21st-century America must build ties, not rifts

Sunday, January 2, 2000

By any measure, the 20th century was the “American century.” From the victories over fascism and Soviet communism to the unleashing of the atom and the mission to the moon, the United States dominated the world stage for much of the last 100 years.

But what of the 21st century? Will we sustain and expand this extraordinary experiment in liberty and prosperity? Or are we on the cusp of the “decline and fall” so often predicted for the world's last superpower?

The answer may depend less on how well we deal with other countries and more on how successfully we learn to negotiate the deep differences within our own nation. Meeting the challenges of the new century — moral, economic and political — will require first and foremost an ability to work for the common good across our religious, racial and ethnic divisions.

The fabric of our nation remains fundamentally strong, thanks largely to the continuing strength of the world's oldest living constitution. But there are warning signs of tribalization that, if left unchecked, could tear us apart at the seams.

Bitter culture wars over abortion, homosexuality and other social issues are acerbating our religious differences. Exploding diversity is changing the face of our nation, unleashing fear, intolerance and hatred in the process. And many Americans are fast retreating into their own cultural and ethnic “tribes.”

One key deterrent to the “disuniting of America” lies in reaffirming what it means to be an American. Unlike many places in the world, race, religion and culture don't define a citizen of our nation. An “American” is one who has an abiding commitment to the democratic first principles found in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The significance of this definition hit home during a touching conversation I had with my sister-in-law, Hwajoo, who happens to be from Korea. I asked her if my brother John could ever have been considered “Korean” if they had chosen to live in her native land rather than his. “No,” she said laughing, “I don't think John could ever be seen as Korean.”

Then Hwajoo was quiet for a moment. She looked at me and said with great intensity: “But what a different country this is. I have only been here a short time, and my English is not so good. But already I have been accepted. I feel like an American. What a great place is America.”

Unfortunately, we know that Hwajoo's experience is far from universal. Too many Americans still perceive certain skin colors and worship practices as more “American” than others. Not only are such prejudices unjust, they are also self-defeating and divisive. After all, by the middle of this century our population will be so diverse that no single type of person will represent the majority.

But Hwajoo's story does remind us that — faults notwithstanding — America on its best days is still a beacon of hope in a world torn by sectarian strife and ethnic cleansing.

People still long to come here from all parts of the planet, believing that whatever their color, religion, or ethnic background, they can be as fully American as the first arrivals centuries ago. For them, “America” is another name for freedom.

Fulfilling this hope in a world of conflict and division will be no easy task. But taking up the challenge is at the heart of what it means to be an American in the 21st century.