I started my school days in segregated schools. My first school day began in 1966, twelve years after the United States Supreme Court ruled that the "separate but equal" eduction did not satisfy the United States Constitution. When I began school, my elementary school followed one of many dodges to hide in that loophole the Court had left for the pace of integration, called "all deliberate speed". These were the days of "optional" integration, when a token minority group member or two in each grade attended the white school, to give lip service to the idea of complying with the law. Across town, African-American kids went to a drastically separate and completely unequal school.
This discrimination did not confine itself to the schoolyard. Until I was a teen, the main "downstairs" portion of the Hoo Hoo movie theater was "whites only". Blacks had to enter through a separate door, and ascend to the balcony. A small hole was cut in the concession stand wall in order that black patrons could order popcorn on their way up to the balcony. The boy scout troop was segregated. Summer baseball was segregated. Church was segregated. I was a teen before the non-school institutions began to evolve from segregation. Although day to day relationships were not as starkly negative as institutional relationships, a great divide existed. A great deal of racial division still exists,though more of it is division in fact than division in a legal sense these days.
In the world of my childhood, people treated people not of their race as "the other". This arose first and foremost in the treatment of the majority of the minority, although the tension did run both ways.
Race was not the only elaboration of "the other". Gender politics were different in 1966 than they are today, and they are worse today than they shall be when a more fully evolved culture arises. Sexual orientation discrimination created division. Even geography created division, as ways originating from other regions of the country might be termed "yankee".
So much has changed. Yet fear of the "other" remains. Political party affiliation, the racial divide, the religious divides, the economic divides--we live in a virtual Arbuckle mountain range of fear of "the other".
This puzzles me, because we are a people who are all "other".
"Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles"--Emma Lazarus
The base of the Statue of Liberty contains the closing lines of a sonnet which was written by a woman who grew up in a privileged environment. Well-to-do, creative, and graceful, she was a member of society. Yet she never forgot that her Christian friends treated her as "the other", because she was Jewish.
Emma Lazarus was aware of the discrimination of her own time, when a local hotel denied admittance to a prominent businessman on the grounds that he was a recent European Jewish immigrant (and not a settled immigrant from the more distinguished families like Ms. Lazarus'). Yet it appears that the Russian pogroms led her to write passionately of the need for an America which did not treat others with intolerance. Her poem, written to try to generate funds for the Statue of Liberty, became a part of the fabric of the statute and of our culture. "Bring me your tired....".
1966. 1954. 1881. Quaint days, quaint times. Lady Bird Johnson, planting bluebonnets. Molotov cocktails lighting up school parking lots. A financial boom just before the 1893 bust. If only the notion of "the other" were a relic of a distant past.
Yet I see the fear of the other everywhere I turn. I hear innuendo and slander about our first African-American candidate in true contention for the highest office--sordid and untrue tales. I see the speeches when people yell "traitor" from the audience about Senator Obama, and nobody steps in to correct the insult.
I see people worry more about Governor Palin's appearance and accent than about the positions she holds. A woman is not granted even the power to be right or wrong on her views, if she is just photogenic enough.
I see not only the red/blue divide, but great divides among people of faith and people of no faith that makes them talk past one another like domino chains hurtling towards separate topplings.
Red states. Blue states. Middle name: Hussein. Age-ism. One-issue-pony-ism. I see everywhere fear. Fear of investments. Fear of the unknown. Fear of "the other".
Margaret Thatcher did not say many things with which I agreed (indee,d her husband Denis always amused me more). But she did say something about the thin veneer of civilization that resonated. The ghosts of Belsen and Auschwitz breathe freely in Darfur and in Teheran. Self-righteous religious people in our own country speak of followers of Islam as they are monsters, but they are not alone in so doing. I read similar, if slightly more nuanced, statements from the agnostic and "rational".
Massive shortfalls of trust. Massive shortfalls of hope. A massed reaction against "the other"--whether red state or blue. Is this the same people who committed a million soldiers to liberate Europe from National Socialism? Of course, in that war of liberation, members of minority groups faced discrimination. Yet I believe that we live in a country which evolves for the better. Yet I hear things like people saying that they could not even be friends with a conservative.
When I first lived in Los Angeles, heroin had not yet replaced crack cocaine as the street drug of choice.
In a walk in downtown Los Angeles in that era, one might be accosted by crackhead beggars--people whose reduced circumstances made them "the others". It was a sad set of sights to see. Yet none of them was, strictly speaking, "the other". They were people as real as you or I, suffering hardship they could not dig themselves free from experiencing.
I suppose I tire of needless divisions and woeful intolerance because I believe that life makes exiles of us all. We all live in our own remote inner islands, seeking out such company as we may find. We cannot forget that we are but decades from Jim Crow, decades from Krystallnacht, barely decades from Rwanda. We cannot forget the vast majority of the people in the world live without basic freedoms, and that a substantial minority live without basic sustenance.
I believe we live in a country which bears the promise of the "imprisoned lightning", a force that can purify and cut through the fear of the "other". I long for the day when a person wins an election because he or she is the preferred candidate, and not because of a fear of his or her ethnicity or gender or religion or age.
Until that day, I must remember that the shadow of Death in whose valley we walk is the shadow of fear of "the other", and the rod and staff of justice is what will bring us all to the still waters at last.