Are we at finally at the 'Gates' of racial harmony?
In the late '90s when I was living in Bulgaria, I met a man named Kyril in the capitol, Sofia. (This has something to do with Professor Henry Louis Gates, bear with me.)
Kyril heard me and a Polish girl speaking Polish and English, approached us and addressed us in better Polish than mine, and excellent English. It turned out he was a multi-lingual translator.
Kyril invited us to dinner with his family, where we learned some of his life story. He'd been interned for five years in hard labor camps in the '70s, for the crime of having foreign visitors. His neighbors, who still lived in the same apartment building, had turned him in to the secret police.
He was beaten regularly in the camp, and showed us the dental bridge where he'd had his teeth knocked out. (Thanks bud, I used to think of you every time I was detained in some Eastern European police station for "Your papers please!")
But Kyril's real grievance was against the Greeks. Bulgarians and Greeks hate the Turks, because both were oppressed by the Ottoman Empire for centuries. But they also hate each other.
Kyril told us about a war fought between the two countries. After the war, they negotiated a prisoner exchange. The Bulgarians sent the Greek prisoners home in good faith. The Greeks blinded 14,000 Bulgarian prisoners, with only one in a hundred left with one eye to lead the other 99 home.
Kyril was literally pounding his fist into his palm and shouting about those blankety-blank Greeks, when it dawned on me he was talking about the Byzantine Greeks. Which meant this happened about a thousand years ago. (In 1014 to be exact.)
This long term grudge-holding is not at all unusual in Europe. One of the great things about America is, mostly we don't do that.
If you doubt it, tell me where else could you have a hideously destructive civil war that killed more Americans than all our other wars combined, and sectional animosity as tepid as ours a mere 145 years later?
Up here in Yankeeland people sometimes make fun of my accent when it slips out. I am quite confident it would never occur to anyone to kill me for it. In former Yugoslavia or Northern Ireland, you could get killed for your accent.
Within the memory of living men, African-Americans were arrested, beaten, and murdered for lipping off to cops or just speaking impertinently to white people. But all that changed with what seems breathtaking speed, to those who know the history of the Old World.
Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, one of the highest-paid academics in America, got himself arrested for disorderly conduct for dissing a cop. Did his now-admittedly obnoxious behavior rise to the level of disorderly conduct under the law, or was it just “contempt of cop”? Rather than explore that question in court the charges were dropped.
Professional grievance-monger Rev. Al Sharpton immediately cried “racist America!” - like we didn't know that was going to happen. The mayor of Cambridge, governor of Massachusetts, and President of the United States all weighed in with their comments on American racism.
But wait, aren't they all African-Americans? Wasn't one of the arresting officers African-American?
And pay close attention, the undisputed fact is an African-American man heaping verbal abuse on heavily-armed police officers got no more than a kid-gloves arrest and a brief confinement, whatever you think of the validity of the charge.
You can almost see the dawning awareness in the distinguished professor, mayor, governor and president. In America, history is not destiny. We don't believe people are uniquely privileged or uniquely guilty for what their ancestors, or people of the same race, did to each other before they were born. And we have little patience for dwelling on ancient wrongs as long as we have a future to build.