Mourning a moment passed: when race didn't matter

For one brief shining moment, christened by the shared tragedy of Sept.11, we dropped our political guard to peek out from behind our labels.

With the large exception of Arab- and Muslim-Americans, the hyphens ahead of our heritages were filed away. There were no African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, or Jewish-Americans. Vulnerable, we were just Americans, indivisible with our precious liberty and justice - minus the ostracized descendants of Middle Easterners, who soon learned they were the "new minority," singled out for more than racial epithets.

Not yet ready to board planes en masse, we followed when singer Billy Joel put us all in a New York state of mind. Jokes about the White House being in Chocolate City melted away, only to reveal pride in revisiting memorials taken for granted. Another Joel tune makes plain what we can do to preserve random acts of kindness: "Leave a Tender Moment Alone."

We had it, and oh man, it felt good. Better than good. Immediately after we witnessed a gaping hole in the heart of our defense and heroes lost forever, meanness melted, traffic slowed, and racial differences were put aside. In those intense hours that made up the first few days of reaction, we were one voice, aching for peace, decrying the foulness of profiling, and passing the collection plate.

Now that the candles are dusty, what's happened to the undeniable moment of truth? One answer tops the list: Tenderness is no longer alone; it has lots of familiar company.

Over and over, commentators warned us that the tenderness wouldn't last. Church attendance has tapered off; perhaps because those who rushed back believe the crisis has subsided.

Marriages that managed a last-minute reprieve need more serious counsel. Time set aside for hugs has evaporated into its former schedule. Neighbors race to work for companies that haven't yet laid off whole towns. There's less talk about world issues and the hunt for Osama bin Laden. And those labels have driven fearful groups back into clusters. Nowhere is that more in evidence than in the interpretation of art.

A stirring photo of three New York firefighters hoisting an American flag at the site of the World Trade Center sparked a controversy on political correctness. Many people wept at the sight of such camaraderie and patriotism. Sadly, the tender moment captured in that unrehearsed photo had lots of company, as sides squared off about whether the white firefighters in the picture should be dismissed to make way for a statue that included one white, one black, and one Hispanic firefighter. Now the plan for a statue has been shelved.

As a woman of color, I wouldn't have minded had it featured three white firefighters. It's political correctness run amok when an argument over diversity forces groups to spar over a lifeless statue. Other more pressing issues should help maintain our concern for fellow man. A dangerous war in Afghanistan threatens to spill more American soldiers onto the cold trail of an evil terrorist network, while homelessness rises and millions are unemployed. Arguing about diversity and being diverse are two different things.

We've lost sight of what's truly important in the permanent wake of that horrifying Tuesday. People can't eat a statue or shelter a family under it. What should concern us more is how the term "brother firefighter" is rarely evoked now that some ruffled feathers had the audacity to mention race.

Erect an all-white statue, then deal with why a city the size of New York claims an embarrassingly low percentage of black and Hispanic firefighters.

Race continues to creep into every facet of life because it is the one conundrum that many agree nobody really wants to talk about. While the attack on America temporarily resulted in more tolerance, the extended compassion is rapidly fading. I wish we would leave it alone, and build on what we learned in September: We need each other to win the war of good versus evil.

Earlier this month, the prophetic words of Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King Jr. were deeply felt because fresh memories of a tender moment challenged us. Supporting Dr. King's words with action is much more difficult when skin color jumps out before any judgment is allowed on content of character. One thing is sure - an argument over a statue defeats its intended purpose of American unity.

Until we stop using labels to separate cultures, our troubles will remain just behind the dash of indifference. I vote we leave a tender moment alone, to give it the chance to grow into a full minute.

• Joyce King is a freelance writer.

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