Unless you're Stephen Colbert, it's hard not recognize America's diversity. As the country becomes more diverse, history tells us that ethnicity will play a larger role in society.
While driving through southern Alabama last month, my father reminded me of a story he told me a long time ago. Somewhere in between trying to graduate high school and staying awake during my undergrad classes, I forgot about this memorable day from his youth. Between my grandparents' house located near the border of Alabama and Florida and my father's Alma Mater Tuskegee University, sits an abandoned gas station far from any sign of civilization. One weekend, my dad and a couple friends were driving home during a break in classes and stopped by that very gas station to fill up and buy some snacks. My dad's friend smiled at the old the gentleman sitting in a rocking chair in front of the store and pointed with his thumb to the car behind him while saying, "Fill her up." My dad immediately noticed something was about to go very wrong as the old man quickly replied, "What you say to me boy?" and began reaching for something in his trousers. My dad advised his friend to forget about the snacks and get back in the car. As they sped off, they heard several gunshots and looked behind them to find the old station owner standing in the middle of the street with his revolver. Forty (40) years later that old man is most likely not around anymore, but the feelings that made him reach for his gun still persist. Much of America is still divided socially and geographically along racial and ethnic lines. Instead of denying the effects of race and culture in our society, we should embrace the unique attributes our diversity gives us and continue to foster mutual understanding and acceptance.
Since the first arrival of British colonists, America has been populated by a diverse array of people. Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans mixed together in the early days of the colony and enjoyed generally peaceful relations. The introduction of chattel slavery and further encroachment of settlers into native lands facilitated the establishment of strict racial divisions that continue into modern times. Over the last 400 years, people from every continent have immigrated to America. The intermingling of people and cultures created economic and social tensions as new immigrants were confronted by more established groups over scarce employment and housing. Certain classes in society benefited economically from these divisions and encouraged conflict. Dehumanizing African slaves made it easier to subject them to forced labor. Manifest Destiny justified forcibly removing native inhabitants from their land. Propaganda spread about German and Irish immigrants led to conflict with more established residents who competed for jobs with these new arrivals. Nowadays, illegal immigrants from Mexico are labeled as threats to low income workers despite also paying taxes for benefits they will never receive. Despite the many divisions in society, shared culture and history have helped to reinforce our shared humanity despite our country’s diversity.
Although America is increasingly becoming more diverse, there are still many areas that remain divided along racial lines. There are many racially concentrated areas formed by way of historical housing discrimination practices and economic conditions that caused minorities to concentrate in large urban areas. The fact that someone from Utah or the South Side of Chicago can go the first 18 years of their lives without much meaningful contact with someone outside of their race unsurprisingly contributes to much of the lack of cultural understanding in such a diverse nation. Economic divisions probably play an even larger role in society, as individuals from different economic backgrounds tend not to interact. The importance of being able to communicate with people from other cultures should be stressed to every American child going forward, as India and China will soon pass the U.S. as the world's largest economies. This isn't because of their inherent economic superiority, rather is attributed to the sheer size of these nations as future per capita output will push these countries' GDP higher despite projected per capita incomes being a fraction of future American worker output. Going forward, real financial benefit will accrue to those able to create meaningful relationships with individuals from diverging cultures.
America has historically been considered a white nation. It was convenient for many to neglect the fact that Native American kindness and acceptance prevented British Colonists from starving and protected them from the attack of more hostile natives, or ignore the fortunes accumulated on the backs of free African labor that literally hand built parts of the country synonymous with America. If one were to examine the nation's history over the last half millennium, the origins of many of the country's socio-economic and political divisions would become apparent. As our country becomes more diverse we should appreciate the fact that America is a truly remarkable place. Where else can people from cultures who fought bitterly for centuries live peacefully and eventually intermarry and have children. Or where film directors have the artist freedom to make movies teaching some country kids how to hightail their moms’ old sedan away a grumpy pistol-toting shopkeeper. Only in America.