By Michael W. Waters
Author, Freestyle: Reflections on Faith, Family, Justice, and Pop Culture
Metaphors for American Diversity: Salads, Melting Pots, Tapestries, and Mosaics
On October 27, 1976, Georgia governor and then presidential candidate James Earl Carter Jr. offered one of his final campaign speeches in Pittsburgh. In this speech, Carter stated, “We [America] have become … a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.”
Over the course of American history, many metaphors have been employed to describe the diversity of our nation – for example, a salad, melting pot, or tapestry. Some people prefer the salad metaphor. However, this metaphor proves inadequate as a descriptor of authentic diversity because it lacks connectivity – individual parts of the salad can be easily separated from the whole.
Others have favored the melting pot, noting America as a place where all races and cultures assimilate into a cohesive whole. Cultural assimilation, however, commonly results in forced assimilation into the dominant culture, which moves far from the goals of authentic diversity. Thus, the melting pot metaphor proves inadequate too.
Lauded poet laureate Maya Angelou once stated that as Americans, “We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.” At first glance, the tapestry may appear a suitable metaphor for our nation’s diversity. Yet, a tapestry can often appear sturdier than its true condition. Until a tapestry is moved or handled, which in itself may cause damage, it is difficult to appreciate the full extent of degradation in the tapestry. A tapestry proves likewise an inadequate descriptor. It may give the illusion of strength and togetherness when in fact it is weak and brittle.
In search of an adequate descriptor, Carter’s mosaic emerges as an intriguing prospect. With a history reaching back to second-millennium BC Mesopotamia and extending to the present day, mosaic is “the art of creating images with an assemblage of small pieces of colored glass, stone, marble, shells, or other material wherein the small pieces of materials are placed together to create a unified whole.” Over this long history, many cultures and religious traditions have used mosaics everywhere from houses of worship to royal palaces and seats of government.
Unlike a salad or tapestry, with a mosaic, the whole is not easily separated, and there is no illusion of strength. Ancient mosaics have survived floods, earthquakes, and mudslides. In contrast to the melting pot, in a mosaic the individual pieces retain their identity and are clearly seen and identified within the whole. The mosaic emerges as a picture of strength and of unity amid diversity, and as such, proves itself a useful descriptor for our greatest hopes for America.
Diversity and Racism
Our nation’s diversity is of unmeasurable value to the whole. At the same time, our nation’s history is riddled with the glaring and stubborn stains of racism. Amid the horrid historically intricacies of this stain are newborns ripped from the arms of their mothers, broken treaties with native nations, concentration camps constructed on the western frontier, unequal pay for equal work, and an often unjust justice system that purports to be color-blind yet rules with color consciousness.
Racism is composed of three dimensions, influencing individual, communal, and institutional realities. Racism is fully corruptible, its impact far-reaching, touching generations yet unborn. Racism is a vice with a real body count. And given the history of racism in our nation, the ongoing work to eradicate its errors is essential.
What is true for creating a mosaic is also true for eradicating racism; it is a tedious process. Racism’s eradication must first occur within the heart. No amount of legislation nor laws passed can ever change the heart. As a matter of the heart, the fight to eradicate racism is a deeply personal, even spiritual, undertaking. Given this reality, spiritual practice is required to eliminate racism and to form an authentic and beautiful mosaic of diversity and mutual respect in our nation.
First, as spiritual practice, eradicating racism requires repentance. This is because racism is a sin. The first Johannine epistle explicitly declares this truth in relationship to the Divine. The epistle writer penned, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). Confessing the sin of racism is good for the American soul! It is only after repentance that true healing in our nation can begin. Here the words of Hebrew Scripture ring true: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
Second, eradicating racism also requires forgiveness. Individuals and communities that have suffered under the scourge of racism must find strength from God to forgive their oppressors. Unforgiveness is like a cancer to the soul and can breed hate, causing people to become like those they hate. The inherent difficulties related to forgiving those who have mistreated you require a commitment to the spiritual practice of prayer. This practice is best exemplied by Jesus, who during his crucifixion prayed for his persecutors, saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Finally, but most important, eradicating racism requires great courage. Whenever and wherever we see the ugly stain of racism, we must be willing to speak out against it. We cannot remain silent! As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” Neither repentance nor forgiveness can be accomplished without those who are courageous enough to stand for truth and justice, pointing out the stain of racism, then challenging us all to work together toward its eradication.
Through repentance and forgiveness with great prayer, and with a commitment to remain courageous in the face of challenge, let’s commit ourselves to the spiritual odyssey of eradiating racism.
Let’s get to work! We have a beautiful mosaic to build.
The Reverend Dr. Michael W. Waters is founding pastor of Joy Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas. As pastor, preacher, professor, author, motivational speaker, and community organizer, Dr. Waters’s words of hope and empowerment have inspired national and international audiences.