Is Not About Race

Some of you might recall a television situation comedy called “Taxi.” In it, comedian Andy Kaufman portrayed a foreign- born mechanic named Latka Gravas. Latka’s native country was never revealed, though it seemed like it belonged somewhere in the Balkans at a spot out of sight from the rest of the world.

In one memorable episode Latka happened to meet a woman from the old country named Simka Dahblitz (who had a strong resemblance to actress Carol Kane.) As luck, and script writing, would have it, the two fell in love. There was one serious problem, though. Although they were from the same country, each was from an ethnic group that despised the other. Simka was from the country’s mountain people, a group that to Latka’s valley-rooted family was decidedly underclass. A valley person dating a mountain person: What would the folks back home think?

I am not sure what the grudge was that the ground folks had with the hill toppers, but I am confident that the root cause was the same that has historically created tension among people—one group feeling like their life was being compromised by the other. In this case the valley people might have felt that the mountain neighbors were tapping into their river. Or the mountain people might have worried that the people below, because they were in greater numbers, controlled the politics.

That type of tension is ancient: the Jews feeling suppressed by the Romans or the Romans being thrashed by the Huns. It could probably date back to some Neanderthal swinging his club at a passerby who was sitting on his rock.

Impoverished white southern farmers never had much of an interest in the Civil War, which they regarded as a plantation owners’ battle, but after the war, when freed blacks began competing in the agriculture market, tensions began to rise. In Southern cities during Reconstruction the local white middle class felt its autonomy stepped on by northern carpetbaggers.

And so it has gone. Skin color per se is not really a cause of the tension except that, in some cases, it identifies one group to the other, but that is an imperfect measurement. In many ways the races get along better than activists and some politicians (who build a voter base off of tension) would ever acknowledge.

Clouding the situation are extremist groups, most often young men funneling their frustration into paramilitary organizations. From American extremists to those who have been radicalized in Europe and Asia, the joiners are usually in search of power and recognition in a life in which they have had neither.

There is no simple solution to a problem that is so ancient and entrenched. A first step though, especially for political leaders, would be to ditch the rhetoric. (The word “racist,” or its derivatives, is a loaded term, which often relies on stereotypes, and that itself is a form of bigotry.)

We need leaders with the wisdom to better grasp each other’s history, and if not to endorse it to at least understand it.

Eventually all of us who live in the valley should visit the top of the mountain.



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