America’s Dearth of Open-Mindedness

Our slide into a so-called “opinion nation” has made it nearly impossible to find common ground, which will become increasingly necessary as the country becomes more diverse.

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People walk by a mural on a boarded-up business on November 25, 2014, in south St. Louis, Missouri. (AP/Jeff Roberson)
People walk by a mural on a boarded-up business on November 25, 2014, in south St. Louis, Missouri. (AP/Jeff Roberson)

As I watch the yapping in the media and online—all these contentious mouths that pass off their opinions as real news—an important question keeps popping up: Is there any issue on which Americans collectively agree or withhold judgment with fair-minded neutrality?

I can’t seem to find one.

Did Bill Cosby rape nearly two dozen women? Is Mitt Romney going to run for president for a third time? Should fired Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice be allowed to put his helmet back on and play professional football with a new team? Should President Barack Obama do or say more about what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of last week’s grand jury decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown?

Opinions on these and other issues are as varied as snowflakes but not nearly as cool. If you ask a group of people what they think, expect to hear an earful. Then again, maybe not. People seem willing to share their opinions freely but only among so-called “friends” who feel comfortable debating the issues of the day. Or the more daringly vile among us will pop off their views in the comments sections of any news site, where mean-spirited, racist, misogynic, and homophobic comments are shared with élan.

But what has become of open-mindedness on the pressing issues of the day? Is it necessary for each of us to have—and to express—an opinion about every topic that pans into view across our computer or television screens?

I raise these questions because I fear without a moderation in the endless stream of opinions or the rush to have one, it might be impossible to find common ground on any issue. And finding consensus will become more important as our nation becomes increasingly diverse.

In his new book Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America, Brookings Institution demographer William H. Frey argues that the nation’s racial complexion is changing right before our eyes, even as most Americans refuse to notice or modulate their views to the complexity of modern-day realities. In an excerpt from his book published on The New Republic website, Frey argues that interracial marriages and their offspring of mixed-race children will have a profound impact on the way Americans see themselves and view public life.

“The nation is not there yet,” Frey writes. “But the evidence for multiracial marriages and multiracial individual identity shows an unmistakable softening of boundaries that should lead to new ways of thinking about racial populations and race-related issues.”

Comedian and actor Chris Rock touched on this with hilarious insight during his recent interview with Frank Rich in New York magazine. “When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense,” Rock said. “There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.”

Rock has strong opinions, served up with humor and laced with acerbic wit. He envisions a future in which Americans will look back on their past racial opinions as something odd, old-fashioned, and out of touch, “like it’s a style that America went through,” he told Rich. “Like flared legs and lava lamps. Oh, that crazy thing we did. We were hanging black people. We treat [racism] like a fad instead of a disease that eradicates millions of people.”

The problem, from my point of view, is that what Frey calls “an unmistakable softening of boundaries” isn’t dissolving fast enough. To be specific, racism continues to infect our society, even if it’s less overt and nearly invisible at times.

Indeed, if you accept the research by social scientist john a. powell of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley, our view of civic life is shaped by silent, unnoticed racial animus that continues to weigh on Americans like gravity. As he noted in a recent Huffington Post column, many of our opinions are based on racial attitudes that very often we aren’t even aware we hold:

Recent evidence from neuroscience reveals that many Americans, even those who embrace egalitarian norms, harbor unconscious negative associations with black bodies. These anxieties and biases are fed to us by the frequent negative association with blacks — words and images that strengthen these unconscious but impactful associations. It is on account of these pervasive, culturally embedded associations that so many black people in this country are not only viewed with suspicion, but also as criminals, regardless of who they are.

At the heart of all this is a lack of compassion that would preclude the urge to force an opinion when open-mindedness is needed. But all Americans hold firm to the belief that they have a right to an opinion, no matter what it is. Or worse, what that opinion is doing to tear our nation asunder.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)