Alexander de Toqueville, renowned scholar of 18th century America, discussed American traits he felt would help or hinder the democratic experiment. His underlying premise was that American culture, like all cultures, had certain distinguishable characteristics. Another way of saying this is that Americans think and act certain ways.
One way is Americans are forever forward-looking, an admirable trait. Many commentators opine that this attitude supports the belief that in this country if a person works hard enough, anyone can accomplish anything. Because we are optimistic and forward looking we aren’t tied down to our past or where we come from.
Across the globe, it’s easy to see how ages-old hostilities can consume a culture. In the Middle East, imagine how much raw energy is consumed by concern with what the Israelis are doing or by the actions of the Muslim Brotherhood or with Shiite Iran’s machinations.
In America, we are mostly unconcerned with such issues. This unleashes our energies and talents to work wonders, create wealth, and support lives of personal fulfillment.
Yet our lack of interest in the past carries tremendous risk. First, we are unconcerned and disinterested in history, even our own. Even amongst Americans interested in current politics, there is a distressing ignorance about the history of American intervention. I can assure you that nuclear-obsessed Iranians remember that we once helped remove their democratically elected leader, but do we?
If Americans endlessly look forward, we run the risk — indeed we might guarantee — that we forget our mistakes. In doing so, we forget what we learned from them.
Years ago as a prosecutor, when the subject of my profession was introduced to my Latino family or friends, I usually received a decidedly neutral and sometimes negative response.
I come from a community of law-abiding, working and middle-class Latinos. Yet this community’s experiences with law enforcement and authority figures generally were not positive. They just didn’t trust them. They had bad experiences with officers or other authority figures. Like most communities of color, there was history that they have not forgotten. In fact, they would say that the past was not even past.
So my family wondered why a Latino lawyer aligned himself with “the other side?”
I’d guess that the lack of trust from my community of origin is probably similar to that felt by Ferguson citizens who protest the shooting of an unarmed young black man.
The subject of race in America is one we cannot forget. Race matters here just as it matters in nearly every country. It is our history, yet it is current, topical and impactful today. De Toqueville might comment that as a people we want to look forward because we want to forget — and not address — our mistakes.
The subject of race is not going away. Consider the protests in Ferguson, the noxious comments of prominent people like Paula Deen and Donald Sterling, and the disproportionate incarceration of people of color for like offenses. Or take a fair look at the homogenous leadership of most organizations in Utah.
A person’s race shouldn’t excuse anyone from taking advantage of the opportunities we have in the United States. A poor black kid, raised by a single mother, became president. What a tremendous achievement for our country. But I wonder when reading the comments of Obama’s opponents if he remains an outsider and not allowed to succeed.
Jon Stewart, wry commentator on the millennial generation, recently closed a segment: “I guarantee that every person of color has faced some type of indignity from the ridiculous to the grotesque … in the last couple of hours.”
He finished, “Race is there, and it is a constant — if you’re tired of hearing about it, imagine how … exhausting it is living it.”
It takes effort to empathize — to “imagine” — what another person or a community is experiencing. Moreover, it takes character and quality to recognize our failures and remind ourselves to improve.
Perhaps we should aspire to be diligently mindful of our history on race. We should be honest and see the challenges related to the issues that plague us today. And we should be forward-looking, envisioning a better future and dedicated to getting there.
Henri Sisneros is a criminal lawyer and justice system leader from Salt Lake City. After graduating from Stanford Law School, he worked as an assistant U.S. attorney and assistant federal defender.