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Gwen’s Take: How we see each other … and how we don’t

On the afternoon after we learned a sixth church had burned under suspicious circumstances in a single week, and on the day before the 51st anniversary of Lyndon B Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act, I stepped onto a stage at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado.

The topic at hand was American Identity — how we see ourselves and how we see each other. The audience was overwhelmingly white; the assembled panelists on stage were not. This was by design.

The last few weeks have pried many of our eyes open. When the President showcased his gospel pipes at a Charleston, South Carolina, funeral, the rhythm and melodic traditions of black worship was a brand new thing for many of my white friends. (Valerie Jarrett, one of his top advisers, said he had made up his mind to sing Amazing Grace on the flight to Charleston, much to his wife’s astonishment. When he hesitated at the end of an emotional sermon, Jarrett said, it was only to settle on the right key.)

Ai-Jen Poo is an Asian American woman who works on behalf of domestic workers who speak dozens of languages.

James Fallows, the Atlantic Magazine correspondent, has traveled far and wide reporting on how people around the world see America. (They want to be us, but don’t always like us.) He happily occupied the “Token White Guy” seat.

Ashanti Branch is a burly and gentle dreadlocked middle school principal in Oakland who has made it his mission to move young black boys from disadvantage to advantage through his program, “Ever Forward.” As a young black man, he is used to being treated as a threat.

Michele Norris, the NPR host, has created an online portal called “The Race Card Project” where thousands of people have expressed their views on race and identity in revealing six-word snippets. She is black. And she is from Minnesota. Her father fought for his country, but faced discrimination when he returned home. All of these things define her.

Joe Echevarria, who grew up in the rundown South Bronx and found a way out through a program that funneled him into private schools and higher education, just retired as CEO of Deloitte LLP. Fully conscious of his roots as a Puerto Rican kid who grew up poor in the same public housing project as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, he now runs the “My Brother’s Keeper Alliance” to help young men of color.

Elizabeth Alexander was our grace note. A soulful African- American writer who wrote and delivered the inaugural poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Obama’s first inaugural, she talked of her identity as an educator — at Yale — and also as the mother of two boys.

It was a heady mix of experience made more so by the unscripted questions I solicited from the audience.

There was the Native American woman who implored us not to forget the nation’s original indigenous identity. There was the young white man who wondered aloud whether the American Dream was dead. And there was the question from the young, African scholar who wanted to know what we were willing to die for.

Echevarria had the best answer to that: it’s not what we will die for. It’s what we will live for.

I saw today that the U.S. Census has officially concluded that the majority of Americans under the age of 5 are children of color. Yet we still live in a world where our continuing tugs of war over identity periodically explode into incomprehensible violence and resentment.

I see this next generation coming of age, and I know it is more important than ever that we learn to see each other.

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