The world eyes an offramp from racism

The West’s new debate over past wrongs allows a humble receptivity to the universality of good.

In the Mississippi state Senate, Sen. Briggs Hopson, left, is hugged by Sen. Robert Jackson after the June 28 vote to change the state flag.

Sometime this week Mississippi will officially mark the end of its use of a state flag incorporating in its design the Confederate battle emblem 155 years after the end of the U.S. Civil War. It is the last state to abandon the symbol of racist secession.

Around the world symbols, language, and tropes of racism continue to fall. Germany and France are engaging in difficult debates about their colonial pasts. Australia is grappling anew with its treatment of Indigenous peoples and refugees. The European Union’s commissioner for equality has urged member states to find new approaches to ending discrimination against their Muslim communities. Even the country music trio The Dixie Chicks dropped “Dixie” – an old term of endearment for the Confederate South – from its name.

During the nearly 75 years since the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the West has promoted good governance and tied aid to democracy and the fair treatment of people in Africa and other less-industrialized countries. Yet during most of those years, many Western nations clung to colonial rule, coddled dictators, waged proxy wars, and made only halting progress toward equality within their own societies. The peoples of Africa and elsewhere endured the consequences and bristled at the contradiction.

A great reckoning with that legacy may now be underway. The overlapping crises of COVID-19, with its disproportionate impact on minority communities, and police brutality against Black and Hispanic people have stirred an overdue reassessment of the assumptions that have shaped the way Western governments and societies have viewed the rest of the world.

Just as the East/West division of geopolitics faded after the Cold War, classifying nations as either “developed” or “developing” is now losing currency. And just as the fall of the Berlin Wall and dismantling of apartheid in South Africa ushered in a new spirit of democratization across the globe, historians may one day look back to this moment as a decisive turn toward celebrating what different cultures share with each and welcoming a higher expectation of justice and equality.

Finding the courage to address past wrongs requires humility and with it a new receptiveness. As the conversation about race breaks open with fresh possibility, the West can be grateful for what other peoples and cultures have brought to ever-changing concepts of humanity. White people in the United States and Europe can be grateful for the invaluable contributions of nonwhite cultures. Music and art are richer for this diversity, sports more dazzling, intellectual and technological achievements more excellent, and notions of justice and human dignity deepened.

However imperfectly, the world is approaching a universality of good. The present stirring in Western societies to face the past illustrates the quiet power of the biblical injunction to “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

The test of this global shift lies first in its sincerity. Speaking of the historic moment in Mississippi when the Legislature voted to change the flag, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said, “This vote came from the heart. That makes it so much more important.”

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