As is our family’s custom, we celebrated Thanksgiving at my mom’s house a day later than most of the country. My mom and sister made enough food to feed an army and the voice of my dad echoed from the past to tell them that they had made too much. We reminisced, laughed a lot and pushed the buttons that only family can. My wife sat at the table next to my ex-wife.
When my mother first asked me last year if she could invite my ex to dinner there was only one answer that I knew that I could give. A divorce is like a nuclear bomb exploded to solve a property dispute. It not only ended our marriage, but affected the ties we had with all of our friends and relatives. As uncomfortable as it would be for me to share a holiday, it was a recognition that family relationships are not swept away by a judge’s signature on a piece of paper. Most importantly, it allowed our son to celebrate the holiday with both of his parents.
The saddest part about the whole situation is that two people who were married for 16 years would experience that level of discomfort. I knew going into the separation that we were throwing away our future, what I did not realize was that the process would also destroy our past. Distrust is a byproduct of the oppositional nature of family court. Unless that distrust is confronted head on, a state of détente is the best we can ever hope for.
In many ways this same situation describes the state of race relations in America. Slavery may have ended almost 150 years ago but we have never fully confronted the results. For those whose ancestors benefited from this sin it is easy to suggest that this was in the past, we have changed and should just move on. My family all came to the United States in the twentieth century and had nothing to do with the system. Still, I recognize that while ancestors had the opportunity to escape tyranny and lack of economic opportunity, others were brutally forced into this country lacking the most basic of freedoms. Even to this day, “all men are created equal” has been more of a goal than a reality. (1)
While we may have elected (and re-elected) our first African-American President, the unemployment for blacks is “consistently twice that of whites.” (2) While the progress towards ending “intensely segregated” schools has simply stalled in the past 30 years, blacks in schools that are “50 - 100% nonwhite” has risen to 74.1% during this time period, almost back to the 76.6% that existed at the height Civil Rights Movement. (3) In 2010 there 4,347 inmates per 100,000 male, black U. S. residents, a rate that is more than six times the incarceration rate for white males. (4)
Someone also forgot to tell the American people that we have entered a post-racial America. A survey conducted by Pew Research found that 88% of black Americans and 57% of white Americans “believe that there is at least some discrimination against African-Americans.” (5) Another poll found that while Republicans were more likely to be explicitly racist, 55% of Democrats, 64% of Republicans and 49% of independents “held anti-black feelings.” (6) Some still argue the appropriateness of displaying the Confederate flag despite the fact that it is a symbol of a rebellion that tried to start a new country whose cornerstone rested “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” (7)
Perhaps the sins of the father are indeed visited upon the son and our country is forever doomed to pay the price for our Founding Father’s acceptance of slavery. Maybe our hope lays with the younger generation who, as exemplified by the sudden shift towards the acceptance of same-sex marriage, can finally demand an end to racial inequality. Whatever our destiny, this problem was in a better position to be solved at the point that slavery was ended.
In South Africa, the system of apartheid could have ended in bloodbath of revenge and retribution. Apartheid combined the worst of America’s atrocities, pushing natives from their homelands and then subjecting them to Jim Crow’s even more evil twin. The system was separate but equal without the pretense of pretending to be equal. Stephen Biko became a martyr by dying on the floor of his prison cell, Nelson Mandela languished in his cell for 27 years. Most men would have let resentment eat away at them during that time. Mandela became a hero by resisting that temptation.
After becoming the first black president of South Africa, Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission “to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation.” (8) Instead of focusing strictly on punishment, this commission also formed the means to offer amnesty. They acknowledged that the conflict rising out of apartheid resulted in violence and human rights abuses and recognized that these wrongs came “from all sides.” (9) While democracy in South Africa is still threatened by corruption and one party domination, at least the country has avoided the widespread racial bloodshed that has occurred in Zimbabwe.
After Mandela was released from prison he embarked on a tour of the United States that ended in June of 1998 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. I was lucky to have attended that event, though many of the specifics memories of the evening have disappeared with time. The one thing I remember the best was the black man who was sitting in front of me with his family. At some point in the evening he thanked my friends and I for coming as if we were sitting in his backyard. We had successfully crossed America’s racial divide.
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