Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Racism and Intolerance: America’s Bitter Heritage

Clearly, there have been times in American history when, as now, the country was so politically polarized that opponents of the two sides could barely speak civilly to one another—much less have a conversation.

Since the Revolution—when “loyalists” maintained allegiance to the King and viewed the “patriots” as traitors—the great divides in this nation have had much to do with race. In the hundred years between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act, the cultural “Great Wall” in American was approximately the Mason-Dixon Line. The conservative extremism so evident in today’s American South owes much of its fervor to the not-so-long-ago struggle over integration.

Now another racially charged political line has been drawn in the sand in Arizona, where that state’s accidental governor, Jan Brewer, thrust herself into the national spotlight with her sponsorship of the draconian anti-immigration bill SP 1070. And yet another in Manhattan, where many Americans—most of them far, far away from New York City—have decided that building a community center and mosque is somehow a desecration of “hallowed ground.”

The presence of a peaceful center for those of the Islamic faith in Manhattan can and should be viewed as a triumph of American values, including freedom of religion, and a repudiation of any claim terrorists might have on being sanctioned by their faith. Real Muslims hate terrorism as much as real Christians—or real atheists, for that matter.

Sadly and ironically, however, the rhetoric of hate has been focused on this peaceful and well-established Manhattan community instead of on the real interlopers—Pastor Bill Keller and his so-called “Christian Center,” characterized by bigotry and intolerance.

These controversies have much to do with race, as well as the instinctive, primal fear that ignorant people feel about “the other”—whoever that may be.

Unscrupulous and irresponsible people—from Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh to Pastor Keller and Reverend Terry Jones—deliberately use racism and bigotry to stoke hatred in the fevered minds of the ignorant and the angry. They get rich and famous doing so.

These loudmouths and fanatics put a burden on those of us who know better to talk sense. But it’s a burden we must accept. If silence implies consent—and we know it does—then it is up to every “real American” (to borrow a phrase from Sarah Palin) to speak loudly and clearly in favor of tolerance, acceptance, and social responsibility.

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