Staff editorial: Tolerance not enough

NW Staff

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote those words nearly 46 years ago in a now-famous letter from within the confines of a city jail in Birmingham, Ala. King had been arrested just hours before for his involvement in a non-violent protest against segregation.

King always knew that he had enemies, people who fundamentally disagreed with the values he held most dear. But what he has the most trouble accepting when he wrote the letter was the idea that so many people seemed largely indifferent to the timeless qualities that he ultimately gave his life for.

President Barack Obama’s recent inauguration certainly gave Americans much cause for celebration. It is a benchmark from which we can look toward the past and see how far we have come. A spotted history of slavery and Jim Crow laws has given way to the spectacle that was Tuesday morning, when nearly 2 million Americans gathered on the chilled grounds of the nation’s capital to witness the swearing in of their first black president.

But four decades after King’s death, lukewarm acceptance, or even basic tolerance – of different races, cultures, values and belief systems – is still the norm. There is a seldom-recognized line that exists between “tolerance” and “acceptance.” While tolerance is the practice of respecting the beliefs and practices of others, that is still a far cry from truly accepting something or someone.

Tuesday also offered a point from which we, as a nation, can actually begin to heal those wounds created so many decades ago and accept the differences inherent in our culture.

For many, Obama will represent the initial exposure to a black man in a position of political power. This image may help to change subconscious racial perceptions in our society. It will become a normal, if not expected part of everyday life.

Although Obama’s simple presence may not change the most bigoted of minds, it can begin the process of soothing racial relations in this country.

Because in a country once considered the melting pot of the world, mere tolerance of other people, ideas and lifestyles will never be enough. As Obama said in his inaugural speech, “we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth”

Now we need to start acting like it.