Race, Still Our Most Divisive Force

Americans have known substantial divisions over class, gender and religion, but the greatest divider of all has been race. There are widely held assumptions on both sides that keep us from more fully understanding and appreciating "the other."

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now all this week on MORNING EDITION, we've been exploring divisions in American life and ways to bridge then. It's a series we call Crossing the Divide. And of all the divides the U.S. has faced, many say none has been as deep as the racial divide.

NPR's Juan Williams chronicled the history of that divide and the civil rights movement in his book "Eyes on the Prize." So we asked him to contribute an essay to our weeklong series Crossing the Divide.

JUAN WILLIAMS: On the opposite side of every divide in American life there stands the other. Depending on who you are, the other might be a right-wing evangelical, or a left-wing Jew; or the other might be a group of Muslims praying in an airport, two gays kissing on the subway, or a GenNext twenty-something with spiked purple hair and a silver nose ring. Poet Emily Dickinson wrote about the American other in the 1800s without specifying who the other might be.

Unidentified Woman: (Reading) I'm nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too? Then there's a pair of us. Don't tell. They'd banish us, you know.

WILLIAMS: Historically, the greatest divide in American life is race. That divide is defined by barriers and distance so great that they've become accepted as the norm. It is evident when a quarter of white Americans tell pollsters that blacks are less intelligent. There are widely held assumptions among whites about blacks being less hardworking, less patriotic too. And among blacks there are widely held assumptions about racist attitudes among whites.

Here is President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 trying to get a nearly all-white Congress to reach across the black-white racial divide in support of voting rights legislation to assure blacks a place in the nation's political life.

President LYNDON JOHNSON: Their cause must be our cause too, because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

(Soundbite of applause)

WILLIAMS: Forty years later, President Bush spoke about the power of the racial divide to resurface. No matter how far the nation has come or wants to believe it has come in closing the divide. After Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, poor people, overwhelmingly black, were seen on TV struggling through the floodwaters for safety. Poor whites and the elderly have been equally hard-hit by Katrina.

But the cameras captured the population of the black inner city at a moment of terrible vulnerability, bringing the racial divide into sharp focus. When President Bush went to New Orleans and gave a speech, he was a white male Republican admitting to seeing the racial divide. And that's what gave the power to his words.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: As all of us saw on television, there's also some deep persistent poverty in this region as well. That poverty has roots in the history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality.

WILLIAMS: The master of effective communication across the great divide of race may have been Martin Luther King Jr. In his "Letter from a Birmingham jail," King appealed to whites caught in the customs and culture of racial segregation. Here is actor Avery Brooks, reading from King's letter.

Mr. AVERY BROOKS (Actor): (Reading) I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country.

WILLIAMS: King's ability to reach across the great divide of race was evident in his most famous speech delivered in 1963 at the march on Washington. He said that a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, America was still limiting most black people to a life of poverty. When King was killed in April 1968, by a white assassin, Senator Robert Kennedy reached across the racial divide to ask blacks not to riot out of hatred of whites.

Senator ROBERT F. KENNEDY (Democrat, New York): For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust of the injustice of such an act against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. What we need in the United States is not division, but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another.

WILLIAMS: President Reagan tried to reach across the great divide of race in 1986 in advance of the first celebration of King's birthday as a national holiday. The president, whose politics often put him at odds with civil rights leaders, said King had a voice that reached over the chasm of hostility to touch the conscience of America. In 1983, Reagan signed legislation creating the King holiday. Here he is speaking as he prepare to sign the law.

President RONALD REAGAN: traces of bigotry still mar America. So each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King but rededicate ourselves to the commandments he believed in and sought to live everyday.

WILLIAMS: In America, the challenge of reaching across the divide is now growing. You can see in the demographer's table that show a third of a population made up of Hispanics, blacks, and Asians, and the number of Muslims and Jews now about equal. Part of the challenge is that younger Americans are far more racially diverse than the older population. Bill Trainer(ph), publisher of a newspaper about young people, says the younger generation does have distinct attitudes about race as a function of growing up in a more diverse society than their elders.

Mr. BILL TRAINER (Newspaper Publisher): I mean I'm of the generation that grew up in a country that at least thought of itself as being white and black, full stop. And I don't think anybody who lives in, virtually anywhere in the United States, would see the country that way anymore. The vast majority of young people are very comfortable in a multi-cultural society.

WILLIAMS: Of course, the young may relate to the struggle for rights as a matter of history. For their elders however, well, the elders still harbor feelings of anger and revenge, and crossing the divide for them is itself still a struggle.

Holocaust survivor and author, Ely Weisel, believes forgiveness is the bridge to understanding the other. A realization he had when he spoke in front of a German parliament in 2000.

Mr. ELY WEISEL (Holocaust survivor and author): President, I said, you have done many, many things for my people - the Jewish people - after the war. You've helped survivors. You've helped Israel. One thing you have not done -you have never asked the Jewish people for forgiveness.

WILLIAMS: To Weisel's surprise, the following week, the German president spoke before the Knesset, and right then asked the Israeli prime minister for forgiveness. Weisel believed in the end, to cross the divide, one must see the other in a different light.

Mr. WEISEL: I try to create links, to light sparks, and to show the other, that the other is not my enemy, but my ally, my companion, if possible - my friend. Juan Williams, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: And our series Crossing the Divide continues this afternoon, when Rush Limbaugh comes from wherever he may be on your radio dial, over to NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED - which is where he will answer questions about the role of talk radio in the country's political divide.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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