Conversations and Tribalism

Washington -- It is sobering and depressing to come back to the States to witness racial divisiveness in America, manifested by police killings. The national conversations we are admonished to engage in to lessen tensions obviously aren't working well. Indeed, there is concern that these conversations serve, counterproductively, to drive competing "tribes" even further into their "respective corners." Such is the regrettable language with which these issues are now discussed.

Perhaps conversations with our historical selves are in order. Looking back, where did we go wrong and is there any way, through such reflection, to get back on the right track?

Some of us are older; our memories go back to the years before and during the civil rights era of the 1960s. It may surprise those of more recent generations to learn that the goal of most moderates and progressives in that era was an integrated, colorblind society, to be achieved relatively quickly. Conservatives of the era held the view that change must come only slowly, which in some cases was a position sincerely held but often it was an excuse for the status quo, and discredited.

My hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, was partly segregated. Several of the cafés and taverns downtown were white-only. As a college senior at NU in the spring of 1965, I joined with friends both black and white to integrate a handful of establishments. Typically, four of us would sit down for service and be told by other patrons that whites could stay but blacks would have to leave. We did not budge and made it clear that if anyone was leaving, it was not us. Rarely was there further confrontation, but I remember one time my friends thought I was heading them into a fight, until the segregationist enforcers abruptly departed after sensing our determination (and that they would come out on the short end of any physical scuffles).

Overcoming segregation at NU itself was more difficult. Several NU affiliated organizations, fraternities and sororities most notably, had white-only clauses in their membership qualifications. University administrators, some of whom were members of organizations with white-only clauses, actually proposed as late as the early 1960s separate-but-equal organizations for blacks, in the tradition of the Second Morrill Act. In the neighborhood once known as T-Town, immediately northeast of the campus and largely black, the university razed housing and, in lease-purchase arrangements, built white-only sororities in the mid-1960s.

I am not singling out NU for criticism in recounting this. NU was not as bad as many universities when it came to race. Within a few years, its overt social discrimination ended.

My purpose in looking back on this history is to raise a question about how to hold conversations about race with those who do not know about this pivotal time. Such conversations would be helpful to understanding and resolving our current problems, I think. I'm afraid many who did not live through the era are unaware that it was once respectable to envision an integrated, colorblind society, and for a time much of American society acted accordingly. There were real advances in racial harmony. After a few years, a prominent black sociologist, William Julius Wilson, even wrote The Declinining Significance of Race.

But now progressives have placed their bets on identity politics, which emphasizes racial differences and voting blocs; conservatives do not want to acknowledge their troubled history with race or that they now sound like progressives of decades past; universities are heavily invested in racial distinctions, both in their academic departments and admissions offices. Words like integration and colorblind are not only out of fashion, they are ridiculed. Those with an interest in fanning racial resentment flames dominate discussions, despite evidence that wide majorities among all races have other priorities, such as economic advancement.

Who is going to pass along to younger generations that there was once a time of success and achievement, and that perhaps we should be having conversations about how to bring the better sentiments of that time back once again?






A Different 'Good Life'

Berlin -- Being a native and resident of Nebraska, I know all about 'The Good Life.' (It's a good state slogan, by the way. Let's keep it.)

But living in Berlin presents a different Good Life. Some aspects are even preferable, or at least serve as a refreshing alternative.

Der Tagesspiegel is a quality daily newspaper, always free online, with real news. No having to skip over three stories about football coaches to see if the world is at war or at peace.

• Public transportation alleviates the need for cars. Much is within walking distance.

• Mercifully, there are few chain stores. In Berlin-Kreuzberg, mom-and-pop establishments prevail. Grocery stores, taverns, cafés, restaurants, general stores, art galleries, and specialty stores are to be found all over, not to mention the markets that spring up almost every day selling everything imaginable for day-to-day living.

• Safe neighborhoods. Children walk the streets safely. Inventive playgrounds -- the pride of Berlin -- are everywhere. No guns around. Barnyard animals for children in neighborhood parks.

• No obsession over manicured lawns. Lots of natural areas. No chemical smells. Wonderful linden-tree aromas waft through the streets and along the canals in the summer.

• In Berlin-Kreuzberg, peaceful relations and tolerance prevail among the many ethnicities.

• Cultural activities for every taste. Lots of classical music performances, many free in churches. No oppressive, loud music in stores. Lots of singing birds in the parks and gardens.

• Delicious, fresh-baked rolls of a wide variety are waiting every morning to take home for breakfast. (I'm partial to Schrippen, Kürbisbrötchen, Roggenbrötchen, and Weltmeister.)

• Crazy sidewalk gardens. Architectural delights around every corner. Eye-popping juxtapositions. Wild building colors and murals.

• Peopled streetscapes at all hours. Interior courtyards for peace and quiet, and for contemplating the virtues of different ways of life and living.


Soviet Memorial in Berlin

Berlin -- It's been many years since I last visited the Soviet WWII cemetery and memorial in Berlin-Treptow. Today's walk through the site was the first time I've done so since our own WWII memorial was created on the mall in Washington, DC.

The Soviet memorial is noteworthy for its huge statue of a Soviet soldier holding a German child, erected on a mound of earth three stories high. Sixteen imposing sarcophagi -- one for each Soviet republic -- line the approach, each featuring stone relief carvings in socialist realism style. Josef Stalin's words are featured on all sixteen. The memorial was completed in 1949. It is overwhelming in its scale and totalitarian messaging.

When the plan for the WWII memorial in Washington was revealed, more than a few critics condemned it for its imitation of totalitarian grandiosity. I didn't like it -- still don't -- for that reason and because to me it seems like a memorial to Americans' directional confusion and geographic illiteracy. It places the Pacific and Atlantic oceans on the north and south, where Canada and Mexico are, not on the west and east sides of the memorial where they should be. It also makes it seem as if the war was fought by individual states, in an attempt to make some kind of misguided connection to the Civil War. It also has hundreds of five-pointed stars, which looks like an attempt to outdo the number of such stars in the Soviet memorial.

Many Americans say they like our WWII memorial. Surely a lot of us are just being polite and don't want to offend WWII veterans. It's too late now, but could we not have come up with something that better symbolized our great WWII victory without the whiff of a Soviet-style memorial?