Today is Thanksgiving in America. It is one of the most beloved holidays in the country, unburdened by the stresses of gift-giving, religious belief and cultural practices that so often permeate the Christmas period. Mostly it is a day when Americans, and increasingly those who aren’t Americans, simply give thanks for the gifts life has bestowed on us – gifts of love and family and friends, of the joys and challenges of work, sometimes even of illness or other limitations that, paradoxically, have also opened us up to something deeper and more valuable in ourselves and others that we had not known before.
But today I’m also thinking about the very first Thanksgivings in which the Pilgrims gave thanks for the new land, and for the welcome given to them by the American Indians already living here that enabled them to survive those first harsh winters.
We celebrate Thanksgiving for the best of what America wants to stand for: a welcome to those who want a chance to live, to work, to breathe free. What we rarely remember on Thanksgiving, or on any other day, is that as a result of the arrival of the white man, 80 to 90% of those American Indians who had welcomed the first settlers had died. They died because we killed them with our guns, because we drove them off their hunting grounds and off the lands where they had lived for hundreds of years, they died of the small pox we brought with us, from the alcohol to which we introduced them. The terrible truth which few of us admit to ourselves is that America is built on an ethnic cleansing as ruthless as any 20th century Holocaust.
Science has now discredited the entire concept of “race,” but the terrible, agonizing truth is that this arrogant belief in our racial supremacy has continued. Whether the police officer in Ferguson, Missouri should have been indicted for shooting an unarmed Black teenager to death last summer, I do not know for certain. But what I do know for certain is that there remains a deep river of prejudice against Blacks in America. Black Africans were brought to America unwillingly as slaves. There are Whites who still believe that they should be their masters.
We could concentrate on trying to change these attitudes. But I suspect there are more immediate viable steps we can take. If neighbourhood police wore cameras, for instance, experiments in California and in other countries show that complaints against police brutality drop significantly. This is because false claims are now often disprovable. But it’s also because police, who are now held accountable for their actions, engage in far less bullying and unnecessary force.
There are other practical steps we can take. We do not need simply to ring our hands in frustrated anger and helplessness.
But enough for now. Wherever you live, and whoever you are, I would like to wish you and those you love a Thanksgiving in which you are overwhelmed with gratitude for so much that we each have been given.