Today I happened to come across a line I had completely forgotten from Bill Clinton’s first inaugural address. It’s about the most hopeful quote I’ve ever seen from a politician, it’s well put, and it has the added benefit of being true, I believe:
“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”
By coincidence, I found these uplifting words while reading about the depressing racial confrontation going on in Jena, Louisiana. After some more exploration of the facts, which are murky in places, I may blog about the incident.
Meanwhile, I keep thinking about another quote, this one much sadder, from an African-American lawyer in Dallas discussing the Jena controversy:
“I don’t know if I’ll be going, but I know my 10-year old daughter is paying attention to this. And I want her to watch this. You have to watch and learn before you know how to get involved and change things.”
Assume for the sake of discussion that whites did all the bad things they’re accused of doing in Jena. Assume that a malevolent racist mentality like that of a 1955 KKK Grand Dragon infects all Caucasians within the Jena city limits. Will this black attorney, who has enjoyed the privileges of education and the rewards of a pretty lucrative profession, tell his daugher that Jena is representative of America today, or will he tell her that it’s a sad and twisted aberration, the fading ghost of a past that generations of Americans black and white, together, have conquered and buried?
Representative–or aberration? It’s a crucial distinction. If our society is measured against a standard of absolute racial and ethnic harmony, we’ll always fail, as will every other society that ever existed. If anyone is waiting for a time when every residue of racial animosity has vanished from every American, that time will never come.
As Isaiah Berlin put it, “from the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” All the “isms” will always be with us–racism, sexism, classism, etc. All we can hope is that the number of people affected by those mental and spiritual blights grows ever smaller, and that our laws and public accomodations are as free as possible of their taint.
Meanwhile, whatever that African-American father tells his little girl about her white neighbors and her future in this country, I hope he will add Bill Clinton’s wise words: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”