Cox News Service
Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Last month, I visited Rwanda for the second time. Rwanda is a country of enormous beauty, and a country with important lessons for all of us. A decade after Rwanda’s horrible genocide, the Rwandans refuse to identify themselves by their former Hutu and Tutsi tribal traditions. Now they are all Rwandans. I should have learned in Rwanda.

We in America have had our share of violence and division over the ages. Maybe it is time for us to all be Americans.

Only as Americans, it seems, can we discuss and debate the social and economic challenges of our times, and they are many. Any ethnic reference — no matter how well-intentioned or objective in its original utterance in print, on television or in our Internet blogosphere — becomes fodder for scandal and infamy.

I was forced to deal with racism in all its horrors at 4 years old, growing up in New Orleans. My hometown was as culturally and racially diverse as any city in the South, and we struggled with ways to get along. The shopkeepers and small-business owners hailed from many countries. Irish families, Italian families, German families and others populated our neighborhoods.

Problems did exist, and people did not always agree on important issues. However, the melting pot was there. We all had to live in it together.

My survival depended on understanding, sensitivity and an unemotional awareness of the situations that engulfed my childhood. "Don’t get mad, get smart" was my father’s daily mantra. Be calm and think your way through difficulties, he often said, and always try to understand life from another’s perspective.

Those lessons have worked well for me over the past 70 years. I should not have relapsed or relaxed, as I did last week, when misguided remarks I made to a California newspaper were made widely known.

For decades in the civil rights movement, the Congress, at the United Nations, as mayor of Atlanta, in the Olympics and now in business, I have been able to build coalitions and understanding among diverse and often hostile groups.

We are very proud of the successful diverse development of our neighborhoods here in Atlanta. Our churches, universities, businesses, workers and young people represent a global community of more than 100 nations. Our schools are alive with students from many lands who study and socialize together with relative ease. Our sports fields and music studios regularly produce winners.

Atlanta has been an enlightened self-interest community that early on began to accept the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s admonition that "we must learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or we will perish together as fools."

Now, a lapse on my part, at a meeting of community leaders in Los Angeles, threatens what I have worked for and believed in. I must work harder, and we all must work harder, to guarantee opportunities and equality for all the children of God. I must never forget, nor should any of us, that sensitivity to the needs and concerns of others is paramount.

Society is much more fragile than we imagine. With the economy on a roller coaster, both our needs and our emotions are running high. I, of all people, should know better than to resort to any ethnic designations in any controversial context. I know my friends are aware of my lifetime desire to be a peacemaker, but I ask even those who furiously disagree with me to extend a hand of forgiveness and to say with me, "Let’s build a better world together."

Andrew Young, a veteran civil rights leader, was formerly a congressman, United Nations ambassador and mayor of Atlanta. This editorial appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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