Last Thursday, I attended our first-grader’s holiday program at school. Up on stage, a little girl in sagging white tights paid tribute to Kwanzaa, the weeklong celebration of African heritage. Instinctively, I wondered if anyone in the audience would feel put on the spot. I scanned, but saw only lighter skin.
Still, the LaPorte/Bellvue community northwest of Fort Collins is diverse in the way that counts the most: the haves and the have-nots. We’ve got mansions in the foothills, trailers near the Poudre River, off-grid shacks up Rist Canyon, and 30-acre homesteads on the plains.
Only hours before the holiday program, we learned of Nelson Mandela’s death and relearned about South Africa’s apartheid system that Mandela helped end. On the surface, apartheid’s elaborate legislation was based on race, with the entire population categorized into black, white, colored and Indian. But underneath, apartheid was all about who did and didn’t have resources. The white minority, 20 percent of the population, clung to the highest standard of living, and tossed their scraps over the walls of the townships.
The day before Mandela died, President Barack Obama made a prescient and powerful speech, which no one noticed except the Republicans who reflexively and mindlessly stamped it “class warfare.” Obama described the growing income gap in America as “the defining challenge of our time.” He spoke of a child born into poverty and her near-impossible odds of escaping it.
“It should compel us to action,” the president said. “We’re a better country than this.”
America differs so much from apartheid South Africa. But both countries struggle, then and now, with the same underlying issue: the balance between rich and poor. What kind of society do we want? Where should America sit on the continuum between equality and inequality?
Behind practically every conflict — past and present, here and abroad — lies the quest for resources. Look closely at race, pay differences across genders, immigration reform, Israel versus the Palestinians, and even U.S. health care. You’ll find haves striving to keep what they’ve got, and have-nots fighting for more.
If we peeled away the labels, would we find solutions more easily?
Author Jacqueline Jones, in her new book “A Dreadful Deceit: the Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America,” argues that race is something our society has fabricated. It makes sense. When a have feels threatened by a have-not, he erects a wall. Then, naturally, he needs an easy way to determine who’s allowed to pass through the door. After all, successful discrimination requires that one discriminates, meaning spots the difference. From a comfortable distance, we can spot race, creed, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, age and so on. No need to fuss about all the wonderful complexities that make each person unique.
In the audience at the elementary school, I took a look around me. To my left sat a man in oily overalls and steel-toed boots, his face deeply tanned from working under the sun. To my right sat a man in pleated khakis and glossy L.L. Bean gumshoes. Both men smiled adoringly and waved to catch the eye of a child. Up on stage, a beaming lineup of 7-year-olds sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” I found myself wishing each of them happiness with whatever cards they are dealt.