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We Are the World | The Nation

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Diary of a Mad Law Professor

We Are the World

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At 5 o'clock in the
morning, the radio alarm begins to blare the news. The United States
is threatening to pull out of the World Conference Against Racism if
the conversation includes tensions between Israel and the
Palestinians. What a nightmare, I think as I sit up in bed. How can
the most powerful and diverse country on earth refuse to go to the
first global discussion of race? No one expected easy accord about
what's racial and what's not, but to refuse to attend the discussion
at all?

Perhaps I am unduly depressed because I am in a
small motel somewhere in...South Dakota, is it? Or maybe San Diego? I
made the terrible mistake of watching Planet of the Apes the
night before, in this dim room whose walls are flocked in orange fuzz
with silver trim. It is the end of a long week of speaking to
organizations that have called me in because someone has done
something like hang a big noose over a black person's work space, and
they would like me--me!--to get everyone speaking
again.

The last five days have involved flying into
Pittsburgh or Salt Lake City or Tampa in order to take a shuttle to
terminal Z, where militia members in camouflage or square dance teams
in pouffy skirts or troupes of young missionaries take flights to and
from small towns all over America in very small planes. I have been
lining up behind them, boarding ancient Cessna prop planes seating
ten--give or take carry-on weapons caches, guitars, extra Bibles and
box of diversity pamphlets--and bounce low to the ground all the way
to Saginaw or Elko or Huntsville or Dayton.

I get out of
bed and look for coffee on the room service menu. There is no room
service menu. There is no room service.

The gentleman who
comes to greet me on behalf of the Better Business Through
Multicultural Harmony Committee is from Bahrain and hails me like a
long-lost sister. I can assure you from personal experience how
dramatically America's demographics are changing; the smaller and
more off the beaten track the American town, the more likely the
confused little minority community will include representatives
recently arrived from Bangladesh or Sudan or Cambodia or
Cameroon.

The gentleman from Bahrain settles me into a
large, all-American car and whisks me off into the cornfields and
more cornfields. An hour later we hit a strip mall, turn left, a mile
and a half of soybeans--et voilà! East-West Central
Southern Industries (name changed to protect the innocent). The
conference room at whose door he deposits me has coffee! muffins! and
is really pretty pleasant, even given my yuppie
pretensions.

The problem I have been asked to tackle is a
new but essentially old-fashioned one. Someone with too much free
time has created a list of all the employees, put it online and
created the kind of cyberspatial graffiti that one hoped one never
had to think about after tenth grade, when notebooks were passed
around with a name on each page, and cruel anonymous comments were
scrawled beneath. This particular list ranks everyone by sexiness,
intelligence, dress and, perhaps most destructively, smell. The
comments are racialized, sexually crude, almost pathologically
immature but as hard to dismiss as a punch in the stomach. It is a
bully's shopping list of strategies to humiliate, and it has created
the intended havoc, spilling into the small town beyond. "Affirmative
action bitch. Wears Payless shoes," is a typically bitter little
entry.

It takes me all morning just to sort out who has
injured whom. Virtually everyone in the company has hurled enough
epithets to make everyone else on the planet hate them forever. I
decide to speak to just a few people, those in the best position to
try to make some systemic improvements.

The gentleman from
Bahrain volunteers to organize a dinner. He makes a few phone calls
on my behalf, and soon we are off to a Vietnamese restaurant in the
mall, where we meet with an odd assortment of community organizers
and spokesmen. The cast of characters includes a local black minister
who (like a weird inverted image of George W. Bush's saying that the
Nation of Islam was one of the world's great religions) is worried
that his new Islamic Moroccan neighbors are followers of Louis
Farrakhan. There's a white police officer who is sincerely trying to
smooth the waters while dropping phrases like "outside agitators" and
"stingy as a Jew." There's a Nigerian man with five sons who is
worried about his children being called "gang members" every time
they walk to school together. There's a Native-American man who shows
up to protest that no one remembered to invite him.

There's
the head of a local evangelical group trying to raise money to buy
Sudanese slaves in order to set them free. There's a representative
of a human rights agency who says that buying slaves is not a
political solution but rather encourages traders to raise the price.
"It's part of a larger global sex market," he says. "And it operates
right here in America--you don't have to travel to Eastern Europe or
Africa. Would you consider going to some big-time pimps, buying a few
sex slaves, setting them free on a street corner and really think
you'd accomplished much of anything in the way of eliminating the
business?"

There is a genial Republican Party leader who
wants me to meet a Mozambican woman who has been studying at the
local university and who is miserably homesick. "We haven't done our
job if she wants to go back to a country like that," he says, and
introduces me as "an example of what can be achieved in the US." She
is a charming person, with a degree from the Sorbonne. "Mozambique is
my home," she sighs wearily. "Americans know nothing of
Mozambique."

And there's a recently arrived Palestinian
refugee and a Jewish teacher whose family migrated to this town
seventy years ago. They are neighbors, and express overlapping
concerns about events in the Middle East. "We might not get along at
all if we were there. But here we are friends. Here," they add, "it
is everybody else." As we gaze around the room, it does seem as if
these two are the only ones on fully cordial terms.

"But,"
they conclude after a moment's reflection, "at least they all showed
up."

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