Learning the Right Lessons from History

It's time for everyone to accept that America is changing.

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I love history. It's there to remind me of the good, the bad and the ugly, to learn from the mistakes of my ancestors. It can be a useful compass to guide me through what lies ahead because, as we all know, history likes to repeat itself.

The great Fugitive poet Allen Tate once said, "The most we can do with the past is to salvage what is good in the present and hold onto it; and that creates a new past." He was right. His words are a reminder that we as a society have the ability to remember the good things, shed the bad and learn from both as we walk through this weird thing called life.

We live in a time where folks harken back to the past. How many times have you heard your grandparents or an aging parent say "I just wish things could be like they used to be"?  It's that nostalgia, that longing of a past America that seems to be prevalent in many pockets of the country.

I confess to being guilty of this. I grew up in the South, a son of a storied family, a descendant of both Revolutionary and Confederate war heroes. My father was a member of the Kappa Alpha Order, founded in 1865 to emulate the gentlemanly conduct and chivalry of General Robert E. Lee. My brother is even named after Lee. So my childhood was consumed with nonstop glorification of times gone by. I was graduated from the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, where the words duty, honor and country were etched into our hearts and minds. Trust me when I say I know what it's like to dwell in the past.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

I wouldn't trade in any of those experiences of my childhood, but I also learned that a world of cotton plantations and mint juleps isn't reality. I'm proud of my heritag,e but I don't embrace everything from it; slavery, after all, might have been the most unchristian act in our nation's history. I prefer to see the world not just in the terms of honor and duty but also of justice and equality. Yes, even a son of the South can be a polite progressive.

So imagine how horrified I was last Tuesday when I read the Washington Post's Richard Cohen column referring to incoming New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's interracial marriage as something that would make "people with conventional views ... repress a gag reflex." While I appreciate Cohen's 19th century view of "conventional" people, this particular issue of race has been settled as a legal matter since 1967. I'm struck how even the most educated in society bounce through life in bubbles, refusing to acknowledge the enormous potential of a vastly changing America.

I don't know if Cohen is a racist. He has written similarly tone deaf opinion pieces in the past. But what I am sure of is that he's living in a world that refuses to acknowledge the bold truth about this country: that it's getting browner, its younger generations are less interested in polarizing social issues and the 24-hour news cycle holds those in positions of power far more accountable than ever before.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

A 2012 study from the University of South Carolina projects minority populations in the U.S. will account for half the country's total population by 2040. That's a drastic swing from 1980 when minorities made up only a fraction of Americans. Pew Research projects that by 2050, latinos and their children will add 117 million to our total population. Think about that. In 37 years, our population will be nearly 438 million. That's an amazing statistic.

The question before us then is how will  the current majority in America react to being the new minority? I don't know the answer, but as I'm wont to do, I reach back into history for clues. Let's use our treatment of Irish immigrants as a window into how we treat other immigrants. Hundreds of thousands were forced into indentured servitude from the onset of their arrival and after the Great Irish Famine in the 1840's, those numbers increased drastically. Remember "Irish need not apply" signs? They were forced to live in slums and treated as second class citizens. Any of that sound familiar to today's latinos?

So while the face of America's immigrants may have changed, the way we treat those immigrants has not. This type of mentality has to go the way of the rotary telephone. It's useless and counterproductive to our best nature. We can and must do better. And we best be careful how we treat the future majority of this country. After all, history does repeat itself and I for one am willing to bet that their memories will be long.

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