Americans like to describe their country as a melting pot, a place where people from all over the world can come to live, raise their families and find opportunities. The things is, we’re not even close to that. Sure, we’re a diverse society, made up of all types of nationalities, religions, ethnicities and colors, but we’re a long way from that promise of a melting pot.
The term was first introduced in the United States, in a play from 1908, and described America as a place “where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming”. It sounds idyllic, the idea that all of us could just blend, and that all of the sharp edges of our disparate backgrounds would be smoothed out by the melting process. Instead, we are reminded, over and over, that is simply not the case.
Everyone is talking about the shooting in Florida of a black teenager, and the shooter, described in the media as a latino/white man. As we’re all talking, the discourse has been broken, again, with no one even making any sense. It’s turned a tragedy into a sideshow and another opportunity for a teaching moment into a mob scene. I said “again” because this type of incident, and the rhetoric surrounding it, happens all the time. We’ve screamed in each others’ faces over Tawana Brawley, the Duke lacrosse case, and Professor Gates’ and Sergeant Crowley’s confrontation. Muslims, who are our next door neighbors, have been attacked for trying to build a cultural center near Ground Zero. Since 9/11, their lives have changed simply because they look or dress or worship in a manner different from others. We’ve put our own citizens into internment camps, during World War II, because their crime was they were of Japanese descent.
What happened in Sanford, Florida is another situation where the flames are fanned, by all of us. The media hasn’t helped – it never does. They send us little messages by putting up pictures of Trayvon Martin in junior high and George Zimmerman in a mug shot, which, I guess, are so that we can see who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. There have been leaks to the media about Martin’s Twitter account as well as videos of Zimmerman in handcuffs, apparently without any injuries, so that both of their reputations can be distorted and tarnished. It’s not good reporting and it certainly isn’t fair.
After a while, all of this will die down, because that is what has always happened. Americans will find something new to focus on and complain about. The news will tell us what to worry about and social networks will find a new cause to buzz about. That will be the real shame in all of this. In February 2009, during a speech honoring Black History Month, Attorney General Eric Holder said that we are “a nation of cowards” which remains “voluntarily socially segregated”. I believe he’s right. There is nothing, in the way we are speaking or acting, that proves otherwise. We have the same arguments, time and again, and end up right where we started.
There could be a number of reasons, some are simply excuses, as to why we take no real steps to bridge our differences and take the time to really talk to each other. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t understand even a fraction of the cultures that make up our society and country. That which we don’t know, we fear, and when we’re afraid, all too often, we get angry. There is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying the cultures from which each and every one of us comes. Our own varied backgrounds, beliefs and traditions should be shared and passed down. I don’t think that we are meant to become completely homogeneous by forgoing everything that makes us heterogeneous.
We are going to keep running into problems, though, if we cling to only those things which we know and make us feel comfortable. I’m hoping that we can get out of that comfort zone more often, and have the guts to speak to and understand each other in the way Mr. Holder is suggesting. If not, we’re never going to be that melting pot, and all of our edges will never soften and blend. Being afraid of and angry at each other, forever, isn’t going to help. We have every reason and all of the resources to be better than this.