USA Today: Becoming More Tolerant?

Reflecting on 25 years of publication, the newspaper USA Today is running a series of Op-Eds-and-blogs about race that assert the nation is becoming more tolerant. Michael Gartner, writing today’s installation, includes comparisons between greater acceptance of ‘homosexuality’ and interracial marriage to make the case that the U.S. is becoming more tolerant, such as these two:

  • In 1982, 34% of Americans believed that homosexuality was an acceptable alternative lifestyle. Now, the number is 48%.
  • In 1983, 43% of Americans approved of marriage between blacks and whites. Now, the number is 79%.
  • Gartner continues:

    Some of this increasing tolerance is the result of more exposure to people who are different than we are. These days, nearly everyone knows an unmarried couple living together — there are 9.8 million Americans who live with an unmarried person of the opposite sex. That’s up 72% in the past decade and 10 times the number in 1960. When we work or go to school or go to church with people of different living styles, different sexual orientations, different religions, different races and backgrounds, we quickly learn that we need not fear — or disparage — those people.

    Some of the increasing tolerance is the result of legislation. In 1990, and again in 1997, Congress broadened the Education of All Handicapped Children Act that made it easier for children with autism and other learning disabilities to receive special education or to be mainstreamed into schools. By last year, this law was aiding more than 6 million students ages 6 to 21. In 1991, 5,094 autistic children benefited from this act. In 2005, the number was 192,643.

    This exposure leads to acceptance, tolerance and affection. My 10-year-old friend and baseball-going buddy Tyler Steinke has an autism-like disability, and he is in a fourth-grade classroom at an elementary school in Urbandale, Iowa. “The other kids help him and like him and include him and look out for him,” says his father. “The teacher says it’s remarkable.”

    While Gartner acknowledges some, relatively minor, “backlash.” He concludes that:

    On balance, though, we have become a remarkably more tolerant nation in the quarter century since USA TODAY was born. This is a good thing for all of us — because most of us belong to one minority or another that has been discriminated against in eras past — but it is a particularly good thing for my grandson.

    At some level, I understand the point that Gartner is making here. Things have changed for the better in some small ways that can be measured with attitudinal survey data. And the reason they’ve changed is because people involved in the Civil Rights and Gay/Lesbian Rights movements have struggled, protested, and agitated for those changes, not because people have simply “become more tolerant.” (This is one of those examples of the passive voice hiding the real meaning of a sentence.) In painting this overly rosy picture of race in the U.S. today, Gartner fails to acknowledge the continuing prevalence of hate crimes by whites, such as the one I discussed here yesterday, as well as the kind of racism that many African Americans, even middle class Blacks, report contending with on a daily basis. Yet, in my more generous moments, I think that this kind of writing by whites speaks to a desire to be our highest selves, to be the heroes, rather than the villains, in the racial narrative in the history of the U.S. It’s similar to the impulse behind much of the “Selling of the Holocaust,” to use Tim Cole’s phrase. In Cole’s analysis, he demonstrates that, from movies to museums, the “feel good” Holocaust is being mythologized in America in which “we are all Schindler” while the frightening reality of the Holocaust is being forgotten. Similarly, in the U.S., whites want to re-write themselves onto the history of racial politics as heroic saviors in the narrative of civil rights, rather than the perpetrators of vicious attacks and staunch advocates of racial inequality.

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