Two front-page articles in last week’s Daily News captured the spirit of what must be done in the aftermath of a tattered election that has riven our nation beyond memory. Wednesday’s headline began “End Racism Now.” The story described a projected 120-foot mural to be displayed on Spring Street in Pullman.
Thursday’s banner headline proclaimed, “Working toward a path of civility.” The story described how “respect and patience” are essential for “civil conversation in a polarized country.” These two themes, racism and civility, are inextricably linked in ways that few of us really understand. But I’m going to take a shot at it.
As a white, middle-class, male octogenarian, I will never understand what a person of any minority has lived through. Even the most “privileged” Black man still bears “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” because of being born Black. Every time he walks down a street, enters a shop, interacts with a white person, he’s never sure what that encounter will bring. And for a Black woman, “privileged” or not, add outrageous sexism.
The above-mentioned articles breathe fresh air into what has become a stagnant, fetid conversation about rampant injustices in our society. What caught my attention in the mural article was a statement by Jason Kennedy, member of a local Black Lives Matter group. He said the mural “could make Pullman an example for other communities.”
“This isn’t a white thing or a Black thing,” he said. “It’s a we thing. We’re asking that we stand together on this.” Even further, the group emphasized their support was for “Black Lives Matter as a civil rights movement, as a campaign demanding respect and equality for everyone, regardless of race.” It distinguished between the local movement and the national BLM organization. Nationally, BLM has sometimes proved divisive.
“We’re asking for once to be seen as equals and be treated as equals,” Kennedy said, “whether in a restaurant or in a business or walking down the street.”
As an old white guy, I don’t have to ask for these things. My appearance alone assures that I will receive them.
Race doesn’t exist. Long before the human genome corroborated this fact, the whole concept of race was questioned. If a black African and a white Scandinavian marry, what “race” is their offspring? A Korean-American friend describes herself as a “blend.” What a wonderful way of describing the rich diversity of a blended humanity!
But racism is only one facet of a pandemic that far exceeds COVID-19: incivility and the hatred that drives it. Recent years seem to have nurtured the idea that it’s OK to trash talk, to insult people — and ideas — we don’t agree with. Good-natured humor is one thing. Cutting sarcasm that masquerades as wit is quite another. It’s barbaric. We have sunk below the level of a middle school playground.
This paper initiated “The Civility Project” recently to address incivility. It featured an editorial by the retired publisher A.L. “Butch” Alford. He concluded that a Civility Project can succeed if people practice two behaviors: Listen. Be tolerant. Such a goal is unrealistic in an era when lies traverse the globe at the speed of light.
Thursday’s interview with UI political science scholar Brian Smentkowski expands Alford’s ideals by suggesting that “patience, presence, curiosity, empathy and respect are key … to civility.” These qualities are necessary, but not sufficient.
Racism and incivility are symptoms of a deeper illness. Our “them” versus “us” mentality is fed by the zero-sum mindset that dominates human interactions. It starts with sports, ranges through competitive capitalism and culminates in politics that seek global domination.
Let’s start at the top. Most humans harbor belief in some sort of higher spiritual power generally known as God, a single God. Why is it so hard to infer a single humanity? The only “race” is the human race, as borne out by our genome.
So let’s be civil. Let’s get past racism. Let’s embrace our natural diversity and appreciate its strengths. We can nurture and celebrate our civility as we rejuvenate our nation, our tattered economy, our healthcare system and our politics. We can play many parts as we once again make entrance onto the world’s stage.
Pete Haug and his live-in editor and wife Jolie, share ideas like these over dinner. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.