate them. It helps to remember that we are all creatures of our cultures and often speak unconsciously with their voice. This may not be an admirable characteristic but it certainly is a human one. After all, if it weren’t for Rush Limbaugh, dittoheads would have nothing to ditto.
Recognize that we are all part something else. By dint of exposure to TV alone, it is virtually impossible to live in America and not have absorbed aspects of other cultures. We all, in effect, belong to a part-culture, which is to say that our ethnicity is somewhat defined by its relationship to, and borrowing from, other cultures. There are almost no pure anythings in America anymore. The sooner we accept and enjoy this, the better off we’ll be.
Remember that everyone is an ethnic something. There are no unethnic Americans.
If you are in a minority you can still lead the majority –There are all sorts of ways. The moral leadership of civil rights activists, political leadership, leadership in the arts and literature, or in a high school. Or creating cross cultural spaces such as the traditional Irish bar As one politician said in Chicago many years ago, “An Italian won’t vote for a Jew and a Lithuanian won’t vote for an Pole but all four will vote for an Irishman.”
Create new alliances: A long needed black-latino alliance representing approximately 30% of American would shake up our politics. Create a black-latino-labor alliance and politics could be changed forever. You don’t have to agree on everything; just go for the goals you all like.