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The War At Home We Haven't Won

THE WAR AT HOME WE HAVEN'T WON

Stebbins Jefferson

On Memorial Day, we honor the sacrifices of the 1.09 million American soldiers who have died in war. Whatever political analysts may have concluded on hindsight, the prevailing public opinion during times of war was that America was fighting to preserve democracy, an ennobling cause worthy of the ultimate sacrifice.

Hence, we are challenged individually - not only on Memorial Day but every day - to consider whether we are honoring the cause for which Americans of all races and religions have died. Accepting that challenge requires that in our daily lives we individually and collectively acknowledge something we would prefer not to think about: Here at home, a debilitating cold war of racial division continues. Though the reason for this conflict is primarily social and economic, the genesis is our country's history of race-based bondage. That peculiar institution has left our vision of each other distorted by stereotypes and misconceptions yet to be overcome. Racial tensions are sapping strength we need to address common problems. Today, we are integrated with each other in the workplace and in many organizations. During such interaction, we tend to consider a person of another race whom we have come to like as atypical of or an exception to their racial group. That modicum of acceptance - though inadequate - can be considered meaningful progress, given the rigid legal segregation that institutionalized discrimination as recently as four decades ago.

Yet so delicate remains the filament that connects us that few of us are willing to talk openly to each other across racial lines, lest we offend or unintentionally disclose some thought that brings an indictment of racism. Valuation of human beings based on skin color too often undermines all efforts to connect as equals worthy of trust.

According to the May 28 issue of U.S. News, from the things we say to each other to what we say about each other, "we have engendered a stubborn animosity." That observation seems to be confirmed by a poll that shows 45 percent of black Americans believe whites dislike blacks. If this perception seems exaggerated, note that 39 percent of whites agree.

Conversely, 45 percent of whites believe blacks dislike whites, according to the same poll, and 45 percent of blacks agree. Given these perceptions of where we are, we are unlikely to end the schism between the races unless those of us who are tired of division based on prejudgment of each other make a concerted effort to reject stereotypes that prevent mutual acceptance.

Taking that kind of risk means canceling three centuries of social conditioning consciously and subconsciously imposed upon us and without which many of us feel defenseless. Though the goal is desirable, risking such vulnerability in the interest of perpetuating democracy for our children remains something too many of us are afraid to do.

Some Americans, however, already have taken such risks. The New York Times reports that 78 percent of whites and 58 percent of blacks, according to the paper's poll, believe our country has made significant progress in reducing discrimination. This increase for each group of 25 points over the past decade implies that real people, not merely written laws, are at work to improve our democracy.

The May 28 issue of Jet discusses "What Cities Can Do to Ease Racial Tensions," such as those that exploded in Cincinnati. The solutions proffered by such authorities as Harvard Professor Cornel West and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume are to ban racial profiling by police, build public trust with a diverse police department, bring economic development and jobs to deprived areas and involve churches in the work of reconciliation to bridge the racial divide.

Laws and political strategies can do much to create an atmosphere for ending our cold war. To create a truly united democracy, however, Americans individually must voluntarily lay down their shields of comfortable prejudices. Only then can we embrace the kind of mutual respect that generates equality for all.

Stebbins Jefferson is a columnist for The Palm Beach Post.

Originally published in The Palm Beach Post on Saturday, May 26, 2001.

 

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