Miami Herald, April 30, 2011
For all our legitimate concern about racial tensions in this country, it’s easy to forget that the deepest and most fundamental social fault line in the nation–the one that provoked the nation’s bloodiest war–is between two halves of white America.
Sure, in our increasingly diverse society, we face all sorts of tensions among racial, ethnic and religious groups. Less than half a century ago, we endured bloody fights over racial equality. More recently, racially tinged battles over immigration have captured headlines.
But today, more and more Americans tell pollsters that racial stresses are subsiding and that it’s the battle between two sides of white America–what University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter has labeled traditionalists and progressives–that has taken center stage.
Instead, the tension in American society over the last quarter of a century has increased over cultural issues, such as abortion, the role of religion in public life and gun control. The fever charts on these issues generally track divisions among white Americans. Although nonwhites may take sides in the debates, they’re generally not on the front lines.
These issues have divided us politically and added to concerns that polarization and partisanship are tearing the nation apart. Our mixed-race president notwithstanding, the political standard-bearers for both sides in these fights are generally white. That makes sense, because 96 percent of U.S. senators are white, as are 81 percent of House members.
In his new book, Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence from Cain and Abel to the Present, UCLA historian Russell Jacoby suggests that social scientists’ fixation on how people treat the “other”–the stranger, those we perceive as different and dangerous–is overblown. The truth, he writes, “is more unsettling. It is not so much the unknown that threatens us but the known. We disdain and attack our brothers–our kin, our acquaintances, our neighbors–whom we know well, perhaps too well.”
U.S. crime statistics certainly bear this out. According to a 2010 report from the Department of Justice, most murders are intraracial. From 1976 to 2005, 86 percent of white victims were killed by whites; 94 percent of black victims were killed by blacks. Similarly, despite all the fear of strangers that adults instill in children, 90 percent of child abuse is perpetrated by family or friends of family. Almost three-quarters of rape victims know or have met their assailant.
In the coming months, as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of one after another of the signal events of the Civil War, we would do well to reboot our sense of America’s tragedy. Racism may indeed be this nation’s “original sin,” but sameness, not diversity, is what poses the single biggest threat to social cohesion.