One of the things that stuck with me most during my trip to London last year was the incredible diversity of the city. Anglo-Saxons, Indians, Sikhs, the whole nine yards. People from seemingly everywhere came to live or work in the English capital.
All of this makes sense for those who know anything about British History. Everyone comes to live in Britain because the British basically controlled everyone at one time or another. The Battle of Hastings in 1066 eventually led to Pax Britannica and an empire so large that the sun very literally “never set on the British Empire.”
That empire began to crumble when a war fought against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan for the freedom of the world revealed the inherent contradiction between colonialism and self-determination. When the Japanese Army swept across Southeast Asia, it showed the world that Europeans were not invincible.
From this history of cultural imperialism and exchange comes the incredible diversity of London. There, I saw the impact of history. History walked up and down the streets. History took the Tube every morning. History stopped at Greggs for a terrible-for-you, but so-dang-good breakfast roll.
Somehow it felt like London was doing it right, or at least better than Minneapolis. Minneapolis is certainly diverse, but it also feels divided in ways that London did not. Religions, ethnicities, and languages all came together in the melting pot of London. In Minneapolis, the effects of de facto segregation seem more readily apparent.
I don’t know if Minneapolis is truly as I perceive it to be or if my biases are distorting the truth. What I do know is that, for the first time in my life, I FELT the power of history. What I was experiencing at that very moment was a product of a millennium of cause and effect. I already knew that to be true, but now I had the personal experience to back it up.
Now, it’s almost impossible to un-see. I can see, in our objectively awesome Constitution, a product of our two previous governments. I see a powerful presidency created by Hamilton, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. When I look at Congress and see a body nearly perfectly representative of American adults, I see a society rising above its own discriminatory history to embrace religious freedom and tolerance.
Unfortunately, that’s not all I see. I see centuries of benign neglect whenever I notice American individualism that frequently borders on selfish or callous. I see centuries of gender discrimination when a report indicates that St. John’s University graduates get the most bang for their educational buck, yet sister-school College of St. Benedict finishes 20th, despite being the EXACT SAME SCHOOL. I see our nation’s uneasy relationship with race and ethnicity when Lyndale’s trendy cafes and sea of White faces turns into Lake Street’s run-down ethnic eateries run by Hmong and Somali immigrants.
History lives and breathes all around us. Only when we understand why things are the way they are can we address them in one way or another.