Governor Gary Locke’s Remarks
Washington State University Campus Dialogue
April 30, 1998
I want to begin by thanking every one of you for being here this morning. I'd also like to thank the YWCA for designating today as a National Day of Commitment to Eliminate Racism, and for sponsoring events like this one all across the country. And I'd like to thank the two Presidents who are responsible for convening this event: President Sam Smith, and President Bill Clinton.
One of the most important measures of a leader is not how much they promise us, but how much they ask of us. That's why I admire both President Clinton's call for a national dialogue on race, and President Smith's willingness to host this meeting.
These two leaders have asked us to do something difficult: they've asked us to take personal responsibility for moving American history forward. They've asked us to open up, and to critically examine our own feelings and beliefs. And even more important, they've asked us to really listen to each other.
They've asked us to listen not with the intent of picking each other apart, but with the intention of actually understanding each other's experience and perspectives. And they've asked us to listen, to learn, and to connect with each other not just to make conversation, but to make progress.
This is a new strategy for social change in America. In the past, we've made progress on race relations by organizing demonstrations and sit-ins; by fighting for the passage of new laws; and by mounting court cases that challenged discriminatory practices. But this is the first time in history that there's been a concerted national effort to make progress simply by talking and listening to each other.
I think this is a brilliant strategy. Think about it for a moment: We're not here to talk about what government ought to do to solve the problems of discrimination and prejudice. We are here to talk about what each of us can do - as a citizen, and as a human being. We are here to identify the ways in which each of us has the power to heal, the power to change, the power to make progress happen.
We are here to claim ownership of our common future. And we are here to take responsibility for creating it.
We all know that we cannot undo the injustices of the past. But neither can we deny the power of the past, because the past is the raw material from which the present was created.
To create a better future, we have to study the past, and understand the past. We have to grieve for those who suffered from racial injustice, because our willingness to grieve builds our capacity for compassion and our commitment to justice.
I know that there are those who would rather wipe away the past, and simply resolve to do better in the future. But we can't just choose between focusing on the past and focusing on the future. We have to do one in order to do the other.
And that's true of a whole host of other facets of this issue, too: We have to avoid being pulled into the trap of making false choices.
Let me give you some other examples of this problem of false choices.
When I was growing up, I got the message that I had to choose between being Chinese and being American. To be an American meant rejecting my parents and the culture of my family. I tried that. It didn't work. It just confused me more, and upset my parents.
It took the civil rights movement to teach me that I could be both Chinese and American: I could be Chinese-American. I could be myself. I could be as loyal and patriotic as anyone else, and still eat with chopsticks.
And here's another false choice: Either we are a colorblind society, or we are a racist society. The idea here is that the only way we can see each other as equals is to be blind to each other's ethnicity. If we accept this choice, we imply that ethnic differences are the problem, and the solution is to convince ourselves that we don't see the problem. That's just plain neurotic.
Ethnic differences are not the problem. The problem is prejudice. And the solution is to learn to see prejudice more clearly - in other people, but more importantly in ourselves - so that we can overcome it.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s most famous statement was that he dreamed of the day when people would be judged "on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin." But he never said we all had to be blind to do this. We can see and appreciate and enjoy our ethnic differences, and still judge each other on the content of our character. The critical issue is that we not judge each other by the color of our skin.
The final false choice I want to talk about is a variation of this same theme. It is the idea that we must choose between unity and diversity. To me, that's a false choice that is truly un-American.
Vaclav Havel, the first democratically-elected President of Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism, developed the idea that every nation has a gift to give the rest of the world. He talks about how, after decades of living with the lies of communism, his country is determined to be truthful about everything. That is what he wants the Czech Republic to give to the world: the gift of its commitment honesty; to what he calls "living in truth."
So I hope that as part of our discussion today, we will reflect on what America's gift to the world is.
Our national motto is "E pluribus unum" - out of many, one. And this is - or ought to be - America's gift: the gift of cultural pluralism grounded in the principles of mutual respect and democracy.
Our gift to the world is our relentless quest for unity that arises out of diversity; for unity based not on ethnicity or religion, but unity based on our common commitment to the idea of democracy. It is a gift the world needs badly - in Bosnia, in Sri Lanka, and in Rwanda, to name just a few places where people have been killing each other over religious and ethnic differences. Our gift is not that we have achieved the goal of perfect unity. Our gift is the example we set by trying - by efforts like this one, where we confront our most deeply-held differences by talking rather than shooting.
We will never achieve perfection. But we can certainly come closer than we have so far. And we can begin by simply by letting down our defenses and by listening to each other with open hearts and open minds. This might not be comfortable or familiar, but it is absolutely necessary to the future of our country, and to the future of this campus and this community.
In a little town in Vermont, there's a tiny think-tank called the Center for Living Democracy. Their web page has a saying that ought to guide our discussion this morning. And it is that "democracy is not something we have; it's something we do." Truly, we are all here this morning to "do" democracy - to listen to each other, to reflect on our common future, and to find ways to make that future the very best for all of us.
So let's get started . . . and let's move forward.
Thank you very much.