Our fractured response to Lott

Diversity is one of those words Americans have come to despise. Blame all the people who have used this rather charming word to assault personal freedom.

These well-meaning advocates tell us what we can say and what topics will get us in trouble. They create lists of offensive words, and develop topics that people of different backgrounds should not discuss.

In my opinion, they're a very big part of the reason diversity isn't working well.

Imagine for a minute a nation where the people are forbidden to make even a single mistake. Anyone who takes a risk is chastised and punished, and then later, if he or she is fortunate, afforded an opportunity to explain.

Senate Republican leader Trent Lott knows all too well what it feels like to be in that position.

Former Vice President Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, the Black Congressional Caucus, and President Bush all took Mr. Lott to task for implying the country might have been better off had Strom Thurmond been elected to the presidency in 1948 when he ran on a segregationist ticket.

Lott's comment came not in a speech, not in a pronouncement of domestic policy, but rather at Mr. Thurmond's 100th birthday celebration.

At the party, Lott noted the fact that when Thurmond ran for president on a states' rights, antiintegration ticket in 1948, Mississippi voted for him.

"We're proud of it," Lott said to celebrants' applause. "And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

Lott had tried to say something nice to an old friend. He has since apologized and said his comments should not be interpreted as support of segregationist policies.

Had I been at the party, I might have walked over and asked: "Senator Lott, were you implying you support segregationist policy? Because one might infer that from your comments."

Then Lott would have replied "no," and we could have spent the next few moments talking about where America is going, instead of where it has been.

As far as I know, no one took that approach.

Instead, the tutors of tolerance rushed in to serve as judge and jury.

Mr. Gore characterized the statement as "racist,'" and called on Lott to resign.

Mr. Jackson labeled the Mississippi Republican "an unrepentant Confederate who cannot speak for all Americans."

Even Mr. Bush lent his voice to the chorus. "Any suggestion that the segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive and it is wrong," the president said to applause Thursday.

The personal attack on Lott robbed Americans of the opportunity to discuss what it really might have been like had Strom Thurmond been elected president, and whether this nation, under Strom, might have strayed from its democratic principles.

If we had had that conversation in a responsible way, perhaps we might have come away from it with a fuller appreciation of our American journey.

Instead, the experience taught most of us to play it safe and to avoid conversations related to race. We have learned to say what we think others want to hear, and to act upon our real beliefs when nobody is watching.

As an African-American, I have learned through my own mistakes that the best way to promote tolerance is to be tolerant. The best way to promote inclusiveness is for me to engage those who misunderstand me in a dialogue. It is that simple.

Sensational newspaper reporting and America's tutors of tolerance are doing us all a grave disservice.

Tolerant people must practice listening to others, if they wish to be heard. They must accept that others will disagree, and that disagreeing does not necessarily mean one is a racist. They must challenge old ways of thinking by highlighting the fact that America's diversity helps us to sell to new markets, and strengthens our ability to lead a multiethnic world.

It is far better to help others learn the cultural competencies required to navigate our differences than to order everyone to think alike.

Freedom does not require conformity; rather, it requires the skills to disagree in productive ways and the faith that, in the end, it will turn out all right.

Linda S. Wallace, a former journalist, is a cultural coaching consultant in Philadelphia.

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