If the Ferguson tragedy offers a vivid reminder of our bitter divisions, it also offers moments of revelation
It’s a painful truism to say that white Americans and black Americans do not live in the same country, or at least do not perceive their country in the same way. What’s even more painful is that this truism remains largely true, even in an age when the cultural and historical narrative of the United States has altered course and become much more complicated. We were reminded of that with renewed force this week, just in time to infuse the Thanksgiving holiday with a mood of gloomy, tense reflection. (If you take the longer historical view, that may be entirely appropriate to the season.) We have multiple overlapping stories in 21st century America, and at least some of them offer us reasons to be thankful. We have the story of the conflict between immigration and nativism — which goes back nearly 200 years, but gets renewed every few years with every group of newcomers – and the newer story of a multicultural, multiracial and multilingual society in which one person in four is neither “white” nor “black,” in the conventional usage of those words.
Latinos and Asian-Americans and the growing number of people of mixed race would seem to have no clear position in the old, traumatic story of America as a binary society of black and white. Sometimes we try to convince ourselves we have shaken free of that old dichotomy and have moved into a different era, or are about to do so. (It is mostly white people who try to convince ourselves of this, in fairness.) Yet it remains a central driving force of our nation’s internal anguish, even 150 years after the end of slavery and 50 years after the end of legal segregation, and even when most of us are bored by the fact that the current president sinking into the conventional mire of second-term unpopularity is a biracial man with an African name. The historical change that represents is real, but it has not been enough to unwind the fundamental contradiction between the way whites and blacks understand the nature of American society.