The teenage son of a friend of mine has grown up in a college community. His classmates in the high school he attends are largely, like him, the children of faculty from the city's university. Unlike him, however, many were not born in the United States. In fact, most are from countries half a world away.
This is a smart kid who studies conscientiously. He also watches television, listens to popular music, and reads newspapers, so he is not entirely oblivious to realities beyond his small patch of earth. Recently, I asked him a question.
"In your whole life," I said, "have you ever heard one of your contemporaries refer to someone else using a derogatory term that denigrated the other person's race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin?"
He thought hard for a full 30 seconds before answering, but I knew what his response would be.
His father and I exchanged meaningful glances. Old school pals ourselves, we come from a working-class community in which hard-to-pronounce European or Hispanic surnames are still the norm. Indeed, both of us have such surnames. And both of us had grown to maturity hearing -- and, at times, using -- every conceivable epithet for people unlike ourselves.
"It's a different world," said my friend.
He was right -- but for the wrong reason.
The November 2005 riots of North Africans living in France highlighted a phenomenon that has existed outside the U.S. for centuries. Largely homogeneous, the other countries of the world continue to maintain an "us" and "them" mentality when it comes to natives versus newcomers. The American concept of the "melting pot" is still an alien notion in most parts of Europe and Asia.
The Japanese look down their noses at Koreans and blame a growing domestic crime problem on Chinese immigrants. Indonesians and Malaysians have been cursing each other for decades over petty land disputes. Hindus and Moslems in India routinely slaughter each other. Britons fear the "Polish plumber" -- the bogeyman Eastern European migr who is willing to work in England for less money than his home-grown counterparts. And more than a decade after reunification, residents of the former West Germany still refer to their brothers and sisters from East Germany as lazy swine.
Such attitudes can have profound effects on U.S. companies doing business overseas. Any outsider -- even one bringing jobs or placing orders for goods -- is still considered an outsider. And should an American firm establish a manufacturing presence on foreign soil, the company's managers need to know from the start that within their workforce may be people who harbor resentments against certain fellow employees -- resentments that could easily boil over into violence.
No one would deny that America has had its share of problems in this regard over the years. But compared with much of the rest of the world, the United States today is a veritable love-fest of brotherhood.
Just don't always expect to find something similar once you leave her shores.