“Why can’t we just get along?”
This rather poignant reflection was attributed to Rodney King, best-known as a high-profile victim of police brutality in 1990s Los Angeles — the George Floyd of his day. It’s a reasonable question, and one that seems even more pertinent in 2021.
When you look around, the rancor in this country has been dialed up exponentially. That’s evident not just inside an increasingly warlike and tribal Congress, or screaming at us from the Internet, but often at the family dinner table. It’s reflected in the periodic spikes of gun sales, the bullying in high schools, the extent of the anger and polarization brought on by the COVID-19 siege and its restrictions.
Although some of this stems from reasonable grievances, a lot of it is simply irrational.
Even if you believe that the coronavirus was spawned in a Chinese lab for some nefarious purpose, what does that have to do with second or third-generation Americans who just happen to have Asian ancestral roots? It’s as illogical to threaten them as it was to blame every American Muslim for the September 11 attacks.
We do that, though, and we’ve always done it. Americans of German descent (including, amazingly, Doberman pinschers) were harassed here during World War I. Japanese people were exiled to internment camps in the next global conflict. Benjamin Franklin once published a lengthy screed blasting European immigrants for gathering in homogenous groups and refusing to learn English.
Mostly, this has been our fear talking. A lot of the hostility toward gay Americans came from straight people scared that “gayness” was somehow contagious, like a virus. Those who currently resist any form of immigration cite the danger to American jobs, something not borne out by the facts.
What we have now, though, goes beyond fear, or even logic. Families have broken up over some of these societal conflicts. Civility is in short supply on social media. Many church congregations seem to spend more time talking about the Second Amendment than salvation. Even people who have no obvious personal stake in some of these heated discussions become swept away by them.
Perhaps the first step in moving beyond all this ill-feeling is acknowledging that Americans have never been one big happy family. Even from the beginning, many of the people who were already here didn’t want to share their space with “foreigners.” The divide between federalism and states’ rights has been an issue since the constitutional convention. Like any other nation, we have stains on our history.
The thing is, we are also unlike any other country on the planet.
Leaf through a telephone book in Paris (if you can find one), and most of the names will be French. In Moscow, Russian. In Seoul, Korean. Only in America can you find Schultzes, Garcias, Muhammads, Goldsteins, Kims, Jeffersons, and Murphys sharing the same space.
It’s called “diversity,” and no other country on earth is as diverse as this one. And to the question “What can we do about it?” the answer on one level has to be “nothing.” Un-mixing America at this point would be as impossible as un-mixing a cocktail after it’s been poured.
Our diversity enriches us on many levels, but it also comes with a price.
Imagine this as a sociological experiment:
Randomly select 10 people each from France, Germany, England, Russia, Israel, Egypt, Brazil, Kenya, India, and China. Relocate them en masse to the uninhabited portion of a remote island, then challenge them to overcome their natural differences and create a functioning society.
Chances are you can immediately come up with a dozen reasons why this would never work. The French and Germans have long been at odds, so how could they ever operate as teammates? Would Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Jews be able to rise above centuries of religious conflict? And what about all the different languages?
When you think about it, though, the entity now known as the United States of America was assembled atop an even more fragile framework. Its colonization was piecemeal and chaotic, involving the disconnected efforts of myriad groups with many different agendas.
Some colonists came with the support of their home government, others were fleeing it. Some were bankrolled by private land companies, others belonged to religious groups seeking breathing room. Even banished prisoners were stirred into the mix.
In the process, different nations found different landing places — the Dutch founded New Amsterdam, the Germans put their stamp on the mid-Atlantic (joined by the Scotch and Irish), the English established a beachhead to the south.
Even though all thirteen of these American colonies eventually fell under England’s control, the British policy of “salutatory neglect” allowed for diverse forms of local government, provided the mother country got what it wanted in trade and revenue. When problems arose, such as skirmishes with local Indian tribes, the colonists were often on their own.
The result was that these New World outposts evolved over their first 100 years with little in common. Even the decision to split from the mother country was far from unanimous. One of the things our school history books don’t tell us is that several of the delegates to the constitutional convention in Philadelphia suggested working things out with England and returning to some better version of our colonial status.
This suggestion was obviously rejected, but doubts and anxieties had already begun to dissipate the post-independence buzz. If we were no longer British, what were we?
The American South and the American North had issues from the beginning, most revolving around slavery. Ultimately, this long-burning fuse led to an explosion unlike any the world had ever seen.
There is still a tendency in some circles to view the American Civil War through the eyes of Scarlett O’Hara, but it was horrific in its ferocity and seismic in its long-term effects. By its end, more than 620,000 combatants had died of either battlefield injuries or disease, two percent of the male population. Thousands of others came home permanently disabled. The infrastructure of the south was in ruins. Moreover, the post-war Reconstruction period was handled poorly, leaving southerners even more resentful and the majority of freed slaves abandoned and impoverished.
Still, there seems to be no reason for much of the hostility among groups that exists in the U.S. today. I blame much of that on hyper-partisan politics, which has drawn a line down the middle of our society and demands that everyone choose one side or the other. But that’s the politicians’ game — why make it ours?
Most of the passions that inflame us have their roots in the long-dead past. There was no true reconciliation or resolution after the Civil War, or the Jim Crow era, or the Vietnam War, or any of the other events that divided us. Typically in our society, we just stuff such unpleasantries into the closet of history when they’re over, leaving the bad feelings behind to breed and multiply.
But do white people really need to hate black people, or vice-versa? Does the fact that we happen to like Donald Trump or Joe Biden need to define us as a person? Is immigration really a threat to those of us who are already here? Is it worth trying to convince someone of our point of view when they obviously feel strongly the other way? And why do you care what someone else thinks, anyway?
Being human, we will always have disagreements on a personal level. However, in the larger sense, it can only be healthy to shift our focus away from what divides us and toward what we have in common. What awaits us in the other direction is a dead end.
Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."