Flawed as it was, and remains, the grand plan for America held up the idea that this would be a culture, a nation, of opportunity, and not of the constraints of class.
People of my generation were born into the class and religions of their parents, raised among people who knew their roots. But they could reach beyond humble beginnings and seek a better life. We believed in being educated to know something about taking charge of their own futures, and we were set to work to earn their own way.
We didn’t call them tribes, then. We just called them communities: small towns, villages, city neighborhoods.
Some had some money but no land, some had land but little spending money. Few were rich and even fewer felt poor. Most of us felt lucky.
At some point, it became apparent to some that luck came easier to some than to others. It was easier to be lucky if there was wealth in the family. It was good luck to be male, and Caucasian. It was lucky to be spared from having to leave school and education behind to work to help feed parents and the extended family that had no backup from government programs or union protections.
Because luck might swivel on an illness or a twist of circumstance, groups began to gather around a member in trouble. Like-minded people supported each other, formed clubs and societies, and used politics or simple mob justice to keep ahead in growing competitions between groups clawing for a piece of the tattered ideals of the American guarantee of opportunity for everyone.
Corporations absorbed human beings who might have been craftsmen into collectivized labor. Even people became part of the machinery of commerce. Political leaders presented people with ideas of how to get an edge in the game of survival. Unions took the rest of individuality away to present a united front of Us vs. Them.
But the most insidious Us vs. Them is found in the deepest pit of human nature: Racism. White and black Americans don’t share the same language, history or definition of reality. We disagree on the very meaning of justice.
Those who benefit from racism deny it. Those who suffer from it have been down so long and so hard that they have been unable to gather the resources even within their own circles to work a strategy to assert their humanity and the gifts of diversities.
I say “diversities,” plural, because there is no monolithic victim of racism. Just as some whites victimize other whites to retain supremacy over people who are not like them, so do African Americans. So do other ethnic/national identities where class and history and religion get in the way of harmony and social progress.
Efforts to force radical change have exacerbated the problem. For black Americans, affirmative action is too little, too late. For whites, it’s too much, too fast.
Even the definition of diversity is charged with emotion. The debates over how and when and where to enforce, accept and apply rules for diversity could go on for a long time — or erupt into a riot in a flash.
Regardless of how much it is resisted, diversity already is the result of a convergence of goals. There is more today than there was yesterday, and there will be more tomorrow just because of the nature of change. There are more shades of brown in a crowd today than when I was a child. Our grandkids don’t even notice it.
The solution to our problems between the haves and have-nots may not be fixed by impositions of legislation or revolution. But it will inevitably come with gradual, incremental and relentless insistence by individuals who inspire groups to support the idea that race, color, religion and even cultures must come together and make all that secondary to the ideal of justice and fairness.
What we set out to do in the first place.
It starts with holding the door open for someone at the store or letting a car merge into the lane in front of you.