On Race in America

E Pluribus Unum

E Pluribus Unum

There is an Eagle on the Great Seal of the United States. The eagle holds a yellow ribbon in its mouth with the Latin words E Pluribus Unum. The phrase means ‘out of many one’. Most Americans view this statement as referring to the melting pot of the United States, we are a nation of immigrants united into one nation. Many have said that with the election of the first African-American president that we now live in a post-racial America.  It’s a nice thought but it is not true — the America we live in today is as divided along racial lines as it ever was.

Most people who read this blog (or know me personally) know that I sometimes climate be Hispanic, Asian, African or Pacific Islander as the mood suits me. Indeed racially, I am all of those things, my mother was from Guam and my father was Jamaican-Chinese.

I hate to admit it, but in reality (ethnically, culturally) — I am white.

I may have some Caucasian blood since I have a couple of red-headed first cousins on my mom’s side but I cannot trace any white folks in my ancestry.  My parents were both college professors and I grew up surrounded by other kids whose parents were educated middle class professionals. Now, my neighborhood was pretty well integrated for Cedar Falls, Iowa. We had an Indian family and two black families (or three if you count us) but they were ethnically and culturally white just like me.

Twenty years ago, OJ Simpson was on trial for the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. OJ of course is black and Nicole was white. I remember the trail like it was yesterday, in some ways it was the birth of reality TV. Ultimately, OJ was acquitted. Regardless of what I think about the verdict one thing was crystal clear. If you were white — you believed OJ was guilty and if you were black you believed he was innocent! There seemed to be no middle ground Americans were firmly divided down racial lines.

Fast forward about twenty years. Whether it is Trayvon Martin in Florida or Michael Brown in Missouri, America is once again divided sharply among racial lines. Nearly all of my white friends believed that both shootings were justified. Likewise a large majority of minorities (I like the phrase) are equally convinced that the shootings were not justified.

I really don’t have many African-American friends (in a state with a 3% African-American population — that’s not too unusual) I do have a fair number of African-African friends but they are statistical outliers.

So, as a nation, how do we move beyond, Simpson, Martin and Brown? One of the first things is that we all need to understand that not everyone views the world exactly the way we do.

In this case almost all of my white friends (mostly conservative Republicans) were quick to believe that Officer Wilson acted appropriately in self-defense. That if a thug who has just committed a robbery and assault attacks and attempts to disarm a police officer, they deserve to be shot.

Likewise African-Americans were quick to believe that this was a case of a white police officer over-reacting and executing a young black youth whose hands were in the air in the act of surrendering. A police officer who acts this way is a murderer and deserves to be in jail.

Some of my conservative friends on Facebook have talked about taking up arms if the government continues to infringe on their rights. A popular anti illegal immigration meme for a while was:

The founding fathers would be shooting by now.

In some ways the protesters are just doing what some of us conservatives have fantasized about (well, apart from the looting). I have personally talked about taking our wagons and pitchforks to Washington.

I am not at all trying to defend the actions of the protesters, in fact (being white) I believe that the grand jury came to the appropriate decision. I further believe that it would be a travesty for the Justice Department to try Wilson on civil rights charges. If that happens, maybe I will be in the street protesting. Perhaps I have more in common with the Ferguson protesters than I care to admit.