At this time of year we celebrate kindness and generosity. We celebrate helping each other and breaking down mutual distrust and dislike. I love the lyrics Rogers and Hammerstein put into the mouth of Julie Andrews in The King and I:
Getting to know you; Getting to know all about you;
Getting to like you; Getting to hope you like me
Unfortunately, there are many in our country who don’t believe we benefit from meeting and getting to know each other and believe, instead, that we have to fight each other to the finish. If democracy becomes an existential game, then it’s the old story we used to tell each other about cowboys and Indians without room for both. It’s also what economists call a deadweight loss – all that fighting doesn’t build anything and it’s very costly.
If we recognize that we all depend on each other, we feed, hire, heal and help each other in virtually all the aspects of life, then we can make a better world for ourselves too. All of us are each other’s essential workers, caregivers, customers and builders.
Erasing racial barriers strengthened many parts of America. Sports are obvious: teams are better; games are more exciting. And because we’re all part of the market, the owners benefit too. The Dodgers gained a Black audience with Jackie Robinson, and soon, other teams did too. Many industries discovered that a diverse workforce is a better workforce, more creative, more able to think out of the box.
Numerous studies discovered that military service in World War II had the result of bridging ethnic, religious and linguistic differences among us. As I’ve commented before, servicemen coming home brought their service buddies to meet their families. There aren’t many alive any more who could describe the old prejudices among what we now call White Americans but they were virulent before World War II and almost gone after. Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed, “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.” The Army has extended its efforts to improve the relationships among White- and African-Americans and it has been fairly successful.
Many of us are devoted to integration but we’ve been saddened to realize that much of what we accomplished in law was sabotaged in reality. Federal agencies encouraged banks to redline Black areas and not loan to African-Americans. Parents looking for the best schools located away from African-Americans. Factories moved to suburbs, away from most Black workers.
There are ways to build emotional links, like those the soldiers came home with after World War II, at the same time that we rebuild selfless American patriotism and educate younger generations about what America is made of and how it works. One tool is national service. It effectively becomes an internship working on the things America needs. It would have similarities to military service, the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and other service programs. And they pump money into the economy and tighten the job market.
Many communities in this country are hurting. But we learned to pull together for each other. We voted for John Kennedy and his pledge to revive Appalachia. People in cities have supported costly programs to benefit farmers for nearly a century. People all over our country have supported programs that primarily helped others. We’ve helped to dig whole communities out from under hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters without regard to who was injured where or which way their states voted. We’ve helped or tried to help when the injured were white and when the injured were Black. If we lose that spirit of unity and generosity, then God help America – we’ll need it.
– This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on the WAMC Northeast Report, on December 22, 2020.
Quoted in John Whiteclay Chambers, II, Conscripting for Colossus: The Progressive Era and the Origin of the Modern Military Draft in the United States in World War I, in The Military in America From the Colonial Era to the Present 302 (New York: Free Press, Peter Karsten, ed., rev. ed. 1986).