Africare Editorial

 

Coping With Diversity

By C. Payne Lucas and Kevin G. Lowther

 

C. Payne Lucas was president of Africare from May 1971 to June 15, 2002, and Kevin G. Lowther is Africare's former Southern Africa regional director. This article was first published on Aug. 2, 1993.

 

Authors' note: The thesis of this article is even more germane seven years later. Two developments to note since this was written: The United Nations and the international community have yet to grapple effectively with the challenge of ethnic conflict, and American society has continued to absorb all of the colors in the human rainbow. (February 2000)

 

Back in the late 1970s, we flirted with trying to start a syndicated newspaper column. We were going to call it "In Black and White" -- Lucas is African American, Lowther of European ancestry -- and focus on issues of race and culture in American society. The idea died on the drawing board, in part because we naively concluded that Americans were finally learning to live with each other. There seemed less urgency -- or media market -- for commentary that would guide us through the thickets of ethnic, religious and cultural diversity.

It seems we were premature to abandon our collaboration. Race, ethnicity, religion and culture have become increasingly complex and divisive factors in American life. And in the world at large, from Yugoslavia to Sri Lanka to South Africa, we have seen one nation after another ravaged by these same powerful forces.

If we were to launch "In Black and White" today, we would have to broaden its scope far beyond the American racial divide. We would have to give it a new name -- "Making a World of Difference" might do -- and a new objective: to help Americans and their leaders better understand and deal with diversity at home and abroad.

In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Professor Samuel P. Huntington, of Harvard University's Institute for Strategic Studies, writes of an incipient "clash of civilizations" in which the West will have to reconcile itself to non-Western peoples "whose power approaches that of the West but whose values and interests differ significantly. ... It will ... require the West to develop a more profound understanding of the basic religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations."

Considering that we ourselves are not yet reconciled to one another, this task is daunting at best. However, with U.S. soldiers already serving in two ethnic danger zones -- Somalia and Macedonia -- we ought to give closer attention to people and cultures who used to be tucked safely away on the pages of National Geographic.

There may be a handful of Americans who understand Somali society and culture. There may be slightly more who could identify Macedonia on a blank outline map of Europe. Most of us, however, are grossly ignorant of the civilizations in Professor Huntington's world (which, incidentally, virtually excludes Africa, to judge by his sole and passing reference to its "possibly" being considered a civilization).

Here, then, is our maiden -- and perhaps only -- edition of "Making a World of Difference." Our central thesis is that every leader, from President Clinton, to Nelson Mandela, to Boutros-Ghali, to the PTA chair in your ethnically changing neighborhood will succeed or fail to the degree that he or she can manage diversity.

We live in a world in which centuries-old enmities can come back to life in Bosnia as if cryogenically preserved for generations; we live in a world in which immigrants and the displaced now account for one in every 50 human beings; we live in a world in which ethnicity, race, religion and culture are the dominant sources of conflict, not ideology, economics or even the naked desire for power.

These forces are at work close to home. In Arlington, Va., police needed four hours to quell a recent brawl among about 60 Latino and black men; in the New York area, authorities have arrested several Muslim fundamentalists seemingly committed to blowing up Manhattan, building by building; and in Los Angeles, the FBI is alleging that several white men were planning to attack a black church congregation to ignite a race war.

We and the world are in collective denial that these divisions are a fundamental challenge to human order and concord. We delude ourselves into believing that they are merely localized irruptions on the body politic, that they can be contained or swept under the carpet.

This leads to talk of extraditing a militant Muslim sheik to Egypt, coaxing Mexico to take 600 Chinese boat people detained by the U.S. Coast Guard or trying to gerrymander the Bosnian map to keep the ethnic peace.

It also has led to a dangerously wishful faith in the alchemy of democratization. Free elections may sometimes aggravate rather than sublimate differences between groups who have managed, under more autocratic government, to live together in relative harmony. For the West to promote democracy without addressing this unpleasant reality is like giving someone a rowboat, but no oars, and urging them to venture into turbulent waters.

Most Americans probably share the conceit that democracy is inherently good. This is what we are taught from an early age. But how many have learned this truth in a practical way? How many of us, in our lives and thoughts, have tried to articulate our national identity in terms of our increasingly multicultural, multiethnic and multiracial character?

There was a time, in the early decades of American independence, when whites and blacks alike were preoccupied with deciding whether this new-world democracy was to be purely European, or whether the mounting free black population meant that we would be, in the term much-used then, "amalgamated."

There were many whites and some blacks who thought we would be well rid of each other. But black leaders of the day were readier to acknowledge that this was a practical impossibility. More to the point, they were more concerned with asserting blacks' claim to be as truly American as anyone else.

The debate over our national identity remains unresolved, and indeed largely unremarked. In 1816, a year of pronounced racial tension and a rumored invasion of black revolutionists from Haiti, it was Topic A. Today, it surfaces episodically in discussions of quotas in the workplace, immigration law and granting asylum to someone else's huddled masses.

It is ironic that we have been settled and enriched by many waves of immigration, becoming the world's most diverse society, yet seem unable to distill from this experience the wisdom and sensitivity to cope with both our own and other people's ethnic and cultural tensions.

Fortunately, all is not reduced to fear and loathing along the world's human fault lines, whether they run through Cicero, Ill., or the blood-soaked African bush. There is good reason to believe that people of varied backgrounds can coexist, if given the chance. Knowledge and leadership are key.

One of the more enduring myths of American sociology is that racial or ethnic integration of formerly homogenous (read white) neighborhoods inevitably triggers decline of the community and of the value of property.

Some years ago, one of us studied the history of neighborhood changes of this type and found that the "incursion," normally of upwardly mobile black families into all-white areas, usually led ultimately to improved housing values. It was unprincipled real estate speculators, preying on white fears, who often encouraged panic selling, then profited by raising prices for incoming black families.

He encountered numerous examples of stable interracial communities throughout the country. Where block associations and community organizations existed to allay false concerns and provide a means to defend against unscrupulous real estate agents, neighborhoods were able to deal rationally with change and to assimilate a more diverse population.

What has occurred in Bosnia-Herzegovina is all the more tragic because Muslims and Serbs seemingly had put ancient animosities behind them and learned to live together, often in the same neighborhoods. Until, that is, so-called national leaders introduced the higher cause of "ethnic cleansing."

The international community, chagrined and impotent, almost seems to be sitting back, waiting for this process to run its course in Bosnia and elsewhere. But then what? Is anyone giving serious consideration to the consequences of economically driven immigration throughout the world? Or to defusing ethnic time bombs ticking in Europe, the former Soviet Union, Kashmir, Angola or here among homegrown white supremacists?

The United Nations Development Programme, in its just-released Human Development Report for 1993, states: "Our world is still a world of difference. ... And because future conflicts may well be between people rather than between states, national and international institutions will need to accommodate much more diversity and difference -- and to open many more avenues for constructive participation."

The UNDP report envisions a "new role for the United Nations," with an emphasis on "peacemaking and peacebuilding," not just peacekeeping. It also envisions a standing United Nations military force, presumably capable of moving rapidly to douse ethnic brushfires and other simmering conflicts before they escalate beyond control.

President Clinton should take this cue to shift the United States' role from being perceived as the world's police to that of promoting a broad-based international peacebuilding initiative. The first stage would be a Rio-type summit at which world leaders and institutions would agree to a strategy and means for identifying potential ethno-cultural hot spots and addressing them through neutral mediation.

The United Nations and regional bodies such as the Organization of African Unity and the European Community are groping for ways in which they can act more dynamically and effectively -- yet diplomatically -- to preempt conflict "between people."

Such an initiative might also enlist respected former national leaders who have a demonstrated talent for building consensus among putative enemies. President Jimmy (Camp David) Carter is one role model, who has chaperoned peaceful change in Nicaragua and elsewhere.

The failure of recent peace ventures in Bosnia and Somalia is no excuse for discounting this approach as hopelessly idealistic. Typically, honest brokers like Cyrus Vance and David Owen arrive too late and without the support of a credible international mandate. If they and other skilled mediators could have appeared on the scene well before Yugoslavia's "leaders" pushed the self-destruct button, hundreds of thousands of innocent people might have been spared misery and death.

In Liberia, if something could have been done years ago to strengthen a more genuine sense of shared nationhood and destiny, thousands of slaughtered civilians might be alive today. At the very least, had there been an international early-warning system that could have detected the Liberian catastrophe in the embryo stage, we might not be shaking our heads at the most recent massacre of women and children.

Something, we are convinced, could have been done to avoid the holocausts in Liberia, in Bosnia, in Angola and in Somalia. It is crucial that we find out what that something is, bottle it and begin applying it as widely as possible. Otherwise, as we are beginning to realize in Somalia, no number of United Nations blue berets may be enough to restore sustainable peace once blood is on the floor.

We have learned time and again that people cannot be forced to live together in tranquility. They have to understand and value the diversity in their midst and in their world. That means overcoming fear and ignorance, which often are deliberately encouraged by political and ethnic leaders.

Ironically, we may find the greatest hope in the least likely places. Many Serbs have remained in Muslim-dominated Sarajevo, in defiance of ethnic cleansing. It is an ember which Bosnians cannot allow to die.

And there is South Africa. If any nation on earth is capable of showing us how to live together, it may well be this benighted and beloved land. Apartheid has brought out the worst in many South Africans, but it has also brought out the best in many others. More to the point, the majority of South Africans -- white and black -- appear to have decided that they have only two options: either share the country as equals or resort to a full-fledged race war.

We may never have to confront such a sobering choice. But the rapidly changing racial and ethnic demographics in this country could have consequences in the next century which we might prefer not to contemplate. How we deal with our increasing diversity, and whether we learn to draw strength from it, will ultimately define us as a nation.

Copyright 1993, C. Payne Lucas and Kevin G. Lowther. All rights reserved.

 

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