(This is the last of a series. I promise that future posts will be a bit shorter!)
By Patrick F. Cannon
Intolerance begins with difference, and is abetted by ignorance. That difference could be of color, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, politics, or any of a number of things that set people apart. Like most people, I found it difficult at times to tolerate some of these differences. Although the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church have changed since I was educated in its schools, I was most certainly taught by the nuns that only Catholics could go to Heaven, and that Protestants and Jews were at the very least misguided, and maybe even willfully evil. Needless to say, sex education was not part of the curriculum.
Since many of the kids in our building and neighborhood were Jews and some Protestants, it began to dawn on me at an early age that either both my brother and I were playing with a posse of the damned, or perhaps the nuns were overdoing it just a bit – thus, the beginnings of tolerance. Tolerance of sexual orientation came later, since I’m sure I wasn’t even aware that such people as homosexuals even existed until I graduated from high school in 1956 and moved to Chicago. In those days, homosexuals were forced to live in a shadowy world, moving in very limited circles, including so-called “gay” bars. I’m sure I shared the general distaste with a sexual orientation I didn’t understand.
But, again, once I began to actually know, socialize, and work with gay people, I realized they were pretty much just like me, except for what they got up to in the privacy of their bedrooms. Since this didn’t affect me, why should I care? Yet, many people do, mainly on religious grounds. While the biblical evidence against homosexuality they are so fond of quoting is ambivalent, particularly in the New Testament, their real problem is that they confuse the Bible with the Constitution. The Constitution permits them to rail against homosexuals all they want on religious grounds, but it doesn’t permit them to also discriminate against them in the civic arena.
But people seem to struggle most of all with race. Although young people are notably more tolerant, their parents may have grown up in families with a history of casual or even overt racism. My own parents never (at least to me) expressed any racist sentiments. My father was a politician for a time and no doubt valued any vote he could get.
My mother would often take us to the drugstore at the bottom of our street in a Pittsburgh-area mill town for a soda or sundae, or to buy some candy. The druggist was known to us as “Doc.” It was only later in life that I came to realize that he was an African-American. Later, in high school, my best friend was an African-American (sorry for the cliché).
It was only when I moved back to the Chicago when I was 18 that I discovered overt racism. Chicagoans of a certain age will remember that many restaurants and other establishments refused service to African-Americans even into the 1960s. Discrimination in housing and employment were commonplace (and you could argue, still are). While middle- and upper-middle class African Americans are finding it easier to find housing in better Chicago and suburban neighborhoods, their poorer brethren are still stuck in highly segregated neighborhoods, where black on black crime is epidemic.
One often hears the argument that anti-discrimination laws and racial preferences have now leveled the playing field, so the African-American community has no one to blame but itself for any lingering problems. But ask yourself this: can we really pat ourselves on the back for waiting until the 1960s to take the first steps in making things right for a people who had been enslaved in British America from the early 17th Century until the Civil War finally freed them in 1863? And even after they were freed, in much of the country they continued to be discriminated against for the next 100 years, with some of the discrimination even sanctioned by law.
At its source, racism is personal. Common sense suggests that each of us must acknowledge its long history in the United States, then pay more than lip service to the idea that each person must be judged “by the content of his character,” not his race. To the extent that it’s within our power, we must be sure that decisions we make on hiring, housing, education and especially friendship are never based on race.
Finally, we need to take a common sense approach to immigration reform. Where is the common sense hidden in the proposal that we can deport 11 million illegal immigrants? Or that we should simply let anyone in who fly, walk or swim to our shores? The zealots who espouse these extremes are in the minority. The majority who support compromise must be made to realize they can find common ground that might not be perfect (compromise rarely pleases everybody) but that would represent real progress in providing some kind of legal status and dignity to those who are working hard to support their families.
It’s only common sense, isn’t it?
(Patrick F. Cannon has written five books on architectural subjects. He isn’t always so serious.)