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Not long after the 2016 presidential election, I wrote a piece about my concerns of growing intolerance in this country. [1] At its center was a young Chinese American physician who worried that her Latino patients were in potential peril of deportation. 

Her concerns were heightened because of plans to block immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries. She was combing her Facebook friends, excluding (“defriending”) any with racist views from her inner circle. She was restricting her interactions to people who shared her beliefs. That concerned me, as did the apparent national increase in xenophobia and racism. 

Since then, intolerance has worsened. One effect was to force me into a personal examination of my own family’s history of bigotry. At a 55th medical school reunion I gave a TED-style talk entitled “Embracing the Others,” based on growing up with a father was deeply bigoted against anyone who was not Anglo-Saxon. He acted on his biases, calling on new Jewish neighbors on behalf of the neighborhood, telling them they were not welcome, please move. 

Before long the positions were reversed, we were unwelcome and were essentially ostracized. Two years later we moved to a small community in the country where our neighbors were pheasants and foxes. I was only 12 at the time and did not understand, but later spent decades dealing with the implications.  

Tolerance was learned through a variety of life experiences; my personal heroes and mentors were Jews, and one of my most important role models was the only African American professor in Harvard Medical School. My patients came in all colors, and colleagues and students were highly diverse. They all were my teachers. Our late-life experiences living with the Inuit in Arctic Canada and the blacks of Gee’s Bend, Ala., were the end of a long journey, in which I did learn to embrace those who are different.

In the decades since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as a society we thought we were making gradual progress towards equality, although many people of color and others including gays and lesbians who were targets of prejudice were unconvinced. Recently, however, the sort of open bigotry we feared in our dreams has surfaced once again. The situation boiled over when white supremacists, members of the KKK, neo-Nazis, and affiliated people marched in Charlottesville, carrying torches and legal semi-automatic rifles, shouting anti-Semitic slurs, brandishing Confederate flags and white supremacy flags of many kinds. No masks or white robes needed, all out in the open, no apparent fear of repercussion. One death and many injuries occurred when one young Nazi sympathizer drove a car into a crowd of people, some of whom had come to violently oppose the march. 

When the president said the blame was equally shared by both sides, apparently equating racists with others who opposed racism, people from a wide spectrum of political life erupted in outrage, including many in business and the military. The country was thrown into turmoil. 

In response, Maureen Dowd wrote an opinion piece about a time in 1947 — the same year my father told Jewish neighbors they should move — when her father accosted a local KKK leader who was organizing demonstrations against Jews who had bought some of Dowd’s father’s cottages in a rural Maryland community. [2] He stood the KKK leader down, and the demonstrations ended. Dowd opined that our current situation has the virtue of bringing many long-held but covert views out into the open, where we can confront and ultimately deal with them. Her optimism was welcome.

Yes, we were formed as a white nation, and also a slave-holding nation. After the Civil War and reconstruction, there was a long history of white supremacy and bigotry, Jim Crow laws, segregation, personal and economic inequality. In 1947 my father’s views about Jews and Catholics and blacks might well have been held by most of his peers. Clearly the majority agreed that blacks were unwelcome in most aspects of society; witness the difficulties in integrating baseball and all sport. 1947 was the year that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. We have come a long way.

Evidence for how openness to all people helps this country was striking in the university in which I worked for 45 years. Over that period, graduate students in the sciences shifted from primarily U.S.-born to those born elsewhere, primarily from Asia. The world of science is truly global, and gender, age and color are much less important than ability. Similar trends were visible in medicine, with rapid increases in women and then Asians, blacks and other minority populations. Rural communities and many specialties in medicine are greatly aided by immigration of physicians trained outside the United States. Many industries depend on immigrant help, from farming to high tech. 

Our pluralistic society has been our greatest strength, the thing that distinguishes us. The Statue of Liberty stands for something important, a symbol of our acceptance of differences. An undercurrent of racism has not stood in the way of progress. Immigrants gradually merged into the society and became English-speaking Americans. Exclusion of Chinese on racial grounds in the 19th century and WWII internment and seizure of property of Japanese-American citizens did not stop the long-term trend toward inclusiveness. We do need to be concerned with recent outbursts of overt racism, but we have much about which to be proud.

Moreover, it is incorrect to assume there is something inherently wrong with this country. Tribalism, xenophobia and intolerance occur in every country. Witness the violence in Rwanda, the Shiite and Sunni Muslim conflicts, the Serbs and Croats, the Crusades, the Inquisition, wars between Muslims and Hindus in Pakistan and India. Fear of anyone who looks different appears to be in human genes, a part of our evolutionary heritage where ability to recognize one’s own clan once meant the difference between life and death. 

That is not to say we can’t change. My father changed, accepting as members of the family two Jewish people, a son-in-law and daughter-in-law. By getting to know people, we can discard bias. We do it relatively easily on a personal basis, but it seems to be much more difficult when the others are impersonal members of a faceless group, whom it is easier to hate. We need to work on seeing each other as components of a multicolored quilt, beautiful in its differences, wonderful in its harmonies. It is possible to do better. It simply takes time. 

Living in a retirement community provides time for me and my neighbors to reflect, debate, read, to think. We learn from each other. A prime example is a contemporary religious thought group. There, in a circle facing each other, 25 people including Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhist and skeptics respectfully discuss the great ideas that have shaped our world. Methodist minister, classical scholar, and scholars of the Hebrew Bible all contribute, and listen respectfully to each other. It is exhilarating. Living among people from a multiplicity of backgrounds helps us to change our views. Libertarians and progressive social democrats can learn to accept each other, and acceptance can grow to understanding and even affection. 

Despite the difficulties and anxieties that surround us, we have to persevere. There is no other reasonable choice. The Christian theologian Paul Tillich called this “the courage to be.” Every one of us can make a real difference by our thoughts and deeds. We can contribute to worthwhile causes. We have the power of the ballot box. By listening to and respecting each other, by empathizing with others who are different, we can help make the world a better place. That possibility makes me hopeful.

Notes

[1] Fred Sparling, “Frightened: The Rise of Fear in the Trump Era," Senior Correspondent, February  14, 2017.
[2] Maureen Dowd, “Trump, Neo-Nazis and the Klan”, New York Times, Aug. 20, 2017.

Fred Sparling

Fred Sparling is professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

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