Thursday, June 18, 2015

Meanings of America

Last weekend, I got to see Ellis Island and Liberty Island.  I had been to the latter before but not to the former.  What struck me most of all?  How incredibly diverse the people visiting these places were.  I am not a huge fan of ELF--ethnolinguistic fractionalization score as a variable in quantitative work on ethnic conflict and civil war--but I cannot imagine any place getting a higher value than those two places. ELF--essentially measures the odds of whether you bump into someone in your ethnic group--was close to one, indicating that nearly everyone there seemed to be from a distinct ethnic group/nationality. 

And I felt real good about that--that these two locations represent a key part of what it means to be an American--that being American is not about where one comes from or the color of one's skin or the language they speak but something else.  What that else is may change over time.  It is freighted with the tragic mistakes and problems of the past (slavery, what was done to the native Americans) and of the present.

Others see America as a place for white people, maybe white Christians (narrowly defined).  That seems to be the story of today (again) as a white guy shot up a Black church.  This crime is not one thing--it is not a hate crime or terrorism or spree shooting--it is all of these things.  And apparently the guy said that he viewed Blacks as taking over and they "need to go."  This hate is deeply ingrained in American history, but it is not the America that I saw at Ellis Island and at Liberty Island. 

So, we have dueling conceptions of America, and this conflict is not going to go away.  We will see stuff like this happen again and again as it has happened many times before.  I'd like to focus on the positive side, but that is easy for me since I never had to worry much about the personal consequences of Driving While Black, Walking While Black, Hanging Out in My House While Black....

All I know is that what happened is awful and that we will probably not learn that much from it because it is really not anything new.  What a depressing thought after an uplifting weekend a week ago.

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