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by William H. Benson

September 21, 2006

     Serendipity catches us unaware.  It brings us up short.  It happens when we go to watch a fight, and right in the middle of it an ice hockey game breaks out.  We are astonished when something good jumps out of a miserable beginning.  

     Truly, when future historians will write about race relations in the United States, they will point out the serendipitous way in which relations between blacks and whites improved in the latter half of the twentieth century.  Few social scientists had predicted such a turn of events, but there was one who did: the Swedish sociologist and economist, Gunnar Myrdal.

     In 1935 in the middle of the Great Depression, the Carnegie Corporation decided to conduct an in-depth study of African-Americans.  The person they selected to head the study was Myrdal, because, coming from Sweden, he was without prejudice, unlike most of the American scientists, and thus he was capable of writing a more objective study.

     Nine years later in 1944 Gunnar Mydal and his associates published their report: An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy.  It was a 1500-page painstakingly detailed study of the overwhelming obstacles that African-Americans faced when they tried to integrate into American society.

     And yet, Myrdal predicted that race relations would improve, in that the laws, the courts, and the American ideals of democracy were a guiding influence and would allow those who had been excluded from participation to be included.  Those who were isolated from the full benefits of American citizenship could carry out a legal and constitutional fight for their rights.  Myrdal called these ideals “the American Creed.”

     Except for the breakup during the Civil War, the United States has held together now for 230 years.  It seems to me that we Americans should pay better attention to what things hold this nation together and that we should be sensitive now to the need to find other things that would bind us together.  The world has witnessed when nations break apart, when their government folds up, or when the citizens turn on each other.

     America contains many different cultures: it is the multicultural society.  And yet the people of each culture have agreed to pledge their allegiance to the flag and also bind themselves to this American Creed.  It is in this talent to unite differing peoples together through “a melting pot” transformation that American society has been extraordinarily lucky in maintaining her peace.  We consider this a given and that it always will be here.

     That may be a false assumption.  Last spring Congress debated the issue of making criminals out of the eleven million illegal immigrants in our country, and the uproar was loud and intense.  “Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote,” they shouted from the streets.  The legislation died due to lack of support in the face of this storm of protest.

     It is the ethnic, religious, tribal, and cultural differences among us that lie under our feet, like time bombs ticking away, set to explode.  These differences can tear our world and our nation apart quicker than the deadly work of hundreds of terrorists.

     And yet I am hopeful that this will not happen, as is the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  He wrote: “The most telling statistic is the rate of intermarriage, marriage across ethnic lines, marriage across religious lines, marriage across racial lines.  More Japanese Americans marry Caucasians than marry other Japanese Americans.  So many Jewish Americans marry non-Jews that people are worried about the future of a Jewish community.  The black-white marriages have quadrupled over the last generation.  And the attitude toward what used to be called miscegenation has been absolutely transformed.  I have confidence that love will defeat those in the end who wish to disunite America.”

     Gunnar Myrdal prediction came true, and few believed him then.  Serendipity is what we shall label this miraculous transformation in attitude.