It's rare to see a macroeconomics experiment play out in real time in the way we are seeing it right now in Japan and Europe. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has embarked on aggressive measures to stimulate Japan's long-moribund economy since he took office in December, and the result so far has been strong growth — and, perhaps, liftoff after a triple-dip recession. Europe, on the other hand, remains mired in the muck of austerity and economic contraction.
For the sake of this country's multiethnic democracy, I want Republicans to do better among nonwhite voters. A society where ethnicity defines the political parties is doomed to disaster. The political process becomes a zero-sum game where each ethnic group fights for its share of the pie. Any commitment to a broader common good is lost, as is any sense that citizens of different backgrounds can come together and feel a strong patriotic bond.
After protracted, months-long negotiations, Kosovo and Serbia recently agreed to a compromise on sovereignty and autonomy that would end two decades of conflict. In extinguishing the last embers of war in what was Yugoslavia — the volatile, ethnically divided nation where the assassination of an Austrian archduke launched World War I, and where civil war throughout the nineties led to ethnic cleansing and other atrocities — Europe is nearing the end of its long journey to overcome its tribal enmities and build a cohesive, peaceful civilization.
These hopeful developments overseas have been on my mind recently. This semester, I've been teaching a course on the debate within the West over human nature: What are we? What can we be? Why do we act the way we do?
Prejudice can kill. George Zimmerman saw a young black male wearing a hoodie, and made a decision that reflected the dictionary definition of prejudice — a "preconceived judgment or opinion … An adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge." Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch coordinator of a gated community in Sanford, Florida, didn't know Trayvon Martin, the teenager he followed. Martin didn't do anything specific that would have been suspicious to an unprejudiced observer. He was unarmed and gave no indication that he harbored criminal intent of any kind. Zimmerman simply prejudged him. And it cost Martin — a seventeen-year-old out to buy some Skittles — his life.
Prejudice killed Trayvon Martin. But there are other, less obvious forms of prejudice, ones that even those of us who would rightly condemn a man like Zimmerman might be tempted to practice and justify.
Rather than taking his crimes with him to the grave, Elwin Wilson repented. Rather than indulge the impulse for vengeance, John Lewis forgave. We could all learn from their example.
Feeling connected to my country and to all its citizens is consistent with my progressive beliefs, in particular because Americanness can be — even though it hasn’t always been — an inclusive form of national identity. Americanness can offer a model whereby people of every imaginable background see themselves as part of a single community, a model that stands in powerful contrast to fundamentalism and hate. That's the kind of identity that builds bridges rather than walls. And that’s the kind of America I can wholeheartedly love.
The topline numbers in the recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center are not good. There are now more hard-right, antigovernment “Patriot” groups than there were at the movement’s previous heyday in the mid-1990s. The number of hate groups identified by the SPLC has been on a steady climb over the past dozen years.
The fear of a race war is clearly delusional, but it draws strength from the half-truths and outlandish comments that reverberate in the partisan media's echo chamber. For example, black nationalist leader Louis Farrakhan said in a recent interview that the film Django Unchained — a fictional account of a freed slave seeking retribution — is “preparation for a race war.” Conservative media — from Rush Limbaugh to Fox News to Breitbart.com — breathlessly spread word of Farrakhan’s remarks. With pundits so willing to piece together high-level conspiracies out of random shouts and murmurs, it’s no wonder our politics have become so toxic.
Diversity isn’t easy. It’s even harder in countries like Denmark that have, until recently, had very few immigrants from Muslim countries. When you add religion to the mix of language and culture, it’s still harder. Throw in the tensions between Muslims and the West in a post-9/11 world, and now you’re talking about a really daunting challenge. But it is a challenge Europeans, Americans, and every diverse society must overcome. And seeing this kind of progress in Denmark, coming from some of the same people who were at the center of fomenting violence in 2006 — well, that gives me reason to hope.
“America is a racist country,” Mychal Denzel Smith wrote earlier this month in an article at the Nation. Smith called on whites to acknowledge racism’s pervasiveness and eliminate it. I won’t debate the accuracy of Smith's assessment of what America is, and I don’t know whether or not he was using hyperbole to make his point. Either way, however, his demand that white people admit its truth as part of their pledge to fight racism only discourages some of them from doing what the article’s title rightly demands.
Dare we dream? After seeing his conservative party alliance shrink from forty-two to thirty-one seats in last month's elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now trying to put together a parliamentary majority. Did these losses chasten him? Will they lead to a real change in his policies? He has certainly made a splash with his first move. His selection of long-time political foe Tzipi Livni as justice minister and, more importantly, as head of the government's official negotiating team (should negotiations ever resume) with the Palestinians, is being praised by some as a potentially important shift and dismissed by others as window dressing. By no means am I now deeply optimistic about the prospects for peace. But at least I'm less pessimistic than I was before the elections. At this point, that's real progress.
How do diverse societies integrate newcomers? How do they balance the need to develop a sense of community with the desire to maintain one's ancestral culture? Every multiethnic society faces these questions, and those that fail to agree on an approach are doomed to fall apart. In Patriotic Pluralism: Americanization Education and European Immigrants,
historian Jeffrey Mirel challenges examines the civic instruction European immigrants received in the first half of the twentieth century.