Brotherhood

April 25, 2017

In the height of the Civil Rights Movement we used “brotherhood” to express our quest for more than tolerance, but for closeness as one human family. I’ve never found a gender-neutral term for that feeling, so I continue to use it but in a gender-neutral way – we are all family, cousins, a part of one community. As John Donne famously wrote in 1624, “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

Given the waves of hate crimes since the election, I’ve been thinking about brotherhood. This country is built on brotherhood, on sloughing off the ethnic, religious and physical prejudices our ancestors all brought from their old countries. By now those prejudices seem irrelevant. Many of us intermarried and were welcomed in new families. A friend told me that Bahai do it intentionally to bring people into the faith, though he was truly smitten and has a loving marriage. Most of us just happen to fall in love and old prejudices seem quaint and silly.

But brotherhood matters. Many of us watched the shredding of Yugoslavia. An exchange student from Belgrade was living with us, beside herself with grief and anger at the destruction of her country. Some had predicted Yugoslavia would explode once Marshal Tito died. But many intermarried, traveled among Yugoslavia’s regions, and young people, like our visitor, thought of themselves as Yugoslavs. But it came apart, viciously, in a blood bath of what was called “ethnic cleansing.”

Americans like to think America is and will always be ingenious, hardworking, neighborly and welcoming; that’s us – we’re the best. But many of us understand that virtues have to be nurtured, not assumed.

Early in the last century, President Teddy Roosevelt predicted “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.” The draft brought people together who had lived geographically, religiously, ethnically or racially segregated lives. As men returned from war, they introduced each other to sisters and friends, integrating families and communities. But the political strains of war in Vietnam ended the draft. Ben Downing recently urged national service on this station but we have nothing that compares with the reach and impact of the draft.

Racial segregation was made much worse by federal officials who required banks to redline cities and suburbs against loans to African-Americans no matter how strong their financial status. That left segregated school districts. Many of us still try to make our schools “great agents of democratization.” But racially homogenous student bodies make integration difficult or meaningless, and courts have made it worse.

Sports and entertainment still reflect integration. I once told Jackie Robinson’s widow how much it meant to grow up rooting for her husband. Black faces have been on national television as long as I can remember. My mother screamed with joy when William Warfield came out on stage and announced he would sing Old Man River. And I’ll never forget the sound of Marion Anderson’s voice when I heard her live. I’ve only caught glimpses of Oprah Winfrey but bless her influence. Familiarity, like minority newscasters and public officials, helps to diffuse prejudice and fear.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League rely on litigation to put racist groups out of business and catalogue hate groups, warning us about their activities and sharing strategies to extend the warm pull of brotherhood.

Other groups try to bring people together, to meet and appreciate each other, like the Interfaith Alliance, individual churches, temples and Muslim Community Centers, who invite people to meetings and festivals. We’ve often broken bread in the Muslim community.

But nothing matches what the draft and schools once did for so many of us. We need better ways to advance peace, justice and brotherhood.

— Most of this commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 25, 2017.

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On Egos in Skin, Muscles and Race

December 31, 2016

Years ago, when I was working out in a gym, a younger woman was obviously putting more weight on the equipment and doing more and faster reps than I was. I did not know this woman and there was no conversation between us. But as she passed me, she commented that it was OK because I would be stronger on the upper body exercises. When people catch me off guard with a comment like that, I often say nothing, and I don’t think I responded. But I have often wanted to say to her that I don’t keep my ego in my muscles.

Some do of course, people who can do all sorts of things that I can’t, great athletes but also people who move furniture and other heavy work and they have every right to put their egos in their muscles.

But why would anyone put their egos in the color of their skin? I hope everyone has other things to be proud of. That leads me to feeling mostly pity for the people who base their lives on racism, as if their own race is special, not just as good, but superior. That is as shallow as the cosmetics that people apply to their skin.

After the Civil War, Thaddeus Stevens told the House of Representatives that he hoped people would be judged only by their character and ability. By that standard of course, whites, or Caucasians, are all over the map, from killers and thieves to statesmen and scientists. The same is true for other so-called races. If that leaves people feeling like the ground has been knocked from under them, they need to hike onto firm ground, but it isn’t going to be the color of their skin. The people who kept repeating that President Obama couldn’t figure anything out only revealed their own inferiority complex, a struggle they tried to hide by claiming to belong to a supposedly superior white race, and by their inability to see the qualities of an African-American man.

The great Dodger shortstop, Pee Wee Reese, made a very revealing comment when he pointed out that what had really upset some ballplayers when Jackie Robinson broke in to the majors was not the color of his skin; it was his education – Robinson had been a four-letter man at UCLA and came to the Dodgers as a well-educated African-American at a time when most ballplayers had little education. The antagonism of some ballplayers was jealousy concealed as racism.

By the same token, I think what bothered many about President Obama was not just his race, but his accomplishments – an ivy-league education capped by the top position on the Harvard Law Review, a job with a corporate law firm followed by a career in public service. These are accomplishments most of us could envy. But most of us are happy to admire the man without demeaning his obvious accomplishments because somehow his skin color diminishes us. Truly I think racism both masks and reveals the inferiority of the racist. They need to get over it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 27, 2016.


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