The little girl has just started school at one of those institutions that opened to preserve segregation, a private academy that once stood as a reminder of Southern resistance to federal courts. But her attendance there doesn’t signal her parents’ allegiance to an old social order.
The little girl, who is white, plays frequently with my little brown-skinned daughter and rocks my daughter’s chocolate-brown dolls. The two girls eat together, swim together, and argue over toys and my mother’s lap. Their friendship may cool as they grow older, but they’ve formed a bond that will always help to inform their judgments about people who look a little different.
The nation has progressed in myriad ways since those old segregated academies sprang up in the Deep South, testimony to the fear and hostility that characterized race relations not just there but around the country. Not so long ago, the term “America’s golden girl” would have surely meant a young white celebrity, perhaps blond and freckled.
These days, America celebrates an Olympic team of teenage gymnasts that includes a Jewish captain, a black girl, and a girl whose ancestry is black and Japanese. They are all golden, with the medals to prove it.
They represent a nation that can be moved to champion its growing diversity even as it struggles to accommodate itself to demographic change.
I reminded myself of that last week as I read the awful news about a mass murder at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis. Wade Michael Page, the apparent shooter, was steeped in the racial hatred of right-wing extremists who preach “white power.” He founded a band that took its place on the skinhead music scene, where lyrics espousing violence and racial supremacy are commonplace.
Rather than usher in an era of “post-racial” harmony, the election of President Barack Obama seems to have done just the opposite: It provoked a hysterical backlash among those fearful and xenophobic whites who believe they are losing “their” country. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has documented explosive growth in white supremacist and anti-government organizations since Obama’s inauguration.
“The dramatic expansion of the radical right is the result of our country’s changing racial demographics, the increased pace of globalization and our economic woes. For many extremists, President Obama is the new symbol of all that’s wrong with the country, ” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the center.
That anti-Obama sentiment, which is fueled by reckless politicians on the right, is widely shared among ultraconservative whites who would never consider violence and who are appalled by the shooting of Sikhs at their place of worship. But those anxious white Americans also see in Obama an augur of a demographic shift they believe deprives them of their rightful place in the socioeconomic scheme.
“In the short run, diversity is not easy,” said Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, who has studied civic life in diverse communities.
“I’m a strong supporter of integration and diversity …(but) diversity is not easy. It’s tough, it’s difficult,” said Putnam, author of “Bowling Alone.”
To function well in heterogeneous environments, people must overcome primal instincts that compel us to fear and distrust the “other.” We must consciously set aside those negative reactions that flood over us: aversion, disinterest, distaste. That’s hard work.
Clearly, some Americans don’t want to do that — especially those who believe they have much to lose. A social and economic hierarchy that once guaranteed white Americans a place at the top is changing into one that places a premium on talent and hard work, no matter the packaging in comes in.
That might be easier to accept in a growing economy that offered good wages to everyone. A shrinking economy simply fuels the human tendency to cast about for scapegoats to blame for personal setbacks.
Still, I’m heartened by the country’s history. America has proved its resilience time and time again. It has also proved its adaptability — it’s knack for rejuvenating and re-creating itself to come closer to its stated ideal of full equality for all. My little girl and her friends are already doing their part.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)