Divisions in America

A long time ago, long before I thought about becoming a diplomat for America, and longer back than I care to remember, I trained at the University of Oklahoma as an Anthropologist. I am sure I was a mediocre student, and my professors were probably convinced that I was never going to amount to much in the world of Anthropology. I think they were mostly right. I soon dithered off into other matters, unsure what I wanted to do for the rest of my life until I had the good fortune to stumble upon a career in diplomacy. But, during my time in Oklahoma, I took a graduate class with world famous Anthropologist Jane Lancaster. I really enjoyed her class and remember being fascinated by the complex physical makeup of homo sapiens (us). 

One of my biggest takeaways from that class was the teaching, and for me the realization, that “race” is not a scientific term at all but much more of a political one. At least not for Anthropologists. And they are right. It is important to study the differences of the one single species of homo sapiens on the planet. An example of one of the benefits of that study includes a better understanding of the pathology of some diseases in certain populations. All of that can help doctors find cures. I also learned about “phenotypical characteristics,” and how in any given population, proximity to other populations is one key factor in determining genetic similarities and differences. I remember a great study on the diversity of skunks that explained some of that. If you apply our understanding of phenotypical characteristics to humans, simple, bigoted, and prejudiced concepts that divide us rapidly collapse. The scientific data does not support the ideas that the average person has on race. People are delightful blends of all kinds of characteristics, skin color being just one.  Modern society has accelerated the blend. 

Science demonstrates that the concept of race is not only wrong, but downright silly.  Americans like to call President Obama, “African American” or “Black” but I believe he is of half European ancestry too.  Why can’t we also call him white? Brown? If we apply a little common sense, we all realize how ridiculous this is.  Why do need to create these markers?  I think that is the key question we have to understand.  

My family comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors too.  A family reunion photograph for us covers all kinds of great flavors: white, black, South Asian, Japanese American, Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic. My mother was raised Catholic by her Canadian Irish mother and her not very religious father who gave her his Jewish last name. My brother Mark’s kids are all labeled “half-Japanese,” but one hundred percent American. Likewise, my sister Martha’s kids all sport the cool last name of “Villatoro,” and all seem to be geniuses. Just don’t ask them to speak Spanish. I am fluent, they are not. My brother Raj Folmsbee, born in south India, raised in Mexico, teaches high school Spanish and coaches soccer in Oklahoma. All of us, our extended families, our communities, our towns, are all part of a wonderful stew.    

It’s obvious we must find ways to celebrate our differences, enjoy them, and stop using them to divide us. Many communities still feel the need to define and categorize their neighbors as black, white, brown, or maybe Asian, Hispanic or the like. In our country, these sorts of labels are used to divide people, not unite them. Many identify these markers as indicators of past grievances so they can take action. I throw rocks at you because you are black, or because you are white. 

Returning to America from abroad after many years, I was startled by just how much is dividing us. Recently it was our national anthem that was discovered to have questionable lyrics in the third stanza. Fair enough – perhaps we need to look at that. It’s a legitimate concern for some. We can take action to correct that. But I am sure we only need one national anthem. We don’t need an anthem for “whites”. We don’t need a nation anthem for “blacks”.  We might need to create a new song or modify the old one, but it needs to be an anthem for blacks, whites, browns and whatever shade or flavor you want to claim. A song for homo sapiens of all flavors. 

We have become too deeply divided, as divided as we have ever been since the civil war.  Neighbors are choosing to separate into their own worlds, reflected even in their choice of music, sports and food. It’s reflected in the news we choose to watch or read. Fox News Tucker Carlson is the most popular news program in the United States. Yet he is not speaking to more than half the country and deliberately pushes buttons for “his people,” even if he has the facts wrong. CNN is arguably more balanced but there are plenty of far-left CNN newscasters who chase after and spin the news to their favorite audience too. Our divisions go beyond the news. Religion is a factor and plays a major role in our politics. While religion has often been a divider, it has never been so overtly manipulated. Consider the far-right Christians who staunchly supported President Trump, probably the most immoral man who has ever sat in the oval office. Who could have predicted that? I could go on and on about other divisions in sports, music, and geography and I would imagine my readers could too.  

This won’t work America. We must change this equation. We need to get on the same page, or we will slowly pull our beloved country apart. We must acknowledge the past and whatever injustices occurred. The record must be real. In most cases, there is no going back to fully correct the wrongs of the past that are going to make it right. What we can do, is focus on the future and make sure that our society outgrows this behavior and gets focused on what unites all of us, not divides us. The civil rights movement is strong, and we need to keep at it. We need to pursue equality for all and sometimes that will require police action and the courts. However, we can’t take our eye off the ball. We need to drive society to equality and not toward disunity. 

There are many with justifiable beefs. I know that some are frustrated with what they see as the slow pace of civil rights. They are not wrong. However, establishing new and enduring wounds won’t bring peace either. We are doing plenty of things wrong, but we are doing plenty of things right in our country too. I have traveled the world and for all the injustices in the United States, we are doing better than most countries I have lived in or visited. Far better. One could argue that the most successful people in the world of Irish descent, African descent (insert your favorite label) are often found in America. We can’t stop there but we must stop tearing ourselves down too. 

Returning to my original premise, there is only one species of humans on this planet. Homo Sapiens. Let’s get to work on education, the economy and reaching for the stars. Let’s stop looking for ways to be separate, divided and offended. Let’s celebrate our wonderful differences and travel to those stars together. I for one want to see Elon Musk make it to Mars. It’s going to take all of us: black, white, brown…all of us in all our many flavors.