Friends dropped by my house today to watch President Obama’s second inauguration. America has changed so much, to have elected a person of color for a second term to the highest office of the land! The camera panned the crowd, showing blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics. We rejoiced. This is the America we cherish, a land striving to embody its ideals of liberty and justice for all.
When I was fighting in Vietnam in 1970, living with South Vietnamese, and abiding G.I.’s talk of slopes and gooks, I happened to be standing near a helicopter one day which had just carried in the mail. An African American G.I. went for something in the chopper, and one of my Vietnamese colleagues passed by him, and then, as he got close to me, he winked. I knew at once what the wink meant. It meant: See that detestable scum. He is like the dark skinned Cambodians whom we abhor. You and I are better than he is, right?! I wanted to puke, for I realized at once that racism is world wide. It isn’t just a white man’s disease. Once the racism virus is contracted, usually from childhood exposure, it remains on board. A watch of the conscience must be posted to keep it quarantined, lest it break out and take one over.
When my wife and I moved to Miami in 1981 the Mariel boatlift had just happened. Within two weeks the population of Spanish speaking children in the public schools increased by a third. My son, just beginning first grade, was one of three children in a class of thirty who spoke English. The city was reeling from a demographic sea change. I remember a bumper sticker that read, “Will the last American out of Miami please bring the flag.” Whites were leaving because refugees and immigrants were coming in such large numbers. Miami didn’t feel anymore like the home they had known for years. They just couldn’t abide the change which was happening so quickly.
My wife and I moved to Miami in part because of its diversity. We welcomed an opportunity to work where one could hear a half dozen languages spoken any day. We felt privileged to live in such a vibrant, pioneering place, for the demographic changes that were transforming Miami were predicted to transform the whole country by 2050, when Caucasians would be a minority.
In fact, this shift has occurred much faster than expected. USA Today recently published an analysis that indicates the tipping point has already been reached: Fifty-five percent of Americans now live in areas where, if two persons are chosen at random, they are likely to come from different racial-ethnic groups.
Some Americans regard this change as threatening. I hang around several online veterans’ groups, and I read there a lot of grousing about America going to the dogs, and posts opposing gun control, because “without guns to protect ourselves, the government may take us over.” It is not surprising to me that such alarmist talk surges at the time of the re-election of America’s first black president. I am not a sociologist. I don’t know how to conduct scientific surveys, but if I did, I’d test the hypothesis that much of the present malaise about America’s future is closely correlated to whites feeling like that guy who posted the bumper sticker thirty-two years ago.
It is not politically correct these days to speak about racism. It is a disease which many Americans believe has been subdued. How could we be racist, if we now have a black president?! Well, alas, the virus is still there, lurking within, and unless we acknowledge that it is still on board, it may break out of quarantine. I have read in the groups I mentioned: “The South shall rise again.!” My, what awful freight that phrase conveys! Was our Civil War for naught? Are we really still in the same frame of mind?