It’s July 4, Independence Day, and I am still thinking about Charleston. It isn’t as if Charleston hasn’t happened before; it has. I guess I am wondering why it still happens.
Part of what keeps Charleston in my mind is that I recently watched the Kevin Costner movie, “Black or White.” The movie was well acted, but could have been better written. The movie’s topic is important, but it fails to resonate because the neither the black nor the white families that are the focus are representative.
But the courtroom scene does contain something very important. Costner’s character is asked about his racial prejudice, and he replies that yes, when he sees a black person the very first thing he sees is that they are black, just as the very first thing a black person sees when looking at a white person is that the person is white. What matters, Costner’s character says, is not that first thought but the second and third thoughts and how fleeting the first thought is. I think Costner’s character has it right.
No matter what we look at, our first thought is to characterize/classify it; when it comes to people, as opposed to objects,what matters is the fleetingness of that characterization/classification and what our second and third thoughts are.
Perhaps I am an oddity in today’s America. I do not understand why so many of us get stuck on that first thought, that characterization/classification. I live in what is perhaps the best neighborhood in all of America. The street is U-shaped, which means no through traffic, which also means that the neighborhood is readily identifiable, and residents have a sense of community.
In my neighborhood live all sorts of people. We have single, cohabiting, and married; blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Indians; young, old, and elderly; blue collar and white collar; furniture movers, physicians, lawyers, college professors, school teachers, stay-at-home mothers, real estate agents, plumbers, stone masons, laborers, government employees, truck drivers, and more. We also have military, nurses, police, and LGTB. We have Sikhs, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, atheists, and probably some other religions in the mix. The list goes on.
The point is that I live in what I consider to be the ideal neighborhood — a mix of all that makes America great. We speak to each other; we visit each others’ homes and share meals; when we walk our dogs, the pack gets larger as additional neighbors join the walk and the camaraderie. My wife, who walks the neighborhood more than I, knows all but the newest members, and it is difficult to walk the 1-mile circuit in less than 90 minutes because people always want to stop and chat. We even exchange house keys so that access is readily achieved in case of emergency.
I look at my neighborhood and think this is the type of neighborhood that every child should grow up in because it is the kind of neighborhood that teaches we are all the same.
Perhaps that is what is missing in America’s Charlestons — that opportunity to learn that we are all the same. To learn that the first thought should be a fleeting thought; to learn that it is the second and third thoughts that really matter. I guess that is what bothers me — the need to constantly fight the Civil War and the war against racism and the war against segregation and the war against poverty. We seem to not be gaining ground; we seem to be refighting the same battles that we were fighting decades and generations ago.
Why do we need, in the 21st century, to refight the battles of the 20th century? It is because we have yet to digest the idea that the first thought should be fleeting.
I mourn for the victims of Charleston and I mourn for the America that cannot move forward when it comes to civil rights. On my block, in my neighborhood, in my world, we are one, we are Americans.
Richard Adin, An American Editor