America: Troubled, Just Like Everywhere Else

I’ve been watching the events in Ferguson unfold, and my jaw has dropped further and further to the ground. That this is happening in 2014 is a reminder to me that no matter how my life might be sheltered from racial tension, it’s a very real thing elsewhere in the country–and not just “the South.”

Of course, I need to throw in my continual disclaimer that I don’t know what actually happened in the original act that set current events in motion. Police tell one story (that Michael Brown was in a physical altercation with an officer, and that he was trying to get the officer’s gun) and witnesses tell another (that police accosted Brown for no good reason, then shot at him when he tried to run, then continued shooting when he tried to surrender.)

This isn’t a post about who was wrong and who was right in this case. Currently there’s no way of knowing until more facts come to light. But what isn’t under dispute is everything that’s happened since. The public protests of the shooting that started non-violent and escalated into riots. The police response to those protests, including rubber bullets, tear gas, arrests, riot gear, and the like. Arresting journalists? For being in McDonald’s? Things are spiraling out of control, and it’s bringing out the worst in some people (police included), as out of control events are wont to do.

You can read about all of that on the news–no need for me to go over all of it here. No, what I wanted to type up today was a thought I had that this situation sparked in me. Often America is insulated from the events happening elsewhere in the world. We read about what’s happening in Egypt or Ukraine or Russia or Iran, and it’s easy to think that those countries are completely out of control. That life in those places is one continuous scene from Black Hawk Down.

Growing up, I was sure–sure–that life behind the Iron Curtain was nonstop drudgery. It was awful, gray, and gloomy, with the secret police waiting around every corner to whisk people off to prison. Every single person over there was unhappy, and they all wished they could be happy capitalists. Imagine my surprise when I lived in East Germany for a few years and met many people who missed the former Communist days. Or when I married Denisa and heard stories about what it was like growing up behind the Iron Curtain. Yes, there were lines for toilet paper. Yes, there were conversations you couldn’t have. But there was also a lot of regular life going on. School. Sports. Everyday living.

Before I went to Jerusalem for study abroad, I was a bit apprehensive. This was the place where they had riots and suicide bombers, after all. It had to be dangerous on a daily basis, right? But again, once I was there, I saw firsthand how that wasn’t the case. (No comment on the current violence in Israel. There were certainly no rocket attacks when I was there in 2000, so I’m not sure how that compares.) But while I saw a large military presence and plenty of guns, I also saw a lot of people just living life. Palestinians and Jews getting along, going about their business without constant violence.

This is a roundabout way of coming to my topic (sorry). But imagine for a moment (if you’re American) what it must be like for a person outside of the country at the moment, reading about these events. Combine that with all the other pop culture depictions of race relations in America, and it wouldn’t take too long to jump to the assumption that people of color in America are under constant assault. That it’s riots and rubber bullets from sunup to sundown.

Unfortunately, these things do happen. America has a real problem with race, and I’m not sure if it’s a problem that will ever be fixed. But at the same time, these events do not represent what’s happening in the entire country. Ukraine has had a lot of unrest recently, but I imagine most of the people in Ukraine continued living their lives as normal, unaffected by the events beyond how I’m currently affected by the events in Ferguson: they read about it in the news, form an opinion about it, worry about it in an abstract way, and then go back to their life. Again, I’m not trying to dismiss these events. They’re serious–wherever they take place.

But my main point (here at last!) is that America is no better than these other countries. We have our own issues that–when taken in isolation–can lead foreigners to form certain opinions about our country in the same way some Americans like to jump to conclusions about how life is abroad.

Man. After all that build up, maybe my conclusion isn’t all that earth shattering after all. Then again, I imagine there’s a fair number of people who would bristle as soon as they read “America is no better than these other countries.” America is teh best!1!! Freedom. Bald eagles! Rawr!

And I suppose that’s all I have to say about that for the moment.

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