Racism divides America less than it used to

Published 9:33 am Tuesday, January 20, 2009

At noon today, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts inaugurated Barack Obama to be the 44th president — and the first African-American president.

Whether you are a Democrat, a Republican or a member of a third party, you have to be proud to be an American today. We all knew that someday it would be possible. We didn’t realize that someday would come so soon.

Race is an issue that, when brought up, instantly makes people think about what divides us, especially when we read it in print. Perhaps the story the news media has failed to notice in the 17 years since the Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King verdict and the 14 years since the O.J. Simpson verdict is that this country’s people have progressed. Race is an issue, yes, but we’ve made great strides. Were we not watching? This country is closer to the promise of its Founding Fathers and is closer to the vision Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of in his “I have a dream” speech.

Email newsletter signup

Racism is one step closer to becoming an antiquated notion.


Because when I was in the U.S. Army, we soldiers — black, white, everything in between — talked a lot about race. We wanted it to be an antiquated notion.

Maybe it was because we were young, but we all pretty much agreed that racism will be gone when we could laugh at it all. We thought it would be gone when the racist words didn’t hold their powerful meanings anymore. We thought racism in the future would become a concept students read about in history books or citizens hear about from fringe-of-society whackos.

The soldiers would swap white and black jokes with each other — and not just white people telling black jokes and black people telling white jokes. The jokes came from all directions because, after all, they were just jokes. We were laughing at racism. It became no different than me being Swedish in ancestry and making light of Norwegians. Minnesotans making fun of Iowans. New Yorkers slamming Jersey.

We called each other racist names, knowing we would get called one back, and we all thought it was funny. We made fun of music, accents and stereotypes — including our own. This divisive issue of race was reduced to humor. We weren’t making a concerted effort to break down barriers. We were simply going around them because we all thought those barriers were stupid.

What we had were our cultures, and we respected that. We shared it, too. We all hung out in the barracks together and spent time in each other’s rooms. Color didn’t matter. We played videogames together and listened to music and watched movies and did laundry and cleaned the latrine and played pranks and did the stuff everyone does. But when people went out, people broke up into their interests.

Now people did all sort of things on their own time, but for this explanation let’s tell you about two groups. One group of people would go to a club where they could dance to hip-hop while another would go to a club where they could line dance to country music.

Sure, the hip-hop group had more black people than the line-dancing group, but it was about interest and backgrounds, not race. Country music fans had hip-hop songs they liked, and hip-hop fans had country music they liked.

(I fondly remember Carter from Atlanta making me and two other guys swear we would not tell anyone that he liked “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers.”)

This was the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, a major military base. Trust me, there was a lot of crime going on, particularly for drugs and guns, by people of all races. The third floor of our barracks was a crazy place in the months after we all returned from the Persian Gulf War. But the crimes weren’t about race either.

The 82nd is nicknamed the All-American Division because of has a long history of people from all states and backgrounds. It was a good sample pool of young Americans. I served in the Army from 1989 to 1992. This was the first generation of Americans who hadn’t grown up during the civil rights movement. We weren’t alive when King was assassinated, but we were raised by parents who taught their children about the dream.

No wonder we minimized race.

Did our parents think race was something you never talk about but we saw race as even less important than that?

What I realize today is that of course America has been ready for an African-American president, or a woman president, or a president of any race or gender. Everyone was surprised at how soon this landmark happened, including me.

But considering the soldiers I knew in the 82nd Airborne Division, and how race was not much of a factor in a place with so many races, it only makes sense. They were like other people their age. Those young men and women are now engaged voters in this democracy.

Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.