Sixty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed that someday, the content of one’s character would rise above the color of one’s skin. A recent email and a newspaper article lead me to believe that real equality remains a dream—for reasons you may not suspect. 

The email came from a literary publication. Like most, it charges authors a small reading fee. Race and ethnicity, it seems, play a role in their handling of submissions.

For a limited (though not first) time, the publication would waive its fee for writers defined as BIPOC—Black, Indigenous and People of Color. That seems generous. It strikes me as problematic.

Is BIPOC synonymous with poor or financially stressed? Conversely, are all whites and Jews sufficiently well off so that they can afford to submit material? 

Yes, widespread poverty exists among BIPOC communities. But the poor and impoverished also are to be found among whites and Jews. There must be more to BIPOC than a one-size-fits-all label. BIPOC folks I’ve known are middle- and upper-middle class. Shouldn’t financially sound BIPOC writers pay the fee? And how is justice served when struggling white and Jewish writers are rendered invisible, as BIPOC writers once were?

I’m also bummed by Justin Phillips’ July 4th column in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Burst of patriotism feels alien when you’re Black.” I read Phillips regularly and no, he doesn’t represent all African Americans, as I don’t represent all American Jews. But still.

Phillips writes that in the Bay Area, Blacks and whites live in different Americas. I see that. I also get it that celebrating the Fourth cannot erase a history of slavery, Jim Crow and later pernicious forms of racism. 

But should African Americans forego MLK’s dream of an America in which we all share a devotion to principles of democracy and equality before the law—even if the struggle to implement them continues? 

When I see the flag and hear the national anthem, I acknowledge the past—including anti-Semitism which, sadly, remains. But I refuse to let the past define me, to surrender my right to be an American equal to any. For me, these symbols stand for more than a checkered history; let us also remember the greatness of this nation, the home it provides immigrants, its role in helping stabilize a difficult world. 

Call me naïve, but the flag and the anthem represent the best our nation can be, principles we must continuously cultivate. 

“Ebony and Ivory,” the 1982 hit single by Paul McCartney and performed with Stevie Wonder, tells us it takes a full keyboard to make beautiful music. The song also recognizes that we don’t yet live together in perfect harmony. 

Elevating character over color requires a long slog, and the relationship between white and African Americans will never be as simple as black and white. 

Still, arriving at a shared form of patriotism strikes me as imperative. As George Packer writes in the July/August Atlantic (“The Four Americas”), “If your goal is to . . . reverse inequality, or stop racism, or rebuild democracy, you will need the national solidarity that comes from patriotism.”

I pray that this nation demonstrates the will to propel ourselves forward by understanding our past rather than remaining stuck in place by chaining ourselves to it.

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  1. Manfred Wolf on July 9, 2021 at 8:33 pm

    Outstanding essay — sensible and persuasive.

    • David Perlstein on July 9, 2021 at 10:14 pm

      Thanks, Manfred. These days, “sensible” doesn’t always seem to account for much.

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