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William Raspberry
Washington Post Urban Affairs Columnist
101st Landon Lecture
April 13, 1995

 

Crisis of Community

 

I've been writing a good deal of late about the violence in our streets, the apathy in our schools, and the hopelessness among our young people -- the crisis in our community. But this morning, I want to talk about a deeper, more pervasive and ultimately more serious crisis. Let me call it our crisis of community.

America has a crisis of community that is as deep and wide as it is unnoticed. And it threatens to destroy our solidarity as a nation, in much the same fashion as a similar crisis in community has ripped apart the former Soviet Union and what used to be Yugoslavia.

I refer, of course, to the gender wars newly resurrected by the latest battles in the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill holy wars; to the ethnic battles over university canons and multiculturalism, to the political warfare that makes party advantage more important than the success of the nation, and to the racial animosities and suspicions fueled by everything from the rantings of Khalid Abdul Muhammed to the O.J. Simpson trial to Charles Murray's pseudo- intellectual call for racial abandonment.

But when I express my fear that we are coming unglued, I'm thinking about far more than these things.

I'm talking about more even than the normal give and take among the various sectors and ideologies of the society. I am talking about our growing inability to act -- even to think -- in the interest of the nation.

It's almost as though there IS no national interest, apart from the aggregate interests of the various components. The whole society seems to be disintegrating into special interests.

And not just in politics. College campuses are being ripped apart by the insistence of one group after another on proving their victimization at the hands of white males, and therefore, their right to special exemptions and privileges.

One example of what I'm talking about: A few years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration adopted a rule that would bar emergency exit row seating to passengers who are blind, deaf, obese, frail or otherwise likely to inhibit movement during an emergency evacuation. Common sense? Only if you think of the common interests of all the passengers.

Surely it is reasonable to have those emergency seats occupied by people who can hear the instructions of the crew, read the directions for operating the emergency doors and assist other passengers in their escape.

But some organizations representing the deaf, blind and otherwise disabled reacted to the regulation only as a form of discrimination against their clients who, they insist, have a right" to the emergency seats.

It is true that the majority must never be allowed to run roughshod over the rights of minorities. That is one of the tenets of the American system. But the notion of fairness to particular groups as an element of fairness to the whole has been perverted into a wholesale jockeying for group advantage.

Mutual fairness, with regard to both rights and responsibilities, can be the glue that bonds this polyglot society into a nation. Single-minded pursuit of group advantage threatens to rip us apart at the seams. The struggle for group advantage has us so preoccupied with one another's ethnicity that we are losing our ability to deal with each other as fellow humans.

What are we to make of this dismaying evidence that the relationships among us are getting worse -- even among our college students? I believe two things are happening, and that they reinforce one another. The first is the racism and bigotry that never went away, even though it was relatively quiet for a time.

The second is what has been called the politics of difference. There is a pattern I have seen repeated on campuses across America. A black group, perhaps motivated by some combination of discomfort and rejection, goes looking (always successfully) for demonstrable evidence of racism.

I used to marvel at this search. Of course there was racism on campus, but what was the point of PROSPECTING for it, as though panning for gold?

I mean, where was the assay office to which one took these nuggets of racism and traded them in for something of value?

Well, it turns out that there IS such an assay office. It's called the Administration Building. Turn in enough nuggets and you get your reward: a Black Student Union, a special course offering, an African American wing in a preferred dormitory -- whatever. All it takes is proof that you are a victim.

But despite the reports one hears these days, college students aren't exactly stupid. They are bright enough to see that there are rewards in the politics of difference, in demonstrated victimism. So the victories won by black students become models for similar prizes for gay students or Hispanic students or female students, all of whom gather up their nuggets of victimism and take them to the administration building for redemption.

Cornell University, one of the finest institutions in America, has a dormitory called Ujamaa College, a residence for black students; Akwe:kon, a dorm for Native Americans; and also the Latin Living Center.

That's the trend when the accent is on difference. And finally, it turns out that everybody gets something out of the politics of difference except white males, who start to feel sorry for themselves.

And if they can't find anyone to reward them for their sense of being slighted, they may turn to behavior that was once unthinkable -- the "acting out" that manifests itself in incivility, reactionary politics, open bigotry and, on occasion, violence.

Every gain by minority groups justifies the sense of victimism on the part of white males, and every repugnant act of white males becomes a new nugget for a minority to take to the assay office.

Two things get lost in this sad ritual. The first is that the administration seldom gives up any of its own power: the gains of one group of students are extracted from other groups of students, who then must play up their own disadvantage to wrest some small advantage from another group. The administration's power remains intact.

The second overlooked aspect is that the process turns the campus into warring factions -- each, no doubt, imagining itself as the moral successor to the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. There's a difference, though. Dr. King's constantly repeated goal was not special advantage but unity. His dream was not of a time when blacks would finally overcome whites; his dream was that we should overcome, black and white together.

His hope was not that we should celebrate our differences but that we should recognize the relative unimportance of these differences. The differences do not seem unimportant, of course. Sometimes we seem to notice ONLY our differences.

That's why I find it helpful to look at what used to be the Soviet Union and what used to be Yugoslavia. From this distance, it seems clear that the similarities between the Serbs and Croats and other ethnic neighbors in Bosnia-Herzegovinia should outweigh their differences.

They share the history of a place and indeed many were intermarried. But now that Yugoslavia has broken up, even the marriages have been ripped apart.

I find myself wishing these erstwhile Yugoslavs could see for themselves what distance makes clear to us. And I wish we could learn to see ourselves as from a distance. Maybe we'd learn to appreciate how great are our similarities and how trivial our differences, and get OUR act together.

A "Star Trek" episode of some years ago makes my point. Capt. Kirk and his crew rescue a humanoid who, on his left side, is completely black. His right side, it turns out, is altogether white.

They are in the process of trying to learn the origins of this stranger -- Lokai, he is called -- when they are confronted by a similar humanoid named Bele -- this one black on this right side and white on the left. The Enterprise crew, of course, can hardly tell them apart. But the humanoids can see themselves only as complete opposites -- which, of course in one sense they are. And not just opposites. Though they are from the same planet, they are also sworn enemies.

I won't try to tell you the whole episode, but let me recall this much. Lokai is thought to be a political traitor, and Bele, an official of their home planet's Commission on Political Traitors, has been chasing him throughout the galaxy for a thousand years.

Lokai tries to convince the Enterprise crew that Bele and his kind are murderous oppressors. Bele counters that Lokai and his kind are ungrateful savages. The Enterprise crew decides to travel near the strangers' planet.

When they come within sensor range they are surprised to learn there is no sapient life there. The cities are intact, vegetation and lower animals abound, but the people are dead. They have annihilated each other. These two have survived only because they happened to be in the business of chasing each other down.

And what do they do when they learn what has happened to their planet? They lunge at each other in furious battle. Though the Enterprise crew is appalled, Kirk is unable to convince the two enemies of the futility of their war.

"To expect sense from two mentalities of such extreme viewpoints is not logical," says Spock. "They are playing out the drama of which they have become the captives, just as their compatriots did."

"But their people are dead," Sulu says slowly. "How can it matter to them now which one is right?"

"It does to them," says Spock. "And at the same time, in a sense, it doesn't. A thousand years of hating and running have become all of life."

We don't learn from this "Star Trek" episode the nature of the original problem between these warring humanoids, though we can be certain each felt fully justified in continuing the war. They had made a mistake that too many of us make in real life: They had forgotten the difference between problems and enemies.

And so have we. Virtually every issue that strikes us as urgent or important is made more intractable by our insistence on seeing it as a matter of us against them.

Give us a problem, and we'll find an enemy. Is the U.S. economy in trouble? Make the Japanese the enemy. Are we concerned about the discouraged and dangerous underclass? Blame white racists.

Members of my own profession seem unable to tell a story, no matter how significant, unless they can transform it into a case of one person, or one group, against another -- unless they can make it a matter of enemies.

It is not so much that the enemies we identify are innocent as that identifying and pursuing them takes time and attention away from the search for solutions.

It was no trouble at all to come up with evidence that the Japanese were hurting the American economy through predatory pricing, product dumping and nonreciprocity, and certainly all these things merited attention.

But the U.S. auto industry improved its position relative to Japan's auto industry not when we all became expert at bashing our Japanese enemy but when Detroit started making better cars.

And that's the point. The failure to distinguish between the enemy and the problem has us looking balefully at one another instead of jointly attacking the problem which, in most cases, is as much a problem for us as for those we attack.

Take the current fight over affirmative action, for instance. Politicians who lack the imagination to address the problem settle for giving us each other to attack. White men -- particularly those with a high school education or less -- are not imagining things when they feel less secure economically than their fathers were. But they make a mistake when they suppose that their jobs have somehow been handed over to black people in the name of affirmative action. More likely those jobs are in Taiwan or Singapore or have gone up in the smoke of corporate mergers and downsizing. We've got a problem, and we waste our time assaulting enemies.

Honest communication about the problem might lead us to look for ways to restore our industrial base, expand our economy, improve the quality of our products and put our people to work. Focusing on enemies produces stirring speeches and little else.

You've heard the speeches. You've watched as communities have been ripped apart by those who deliver these speeches. Here's how Teresa Heinz, widow of the late Pennsylvania senator, described them in a recent speech:

"... critical of everything, impossible to please, indifferent to nuance, incapable of compromise. They laud perfection but oddly never see it in anybody but themselves. They are right all the time, eager to say I told you so, and relentlessly unforgiving. They occasionally may mean well, but the effect of even their good intentions is to destroy. They corrode self-confidence and good will; they cultivate guilt; they rule by fear and ridicule.

"They are creatures of opportunity as much as of principles, extremists of the left and the right who feed on our fear and promote it, who dress up their opponents in ugly costumes, who drive a bitter wedge between us and the Other, the one no like us, the one who sees the world just a shade differently . . . They demonize us by our parts and tear our country into pieces."

My own formulation is less eloquent; they focus on enemies rather than on problems. They forget that, at the end of the day, when we've all taken our unfair shots at one another, this simple truth remains: The problem is the problem.

Our politicians and our factional leaders never miss an opportunity to list the atrocities the enemy has committed against us. But nothing changes.

Sometimes we're not even sure what we want to change, or what we want the people we call enemies to do. We say we want things to get better, when sometimes I think we only want to score points.

We say we want a society in which all of us can live together as brothers and sisters, and the whole time we are saying it we are busy creating another group of barriers to place between us.

It's a strange sort of progress we have made since the death of Dr. King. We have "progressed" to the point where we are embarrassed to speak of brotherhood, of black and white together, of our shared status as Americans.

That's not an accusation; it's a confession. All of us are capable of getting so caught up in the distance that remains to be run that we forget to give ourselves full credit for the distance we've come.

Yet, every now and then, we manage to overcome our embarrassment and see things as from a distance. In that spirit, I'd like to share something I wrote a while back -- something I still believe but something I may have trouble saying again.

Here it is: The immigration applications, the legal and illegal dodges for getting into this country, the longings you hear in virtually every other part of the world all attest to two astounding facts.

The first, widely accepted though not always with good grace, is that "everybody" wants to be an American. The second, of which we take almost no notice, is that virtually anybody can become an American.

To see just how extraordinary a fact that is, imagine hearing anyone -- black, white or Asian -- saying he wants to "become Japanese." It sounds like a joke. One can live in Japan (or Ghana or Sweden or Mexico) -- can live there permanently, and prosper. But it's essentially impossible to imagine anyone born anywhere else becoming anything else -- except American.

It's a thought that crosses my mind whenever I hear demands that the government protect the ethnic or language heritage of particular groups: when African Americans demand that the public schools adopt an Afrocentric curriculum, for instance, or when immigrants from Latin America are sworn in as American citizens -- in Spanish.

It crossed my mind again when I came across Jim Sleeper's essay, "In Defense of Civic Culture."

I won't try to characterize Sleeper's piece or to summarize its recommendations. [The Washington-based Progressive Foundation] I won't even tell you I agree with everything Sleeper has to say on the subject of race and ethnicity.

But he says some things that echo my own feelings, especially when I ponder the extraordinary possibility of becoming American.

He acknowledges the obvious: that the America that counted my great-great-grandfather as only three-fifths of a human being has never been free of ethnic and racial bigotry, and that bigotry has sometimes achieved the status of law, of philosophy -- even of religion.

But he notes something else: that America is one of the few places on the globe where accusation of such bigotry is a serious indictment. Even when America has been at its ugliest in fact -- slavery, the slaughter of Native Americans, the internment of the Japanese and the full range of private and public atrocities, "yet always America held out the promise that, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, in this 'asylum of all nations, the energy of all the European tribes [and] of the Africans, and of the Polynesians will construct a new race.'"

The civic culture Sleeper writes about includes this notion of Americans as a new and different race, but it also entails what he describes as characteristic American virtues: tolerance, optimism, self-restraint, self-reliance, reason, public- mindedness -- virtues that are "taught and caught in the daily life of local institutions and in the examples set by neighbors, co- workers and public leaders."

It is, he suggests, the internalizing of these virtues that defines "becoming American."

But the transformation works both ways. If people from an awesome range of colors, cultures and ethnicities have become Americans, so has America become what it is (and continues to become) by absorbing and embracing these myriad influences.

Some of us are angry, and ought to be, that our academic texts and teachings still disregard or underestimate our part of these influences.

Some of us are disappointed that what we bring to the smorgasbord is often undervalued, even brutally rejected.

But surely the cure is in working for greater inclusion, not cultural isolation. That's what observers as different as Sleeper, Arthur Schlesinger and John Gardner have been saying. That's what Gary Trudeau was saying in that hilarious (and sobering) series of "Doonesbury" strips that ended with black students -- already having attained their separate courses and dormitories -- demanding, at last, separate drinking fountains. Sleeper's insight is that there is nothing "natural" or automatic about those values and attitudes that used to be called "the American way." Educators must teach them, he says, and also "teach that self-esteem is enhanced not simply through pride in one's own cultural origins but, more importantly, by taking pride in one's mastery of civic virtues and graces that all Americans share and admire in building our society."

Critics of this view will argue that Sleeper's virtuous and graceful American is a figment, that America is a deeply -- perhaps irredeemably -- racist society.

I prefer to think that Americans are still becoming Americans, just as America is still becoming America.

How can we accelerate that becoming? By recognizing its importance, by understanding that hating and running must not become all of life, and by working to grasp the difference between problems and enemies.

Confront a difficulty as a problem, and you have taken the first steps toward creating the climate for change.

Confront it as the work of enemies and you create the necessity for DEFEATING someone, of intimidating someone, of browbeating someone into doing something against his will.

Enemies have to be sought out, branded and punished. Which, naturally, gives them one more reason to find an opportunity to strike back at us. And the beat goes on.

Problems, on the other hand, admit of cooperative solutions that can help build community.

Searching for enemies is most often a pessimist's game, calculated less to resolve difficulties than to establish that the difficulties are someone else's fault. Identifying problems is by its very nature optimistic and healing. The whole point of delineating problems is to fashion solutions.

Maybe that's what President Clinton had in mind when he called on America to bring back "the old spirit of partnership, of optimism, of renewed dedication to common efforts."

"We need," he said, "an array of devoted, visionary, healing leaders throughout this nation, willing to work in their communities to end the long years of denial and neglect and divisiveness and blame, to give the American people their country back."

And that is precisely what we need. America has had enough of the politics of difference, the marketing of disadvantage, the search for enemies. It's about time we started to work on what may be the most important problem we face:

How to heal our crisis of community and make America work -- not for blacks or whites or women or gays; not for ethnics; not for Christians, Moslems or Jews -- but for Americans.