The Muslims, the Jews, the Blacks, the Whites, the Latinos, the Communists, the Socialists, the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks, the Hutu, the Tutsi, the Haves, the Have-Nots, the 1%, the 99%…
I live in an intensely diverse community with respect to ethnicity and socioeconomic status. When I take my children to the bus in the morning I’m one of very few white, middle-class, born-here Americans waiting at the stop. From time to time I’m the only one. I’ve written before about my tribe’s propensity for self-segregation, how we’ve set up schools and clubs and organizations for ourselves and made it all but impossible for anyone who’s beneath a certain income level or outside our language coterie to enter.
It’s an organized system, this xenophobia, an established culture and force that feels overwhelmingly difficult to challenge or change.
In his essay The Psalms, C.S. Lewis relates the story of a conversation he had with a former student:
I had a pupil who was certainly a socialist, probably a Marxist. To him the ‘collective’, the State, was everything, the individual nothing; freedom, a bourgeois delusion. Then he went down and became a schoolmaster. A couple of years later, happening to be in Oxford, he paid me a visit. He said he had given up socialism. He was completely disillusioned about state control. The interferences of the Ministry of Education with schools and schoolmasters were, he had found, arrogant, ignorant, and intolerable: sheer tyranny. I could take lots of this and the conversation went on merrily. Then suddenly the real purpose of his visit was revealed. He was so ‘browned-off’ that he wanted to give up schoolmastering; and could I—had I any influence—would I pull any wires to him a job—in the Ministry of Education?
There you have the new man. Like the psalmists he can hate, but he does not, like the psalmists, thirst for justice. Having decided that there is oppression he immediately asks: ‘How can I join the oppressors?’ He has no objection to a world which is divided between tyrants and victims; the important thing is which of these two groups you are in.
Such men and women seem to have become the norm, at least in the American society with which I am familiar. As a whole we are wholly unconcerned with the injustices experienced by those outside our sphere of comfort. We justify our dismissal of the poor by painting them as a group of lazy criminals who have little because they refuse to work. We vilify people outside our faith by labeling them evil malefactors whose ultimate goal is to destroy our rights and way of life. We marginalize those who don’t speak our language by refusing to speak even a few words of theirs and by barring admittance to our communities until they have become fluent enough to shed the accent that reminds us they came from somewhere else.
In the documentary The Red Army, Lada Fetisov, the wife of Russian hockey legend Slava Fetisov, tells about coming to America where her husband played in the National Hockey League in the 1980’s and 90’s. Among the wives she was ostracized, left in a corner by herself while the other women spoke English, laughed, and stole glances at her. They may not have been deriding her, but they might have been. No one liked or trusted Russians back then, and they saw no reason to invite her, include her, or show her kindness.
Welcome to America.
Recently I discussed this phenomenon with someone and I used the well-worn term ‘social justice’. “What is justice, anyway?” my conversation partner challenged me. “Isn’t it really just socialism to insist that everyone gets the very same thing?”
I would argue that social justice is quite apart from material uniformity. Social justice means that everyone has equal access to the advantages of a society: to education, dignity, the courts, goods and services, community and relationship. Injustice reigns when those who have access to these advantages use that access to prohibit those who don’t have it from ever obtaining it.
May I call that evil? It’s certainly a trail marker on the path toward tyranny.
So what does this mean for trivial little me, who is not a policymaker, who has no real power or influence beyond her social circle, who hasn’t yet the time or the energy or the resources to take on city hall via a grassroots campaign or a social media blitz? What can I possibly do to change anything?
I can be the hockey wife who gets up, walks across the room and sits next to Lada Fetisov to watch the game from that seat, even if I can communicate nothing more to her than a smile and the offer of my silent companionship.
I can stand next to the Hindi or Hispanic or Laotian parent waiting at the bus stop to send a child to school. And I can say, “Good morning.”
When I hear someone from my flock insist that all these immigrants ought to learn to speak English I can ask, “Do you speak another language? How long did it take you to achieve fluency? Were you working two or three menial jobs at the same time you were studying that language? Did you also have small children to provide for? Were you living in a culture with which you weren’t familiar?”
Everyone can do something to encourage another person, to show kindness and hospitality and generosity, to nurture a relationship instead of damage it. I can choose to see the dignity and value in each person I encounter, and behave as though I believe it.
Because as Edmund Burke admonishes every one of us, “All that is required for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”