Dr. Frank Wu's Keynote Address
Keynote address delivered by Dr. Frank Wu at the 26th annual Human Rights Day Conference.
Edited Transcript of Keynote Video
Thank you. Thank you so much for those kind words. I'll be sure to repeat them to my wife when I get home tonight. So good afternoon, everyone. It is truly an honor and a pleasure to be joining you at this wonderful conference.
In the brief time that we have together, I'd like to provoke you to think for yourselves about the issues of race, ethnicity, human rights, and the changing face of our great nation—not to persuade you to think as I do, but rather to offer a new paradigm, a new way of looking at the world, a new way of talking about some of the most controversial, contentious, and sometimes divisive but most important issues that we confront. As within our lifetimes—those of us within this room—I certainly hope to live to see the day we will undergo a profound transformation never before made by any human society on the face of the globe in recorded history peacefully much less successfully. It is this: Around 2050 or so, we as a nation will cease to have a single identifiable racial majority. It's already happened in California, in New York City. It's happening in places that you wouldn't expect: in the Midwest, here in the Twin Cities. As within the past generation, we see an influx of people from the world over. The challenge for us is, what will we do? What will we make of this diverse democracy of ours, this city upon a hill as the founders called it, a model for the world to admire and perhaps copy?
Let me start by telling you a story. This is a story that I share with my friends, my good friends who know that I think about these issues, that I've written a book, know that from time to time I'm invited to give a speech or two and that I spend a great deal of my time thinking through and pondering race and ethnicity. Many of my friends, well, they shrug, and they say to me, "Why? Why do you think about race?" And they say, "You know, I don't really think about that very much myself." To which I'm always tempted to reply, "Well, yes, exactly. That's part of the problem."
But their inquiry is so sincere, so earnest. It deserves a better response, and so my response is this: I'm not obsessed. We all are. We all have race and ethnicity on our minds, even or perhaps especially when we don't realize that that's what we're thinking about. Here's what I mean: It's not as if I wake up every day in our nation's capital and go off to work thinking to myself, "Here I go, an Asian-American." I don't think about where my ancestors were from every waking moment of every day any more than any of the rest of you. I think about, well, I think about the weather. I think about whether it's going to get cold in D.C. as it is here. I think about the errands I have to run for the day. I think about how to spend more time with my wife and our dogs, not always in that order. And as a law professor, I think about how to write a final exam that no students can possibly answer correctly.
It's just the usual sorts of things that I have on my mind. But it's funny how often—it's not every day, but it's often enough—I'll have one of those encounters, you know, an encounter with a stranger, someone who I've never seen before and will never see again, who passes me there on the sidewalk and reminds me yet again that race is indelible, that it matters, that it is first and foremost in the minds of many, not last and least.
Here's what happens to me, and maybe this has happened to some of you in this room. I swear this is a true story. And uncannily, it turns out that for many other people, they can tell exactly the same story. So I know it's not just in my head. It's not just about me. I'll be walking down the street minding my own business, and coming the other way there on the sidewalk will be a kid, just a boy, I don't know, seven years old, eight years old. And he gets to within 30, 25 feet of me, and he sees me, and he stops, and he smiles, and as soon as I notice that he's staring at me, I can predict what will happen next. Maybe you can too. He's going to strike a pose, you know, a karate, kung fu, martial arts pose. Right there out on the sidewalk, he wants to challenge me to a fight. You know, it's sort of ching, chong, something or the other, you know, some howling and hissing, and then he'll sort of kick or punch at the air, and then laughing, he'll turn around and run away. Now I could chase this kid down the sidewalk and collar him and say, "You're a bigot." But I would never do that. I wouldn't do that because I know this is nothing. It's a joke. It's a prank. It's trivial. He'll have forgotten it by tomorrow.
He doesn't realize how traumatic it was for me when I was his age not that long ago, and I used to get challenged to kung fu matches every day on the playground as kids would say to me such things as, "Are your parents communists? "Do you eat dogs? How can you see with eyes like that?" And so on and so forth. And, you know, as I watched this kid scurry off, I realized, there's no doubt that what he does, innocent though it may be, that it's about race. Why do I say that? Because I notice he doesn't go up to every adult to challenge them to a kung fu match. It's only if he sees someone who looks like me with this texture of hair, shape of eye, color of skin. Even if I'm wearing a coat and tie, he's pretty sure I've got a black belt on underneath, right? But I don't blame him because, well, as a kid, he watches TV. He goes to the movies, right? And if he sees someone who looks like me on the screen for more than two seconds, what is it I'm doing? Breaking cinder blocks with my head, right? It's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. So when I go by, and he says, "Yo, what's up, Jackie Chan?" Of course, that's what he's prompted to do, as if he's following a script.
That's what a stereotype is. It's a script. It tells us how other people will behave and how we in turn should react to them. And so he has these images rattling around in the back of his head just as I do, just as we all do, images that are about race and ethnicity. And so when he encounters someone, naturally, that's how he'll react to them without even noticing that what he's doing is indeed about race. You know, sometimes I am tempted to chase the kid down and say, "You know, if you're gonna dis me, at least get some new material. I've seen this 100 times before. You're not even any good at it." Right? And the truth is, I can shrug this off. We can laugh about it easily enough as we share a fine meal here.
But I wonder what it tells us. I wonder what it signals to us about the way race works. For someday, that child will be in a different situation. He won't just be doing karate moves to some stranger on the street. I'm never going to see him again. But instead maybe he'll be in a very different role. Maybe he'll be an employer interviewing someone for a job, and he'll meet that Asian candidate. Maybe he'll think to himself fondly about Bruce Lee or Jet Li or whatever martial arts movie he saw at the Sunday matinee, or maybe he'll hear an accent where there isn't one, or he'll think, "Oh, this person's "going to be good at math and science, but maybe not as a leader, maybe not someone who will fit in and be comfortable here with the rest of us." And so I wonder if as he goes through life, if he doesn't form a relationship meaningfully, as an equal, as a peer, as a friend, one-on-one, with someone of a different background who may, as it turns out, have exactly the same interests that he has, what it will do for the way he sees the world through this lens of race.
"So that's why," I explain to my friends, "I care." It's because I can't help myself, because we can't help ourselves, because as we go through life, invariably we find that others—in moments we least expect it—when we're just innocently standing in line at the movie theater waiting to buy a ticket, or wherever we are, running our errands for the day, at work or at school—suddenly it sneaks up on us in this way.
So what I did was, I wrote a book. I wrote this book, Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, and it makes just two points. As a law professor, of course, it took me 400 pages to make two points. But that's what I'd like to share with you today, just two arguments, two thoughts, two suggestions about race, and you can tell me whether you find this persuasive. We have a Q&A session after this, and I hope to engage in dialogue because it is dialogue that is at the heart of this diverse democracy of ours. But for now, the two points are, first, that race is not literally black-and-white, and second, that race is not figuratively, symbolically, metaphorically black-and-white.
Let me begin with the first point. So I actually started to write this book when I was in college. I wanted to write a paper for a class I was taking, an American history class, and I wanted to write a paper about Asian-Americans and civil rights. I thought, "Well, this is a good, original topic. "Probably I'll get an A on this paper if I research it thoroughly, and probably very few people have ever thought about this subject." This is about 20 years ago, a little more than that, actually. And so I went off to the library and looked in the card catalog. That's how you can tell how old I am. I looked in the card catalog before everything was an e-book or on the web. And I looked for Asian-Americans and civil rights, and wouldn't you know it? There wasn't any such book. No one had ever written this book. It didn't exist. So I thought, "Well, I'll look at books about race."
So I looked, and there was an entire shelf, an entire bookcase full of books about race, thick and thin, by conservatives and liberals, by sociologists, historians, journalists, celebrities. Everyone, it seemed, had something to say about what Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish sociologist, called famously, "The American dilemma." And so I gathered a bunch of these books, took them off the shelves, found a table, laid them all out, and I thought, "I'm going to start to read these books." Because they had profound titles, and when you looked at the dust jacket, they had blurbs, you know, praise from all of these different people, saying, "If everyone read this book, it would help us resolve these tensions." "This book is based on the latest census data," and so on and so forth. They were very impressive, indeed, when you looked at the biographies of the distinguished authors.
I'd start to read, and invariably, I was disappointed, even a little bit offended, not as an Asian-American. I wasn't disappointed as someone who—after all, as a college kid—wanted to get an A on my paper. I was disappointed because as I started to read these books, I noticed that even though the books said, "This is the book, the definitive book about race, racism, about the color line," and so on, but it turned out that the way they defined race was always, without exception, in literally black-and-white terms. And I thought about that for a moment, and I realized as I strolled across campus, that there was something wrong with this. All I had to do was open my eyes and look, and I could see that there were Latinos. There were Asians. There were Native Americans. There were people of mixed race backgrounds and people of ambiguous backgrounds. There were people who were adopted by parents who looked nothing like them, and so I thought to myself, "These books don't present an accurate picture of the world."
My modest claim is this: It doesn't matter who you are. It doesn't matter where your ancestors are from. It doesn't matter what academic discipline you're studying. If we're going to talk seriously about these subjects, we should speak to, for, and about everyone, for this nation has always consisted of people of many different backgrounds since before it was the nation that we call ours. There were people of Hispanic descent whose lands were annexed and conquered. There have been Asian immigrants since the 1830s. If you look at the rosters of the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War, there are Chinese surnames to be found listed among the soldiers who were fighting. And there have been people of mixed race backgrounds since shortly after the first slaves were sold in Jamestown in 1689.
So it is that this wonderful—and tragic at times—history of ours has been flattened out and left out entire groups—not just individuals but whole communities—because we've tried to divide people and fit them neatly into just one of two boxes. I thought, "Well, this division into just two boxes also increases tension rather than decreasing it." When you add in a productive way—not to divide and conquer but to build bridges—people of all backgrounds, you see that there is a majority of people of goodwill, decent people who want to create here in the New World—as it's envisioned—something that didn't exist anywhere in the Old World, which is a nation where people subscribe to a set of principles about belonging and where anyone can be an equal, aspire to the highest office of the land.
Now, you know, as an undergraduate, I had that conceit that many college kids have. I thought that every idea that I ever thought was mine. I was the first person to think it up, right? Maybe some of you have college kids, and you've experienced that as you talk to them. I thought that this idea—race beyond black and white—was my idea, but as I became more serious as a student of race, I started to read, and I came across the work of a tremendous public intellectual, a profound thinker such as our nation has never produced before or since, and that's W.E.B. Du Bois. You likely know that name. All of you here care about these issues of human rights. Du Bois, born at the close of the United States Civil War, lived to the very eve of Martin Luther King's famous 1963 march on Washington. His death, when it was reported, led to a moment of silence before the speeches began on that great summer day, and Du Bois, an African-American, the first black to have received a doctoral degree from Harvard University. So educated, so intellectual, so erudite was he that when people used to compliment him throughout his life, "Oh, what an honor it is, Dr. Du Bois, to have been a black person and to have received a doctorate from Harvard," he would reply, it is said, oh, the honor was Harvard's to have conferred the degree upon him.
He was a founder of the NAACP, the first editor of its magazine, Crisis, and he wrote novels and plays and newspaper columns and the most scholarly studies that are as well worth reading today as they were then. He studied the Reconstruction era, the first serious effort to do that. He wrote a monograph on the Philadelphia Negro as a sociologist when that field had just been invented. He asked what were the material conditions of African-Americans living in that great city, and in 1903, he wrote a collection of essays never out of print since then. It's what every author aspires to. For more than a century, you have been able to go to any bookstore and find this book, The Souls of Black Folk. A unique blend of reporting, of memoir, of social science, of philosophy, this book poses such enduring questions that we still struggle with, questions about assimilation and dual identity. Du Bois asked, "What is it like to be a problem, to have others speak of you as the Negro problem and attempt to figure out what to do with you?"
He talked about being both, on the one hand, American through and through, and on the other hand, black and marked with that stigma of skin color. He talked about learning from the classics. He said, "I sit with Shakespeare," and he winces not that he too belonged in that company. And he penned a famous passage, just a line, and anyone who's ever thought about race knows this line, because Du Bois predicted accurately. He was prescient at the dawn of a new century when he wrote, "The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line." You've all heard that quoted.
Well, you know, it's funny, if a student turned in a paper to me that quoted Du Bois as saying that, I would know that this is a student who had not done a very good job, who was not deserving of a very good grade. Why is that? Because even though you always hear the quote exactly the way that I've rendered it, I've distorted its meaning. I've taken it out of context. I have not even given you half of the words in the sentence. For what Du Bois actually wrote was this. He said, "The problem of the 20th century," Du Bois wrote, "is the problem of the color line, comma, the relation of the darker to lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, the Americas, and the islands of the sea."
Those additional words add so much richness and meaning, and they show that Du Bois also had this conception of race beyond black and white. What do I mean? Well, Du Bois, whose commitment, his personal passion for the uplift of a people. You may know he engaged in the famous debate with Booker T. Washington, where Du Bois championed the Talented Tenth, the notion that African-Americans had to demand equality in every sphere—political, social, economic, cultural—and that those who had achieved a modicum of success had not just rights but responsibilities to lead, against Booker T. Washington's acquiescence to racial segregation, to the Jim Crow of the time, Washington who said that black and white could be like a hand and a glove, who as the wizard of Tuskegee said, "Cast down your bucket where you are," meaning that African-Americans who had the opportunity to engage in menial labor or in the trades should do that and should not agitate necessarily too much—as Du Bois had wanted them to do—for full equality.
You couldn't for a moment doubt that Du Bois was about advancement of African-Americans. Yet not just in this essay but throughout all of his work—where he spoke about the World Wars, where he spoke about imperialism and colonialism, when he spoke about native peoples and he expanded his view, encompassed all of Asia and Europe and Africa and Latin America—he showed that he believed that these views were compatible, that you could advance African-Americans by understanding all of these other struggles, by seeing what could be learned elsewhere.
That's the project to which I propose we return, one in which we understand that race is not literally black-and-white, that there are hundreds, thousands of people, entire communities—some of them recently settled but many of them with a lineage that can be traced back generations on these shores—and that not everyone fits into these two boxes, and by doing that, what we can do is break down the boxes themselves, these categories that constrain us, the classifications that lead people to make assumptions, even when they do so as if it were a compliment. "My, you're so articulate." Many of you perhaps have heard that. Or as I'm told from time to time, "Gee, you speak English so well," to which my reply is always, "Thanks, so do you." That's the first point, that race is not literally black-and-white. It is much more, and when we understand it to be much more, we will be able to make progress all the more.
The second point, though, comes straight from that first point. It is that race is not figuratively, metaphorically, symbolically black-and-white. Let me explain what I mean by that. We have a story that we share, a narrative of progress, and to be sure, we have made progress. There has been a sea change of racial attitudes within the lifetimes of those of us in this room. It was not that long ago, just a generation or two—not just in the deep South but in the North as well—when you could have picked up a newspaper and opened it up to the classified section and seen right there in black and white in the print, in the fine print, that there were jobs that were open to some and closed to others, that there were jobs—it used to be in some newspapers, they were listed in separate columns, the jobs for men and the jobs for women. You all remember that. And so there was racism and sexism that was blatant and open.
Yes, we have come a tremendous way since then. But what I'd like to suggest is, the challenge and the struggle has changed. The very notion of civil rights has given way to human rights, and as it does, it makes it more complex. There are so many more ambiguities now. What I ask is that we look at what is metaphorically gray, those cases where we would hesitate before we called it racism or sexism, yet where problems, where disparities are concrete and tangible and they remain.
Now, don't get me wrong—there are still egregious, blatant, hard-core cases too, and I'm as committed as anyone else who does this work to fighting those cases, but beyond that, there is so much more. What we typically have done is, when we talk about race, we speak of it as if it's villains and victims, right? We know who the villains are. It's the Ku Klux Klan. It's skinheads. It's those who would shoot at someone, stab them, spit upon them, refuse to seat them at a restaurant, not offer a house for sale. It's those who hate and who hate openly, who are unabashed in their bigotry, in their prejudice, who would have stood up in an earlier era and campaigned for office even, declaring segregation yesterday, segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever in the massive resistance that followed the Supreme Court decision in Brown versus Board of Education, and we know who the victims are too. They are people whose names are forgotten to us. They are passive. They are not agents of their own destiny. They have this violence visited upon their bodies and their communities. When we go to a museum and it has an exhibit about lynching, for example—the practice that was altogether too common until just 75 years ago—the museum has to post a warning that the material is for adults. When you walk in, you must avert your gaze, because it is so troubling, so much a torment to see that a bonfire would be built and a young man hanged and burned alive while people looked on as if it were a party, an occasion to celebrate.
There are villains and victims. There have been, and there still are today, and they are active. They've changed their techniques. The skinheads use the internet and music to recruit young to their cause. So there are those cases. Yet I'd like to suggest there is something else too, that when we frame the stories just villains and victims, what we do is, we make it all too easy to say, "Well, that was then. This is now." We make it too easy for those of us who are comfortable in our lives, who know to teach our children not to use the "N" word, who disavow that type of hatred, we make it too easy for us to say, "Well, I'm not a villain, and I'm not a victim either. "So I'm just a bystander. "I wash my hands of this matter. "We've learned, haven't we? We can move on." It makes it too easy for us to suppose that these problems are just problems that we read about in the history books, not something that is alive and well and with us now. For now, sometimes it's structural. It's subtle. It's the burden, the legacy of this history that we all bear together. It is not the open, egregious case.
Let me give you some concrete examples to think about this with. I happen to know more about law firms and law than other fields, but this could be said of many other contexts. Let's think about law firms. There are still major law firms today—not just in this city, in every city—that do fine work with bright, committed, talented people. Yet if you were to visit those law firms, and if you looked at the photos that hang on the walls of their founders, if you look at the name partners who has the fancy corner offices with the mahogany desks and so on, you would find that these firms that do the blue chip work for the major corporate clients, that many of them don't have an African-American partner or a female partner. Yet they still have this wonderful image, and no doubt it is deserved.
But here's the difference. Well, 50 years ago, heck, maybe even 25 years ago, there was someone sitting behind one of those desks in one of those corner offices writing a memorandum that said, "This firm does not hire Negroes or women." I'll bet that that person cannot be found today. In other words, we don't have the villains on the scene anymore. There's nobody to blame. There's nobody to scold. There's nobody to fire. There's nobody to hold accountable. Yet the institution remains what it has always been, and so too banks, college campuses, the neighborhoods that we live in, the clubs that we belong to. In so many of these instances, they're good, well-meaning people. They even celebrate diversity. They wring their hands, and they say, "Oh, we'd love to hire a minority who's qualified. We—we just can't find any." Right?
Now we all know that the challenge is different, but I'd like to describe for you what has happened, what is that difference. I would propose it is this, that in the past, the civil rights struggle was to persuade people that what they were doing was wrong, and everyone knew that that's what they were doing, because there were signs that said, "Blacks at the back of the bus" or that this drinking fountain or restroom or school was for whites only. It was plain and visible. You could see it. You could point at it. You could recognize it. And so the challenge then was to persuade people not just that it should be illegal but that it was morally wrong, that it let all of us down on the ideals that we preached and hold so dear. I'd like to suggest, though, what has happened is, now the struggle is not to persuade people that what they're doing is wrong. Because we've persuaded them of that, that bigotry is wrong, and everyone would say, "Oh, I'm no bigot. I condemn the bigots just like you." Now the struggle is to persuade them that the problem still exists, that it goes under different names, that it is covert, that it exists even in places where you don't expect, and it comes to us in forms that would not have been recognized. Tensions, for example—let us speak candidly—among minority groups, tensions within groups that, to the majority, looks all the same yet when you scratch beneath the surface, you realize that people can divide themselves evermore finely, that now every leader—instead of standing up for segregation—every leader, regardless of political party, regardless of whether they're in the private sector or the public, they all celebrate diversity, right?
I can't tell you how many Lunar New Year's banquets I'm invited to, where there's—a CEO or somebody comes and has an eggroll, right? And poses for a photo and gives a speech that someone else has written for them about diversity, as if that's what it's about, consuming the eggroll, and you comprehend the culture. Right? You know the sort of thing that I'm talking about. What I'd like to suggest is, now it's about the kid who does the karate moves. That isn't much, but it's a signal. It tells us about what's in our heads. It tells us about the implicit prejudices, all this research that is coming forth that shows that you can be in favor of civil rights. You can even be a member of the group that is being portrayed in negative terms, and yet despite yourself, when you take these tests, what they do is, they tease out that just beneath the surface there remains racial prejudice. And I am as guilty as anyone else.
Let me share with you another personal story as a way of explaining this, a story about another scenario, a situation there on the street when strangers pass each other. This is a true story. I'll bet it's true of some of you too. I won't put you on the spot by asking, but I'll ask that you imagine with me what this is like. Now, none of us wants to engage in a contest of suffering, for that has no winners, but I know when I think about it, that the worst stereotype that I face is the karate moves, right? Or it's someone who thinks I'm really good at math and science. I can do calculus in my head and graduated from high school when I was 12 or something like that, right? You know, people who say to me, "Will you come here and help me fix my computer? You Asians, you're all so good at that sort of thing." It makes me want to go right over and erase their hard drive. Not because it's an insult, but because it's a shallow stereotype like any other, and it's double sided, because it also can be turned on its head, used to suggest that's all you're good at.
Let me go back to the scenario on the street, because what I realize is that others face stereotypes that attach to them despite themselves no matter who they are that are far more invidious, far more damaging, far more troubling to all of us as a society. This has happened to me from time to time: I'll be walking down the street late at night, maybe in a city that I don't know so well, someplace like this, the Twin Cities, where I've come for a conference for a few days, and maybe it's after I've been out with some old friends or new friends who I've made. We've had a bite to eat, listened to some music or something like that, and I'm out a little later than I usually am accustomed to, and I'm out in a neighborhood, well, maybe it was a little funky, right? That's where you hear the good music.
But as I leave the club or the bar or the restaurant, it's now, well, it's a little creepy, because it's late at night now, and it's raining or maybe snowing, so I'm anxious, right? Maybe a little frantic to get back to where I'm staying. I wonder if this has ever happened to you as it's happened to me. You go walking down the street in this neighborhood that doesn't feel too safe, right? Whatever that means. And you're eager to get going, and you're walking along there with some trepidation, and you realize that you're lost, right? That you've wandered around. You don't remember this street or where you left the car. Maybe it's a rental car. You don't even remember what type of car it is. You can't find your way back to your friends. And then as you're becoming increasingly panicky, you realize—and you're by yourself in this neighborhood. And then I wonder if this has happened to you as has happened to me. As I'm walking, then suddenly I sense that I'm not by myself. You get that feeling. There's someone else. You hear the footsteps. Coming up rapidly behind you. So what do you do, as I would, as any of us would? Because it's instinct, maybe. It's common sense. You turn. You glance over your shoulder. You want to see who is that in the shadows there, and who do you spot? But perhaps someone—Well, you don't know who they are. They're a stranger, after all. All you can tell is, they're young, and they're black, and they're male. Maybe they're wearing a baseball cap put on backwards, as if that were meaningful.
Then I wonder if any of you have done what I confess with guilt, with shame, I've done—which is in a split second, without thinking at all, in that moment, who knows why, really—if any of you have picked up the pace just a little bit, crossed to the other side of the street, fished your keys out of your pocket so you can be ready to jump into your car, clutched your briefcase or purse or backpack a little tighter to your body, and maybe involuntarily a look of panic almost has crossed your face in that moment. You find your car. You jump in. You drive back to where you're staying with great relief. And in a confused moment, you think to yourself, "Gee, what—what was that encounter all about?" And maybe you rationalize it, "Oh, that wasn't about race. "No, no, that was about my physical safety. Who could blame me, after all?" And then you exaggerate and distort statistics about African-American young men, and there are many factors. It's the nighttime. It's strangers. Maybe gender is involved, if you're female.
And so I don't begrudge anyone, but I wonder. I wonder what it looks like to that young man, because to that young man—without having said a word in this two-second encounter among strangers—what have I said to him? I've communicated, "You, sir, are a thug. "You're a murderer, a rapist, a purse snatcher, "and even if you're not, "I'm going to go ahead and treat you as if you are. I'm going to flee from you." And we might think to ourselves, "He can't know that. Why would he assume that? He can't look into my heart or my head." And sure enough, he can't. But what's odd about this is, I'll wager it's not the first time, and it won't be the last time, and if, strangely, he talks to his brothers, his cousins, his father, or his son, you know, oddly enough, it's happened to them too. It's happened when they've been out shopping, and the security guard has trailed them around for a little while. It's happened when they've been at a hotel, and they've needed to use the restroom, and they've been accosted rudely. It's happened when they've been driving, and they've been pulled over in the neighborhood that they live in. It's happened in so many other contexts.
Yet, we don't know quite what to make of it. In each individual instance, it's ambiguous, but the pattern emerges when you add it all up. Those cases that I'm talking about, the cases which over time signal to us in a way that just grinds you down, these little micro-aggressions at work, on the street. At some point, people just can't take it. You know what I'm talking about. That's what I would suggest we also think about, that, yes, we remain committed to fighting as vigorously as possible through law, through policy, through good leadership those cases that are clear-cut, but in all the other cases that are maybe—some would argue—a little less clear-cut, such as when our president is mocked, that we see that there too maybe you can excuse people the first time, but you shouldn't have to wait for the last time, that something demands—if we are to remain true to the beliefs that we have—that we do something about all of these other cases in the work that we do.
Let me close now with a final story, also a story that is about my friends. I'd like to tell you about some friends that I have because I'll bet you have friends just like these friends. They're nostalgic. They remember marching, you know, even if they were too young to have been alive to have marched, you know? Everyone remembers marching. No one remembers throwing tomatoes or rocks or having been part of the angry crowd that sicced the police dogs on the Freedom Riders or opened the fire hoses. No one wants to remember that in 1957 outside of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, federal troops had to be called out because of the mob that formed of people—who, I'm sure, were good and decent to their own kind, fathers and mothers, teenagers—who blocked the passage of schoolchildren who happened to be black who wanted to go to school to learn alongside schoolchildren who happened to be white. All you have to do is go back and look at the newsreels, the photographs. You can see the hatred on people's faces. You can tell the obscenities that they were about to shout. You just have to look at the old Norman Rockwell paintings in his inimitable style about the civil rights era.
Let's talk, though, about our friends, the friends who remember marching, because I have some friends who are like this, and I ask you to picture your friends. They talk about "back in the day," about the struggle, about how great it was, but then a cloud comes over them. Their disillusionment, their embitterment, it's almost palpable. You can feel it, because they pause, and then they say, "But that was then. This is now." They say, "Haven't we done enough?" Right? You know these people? They say, "I'm just sick and tired now of hearing about other people's problems."
I always wonder when these friends of ours say they're sick and tired of hearing about other people's problems, what they think it must be like to live with those problems. Right? As in the words of the great activist Fannie Lou Hamer—a name that should not be forgotten, a sharecropper's daughter—she said, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." But these friends of ours are people who were with us then but no longer. They say, "Haven't we passed laws? "Don't we all know you can't be a bigot? "Why do we still have to have a human rights department? "Conferences, sensitivity training. I just don't want to have any of it anymore." They say they're suffering from compassion fatigue.
Do you get the picture? Do you have friends like this? And they wind up asking this, because they're upset about affirmative action, about remedial programs, because they feel that, "Isn't it time for minorities to just get over it? You know, don't be so hypersensitive and politically correct. We've got to watch every joke that we tell at the office." And then these friends of ours, they wind up saying, "When does it end? When is it over?" So weary are they.
When they ask that question, it is with such sincerity that we must address it, and I always say, "You know, I don't think it will be over. I don't think it should end." And they shake their heads, and they say, "Oh, what a pessimist you are. Boo. "You think we're going to be at this and our children and their children?" I say, No, you know what? It's as an optimist, as a believer in the great American dream that beckons like a beacon of hope and opportunity that drew my parents here from halfway around the world and that drew so many of our ancestors, whether recently or in the distant past. I say—as a believer in this nation, in its greatest ideals—that I don't think it will ever end. I don't think it should be over. For here's what I mean: Maybe there's an analogy to be made—this is how law professors and lawyers reason—maybe there's a comparison here between diversity on the one hand and democracy on the other hand.
Think for a moment about democracy itself. Democracy, a great American invention—Well, the Greeks had some idea of it, but never before had it been seriously tried on a mass scale as it is here. Democracy is process, not an outcome. Democracy is something we participate in. We roll up our sleeves. We're part of the hurly-burly, the debate in the public square. We cast our ballots when there is an election. You know it is your right. You know it is your responsibility to voice your views. Democracy is not something that we finish, that we have as a product that we place on the shelf and admire. Democracy is all about expanding and inclusion, and, yes, it is frustrating from time to time. There have to be recounts. There is doubt. The processes could be improved and so on. But democracy is compelling to us exactly because it never ends. It's never over.
Think to yourself, in the election, the historical election that we had in 2008, when you went to cast your ballot—for my purposes, it doesn't matter who you voted for—this is not partisan. At your local school or polling place, as you were standing in line, if a man or a woman turned to you and said, "Voting? Elections? When is it over? When does it end? I'm just sick and tired of this democracy," you would realize, "Hmm, this person missed an important civics class in high school." Right? They don't get it. Right?
That's my point: maybe diversity's just the same. It's a process, not an outcome. It is about rights and responsibilities. It's about what is meaningful beyond our own lives and our families. We care, of course, as we should, about our own success and our family's, but we care too—or we should—about the nation, about the public, about the common good, about civic participation and engagement.
So maybe if we see democracy and diversity as twin processes that work together in parallel, we will have an answer to our friends, that we believe in democracy. We believe in diversity. We believe truly that this is the greatest nation on the face of the Earth. But the belief by itself does not make it so. We must then march again. Yes, we rest our weary feet every time, but we prepare then to march again. We march because we raise the standards ever higher, because race is not literally black-and-white. It is not figuratively, metaphorically, symbolically black-and-white. It is much more complex. If we work together, but only if we work together, we will be able to make good on these great ideals of ours. Thank you so very much. Thank you.