Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?
Sharif El-Gamal was slammed when his proposal to build a mosque near the grounds of the 9/11 attack were publicized. Passionate protests were held in the streets of New York with advocates from both sides declaring why they did or did not support the construction of what was to be a 15 story, $100-million-dollar mosque. A firefighter who responded during the 9/11 attacks filed a lawsuit against Sharif and his backers, stating that the building of a mosque near Ground Zero would impede his ability to commemorate. Ultimately Sharif won the lawsuit, however the mosque he envisioned was never built.
At face value, the responses were extreme in their attacks against the establishment of a religious institution. But in order to understand the passionate reactions of people on the street, you need to know the historical and emotional context of 9/11. In our current, tension-filled and racialized society this truth also applies. When I read through Facebook quotes regarding police brutality, the most common sentiment I hear questions the validity of seeing these cases as systemic problems, accusing that approach of simply being an excuse to deny or gloss over the individual facts of a case. This begins a cyclical debate of accusations, where both sides ridicule each other’s awareness, sensitivity, and knowledge of “what is really going on”.
The problem is, both sides can be woefully unaware of why their debates exist in the first place. To be clear, the current non-majority people groups (i.e African American, Latino, Native American, Asian American) are not unaware of our nation’s white supremacy on an experiential basis, but all groups can be lacking the historical information that put us here in the first place. The issues of police misconduct and the sincere disconnect between both sides knowing and understanding one another’s experiences are not happenstance – they were intentionally created and developed through social and legal strategies for the exact results we have today.
It is easy to demonize another person or judge them from a safe distance. Are all white people really born pathological “racists” and ignorant of all other people but themselves? Are African-Americans really born pathologically violent and self-destructive? To be honest, if I didn’t know many white people, I would be tempted to think the previous judgment is true, based on what I’ve seen and heard. But I know too many African-Americans to believe the latter judgment, even if I know some people who practice those qualities.
Noticing the Past
It’s important to understand that in our nation’s history it was illegal in many states for whites and other groups of people to live by each other. Neighborhood contracts banned white residents from selling their homes to African-Americans, and cities created school and housing borders that told whites and other groups of people where they could and could not live. You can guess which areas had significantly better living conditions.
And before we assume that these practices were restricted to southern states, we only have to look into the past of a northern state like Minnesota to learn that legal methods were not the only ones used to prevent people from living together.
Arthur Lee was a postal worker and World War 1 veteran who bought a home and moved in to the Linden Hills neighborhood in 1931. Protest over his family’s presence escalated until a mob of 4,000 white Minnesotans stood outside the home pelting it with rocks and threatening the police officers and friends who stood outside to defend the Lees in their home. Ultimately the Lees fought back and stayed for several more years, but not without experiencing several months of severe trauma.
Why are We Here?
These basic laws and social practices that strategically blocked us from living together in the past, are the roots of disconnect and division that now block our ability to see or hear one another today. This is the definition of a systemic problem, a basic problem that has affected the whole of our perspectives and dialogues.
At this point, living next door to someone who does not look like us will not be enough to erase the decades (or centuries if we consider the full history) of misinformation, limited impressions, and stigmas that have been learned consciously and unconsciously. Our next step is to use just as much intentionality as the laws and social norms that shaped our divisions in the past, to learn the history or the “why” behind our current problems.
I believe many of us want the current deep divisions in our society to change, for everyone to sincerely and with complete equality “just get along”. But engaging the issues without knowing the history behind them causes us to talk in circles. If we believe the real issue is a problem that occurred recently or even in our lifetime then we are attacking a weed from the top down, grasping at what we see while leaving the root of the issue in the ground. This approach simply delays inevitable re-growth of the problem. Progress happens when we learn and act to change the root of the problem.