Can we all just get along? Let's try

May 03, 2002|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Ten years have passed since police punching bag Rodney King poignantly asked during the Los Angeles riots, "Can't we all just get along?" Today the answer remains elusive. We're still getting to know each other.

On the surface, we've made substantial progress. We've seen African-Americans rise to new heights in government, Hollywood and corporate America. Similar strides have been made by some Latinos, Asians and American Indians.

Unfortunately, we also have seen last year's riots in Cincinnati and earlier racial clashes over the O.J. Simpson murder trial verdict and the Florida presidential vote. Each eruption spurs a now-familiar round of TV sound bites with blacks who believe the system is still stacked against them, whites who believe blacks are being too paranoid and others who hold a variety of views in between.

As President Bill Clinton's race commission observed, America's racial relations increasingly are local and personal, something to be hashed out not in Washington but between folks at the local level.

There, as much as anywhere, a lack of familiarity with the other person's point of view still breeds contempt. White workers may unintentionally offend a black co-worker by declaring cheerfully, "When I see you, I see a person, not your color." They may find out the hard way that blacks may not want others to be "blind" to the impact that color has had on their lives.

Or a white person may be offended to hear a black co-worker say, "I still don't trust white people," and not be appeased when the black co-worker insists, "Oh, please don't take it personally."

That's the treacherous message behind Gallup Poll data that show more Americans than ever, but particularly white Americans, are drifting to the self-described "color blind" view. They think that ignoring race and color will have an equalizing effect. Blacks, the poll finds, are more likely to believe that color plays too big a role in their lives to be ignored.

The polling was part of an effort by Mark A. Williams, an organizational psychologist and diversity consultant, whose new book, The 10 Lenses: Your Guide to Living and Working in a Multicultural World (Capital Books), groups our many racial and ethnic perspectives into a short list of "lenses" or ways of viewing the world.

At one end, he puts the "assimilationists," the "meritocratists" and the "elitists." Each believes that the system is essentially fair and all individuals should accommodate themselves to it.

By contrast, the "seclusionists" believe their cultural communities should avoid mixing too much with others, while the "integrationists" want to minimize differences and merge various groups together.

The "culturalcentrists" focus on their own racial or ethnic culture as central to their sense of identity, while the "multiculturalists" see themselves and America as enriched by the many customs, languages and ideas that people bring from other cultures.

The "victim/caretaker" still seeks liberation for nonwhites from racism and other historically based bias and some sort of compensation for it, while the "colorblind" and the "transcendent" believe that our shared humanity should transcend other divisions.

Through which lens - or lenses - do you peer? Unfortunately, our shared humanity makes a lofty ideal but our reality has yet to transcend the baggage of history and personal experiences.

None of us likes to have his or her point of view dismissed or disrespected by those who hold other views.

As much as "tolerance" is a chic word these days, I don't think we can rest comfortably until we learn not only to tolerate, but also to respect one another's views and the experiences that shaped them. Then we can all get along.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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