IMG_4386  Jay's nephew and his new best buddy in Pre-K.

27 years ago my family adopted my youngest sister. She came to us 3 weeks before I left for college. I will never forget the day that mom and dad drove home from picking her up. My whole family was there to greet her. Mema and Papa and all of the aunts and uncles welcomed her into our family just as if she had been born into it. From the first moment I saw her and held her I knew she was my sister, and immediately I forged a bond with her that stands strong to this day. We are both parents now and her little boy stays with me and my family every Saturday night, and he is one of my most beloved family members.

My little sister, Amanda, is bi-racial. Her birth mother is white and her birth father is black. Amanda was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen and she is, to this day, a beautiful young lady. She has an olive complexion with dark black hair and a smile that is bright enough to light up the room.

Amanda was adopted into a west Texas oil field family. My dad was concerned when she was little because West Texas was primarily a mix of white and Hispanic with very few black families. Racism had never been an issue that I knew of because were all either oil field or cotton field families and we all struggled. But my dad was concerned that someone would say something racist to my little sister so he was on hyper-alert and we were taught to be as well.

If you have never been to West Texas, and there aren’t a lot of reasons to go there, I can tell you that the people of West Texas are about the best people in this country. They are polite, hardworking, nice to the point of “give you the shirt off their back” and just good, wholesome people. I can honestly say we never heard a racist remark directed to Amanda in West Texas.

But we did hear a remark one time. We were on our annual 2-day vacation to Dallas to go to Six Flags, and we were eating breakfast at IHOP. A lady at the table next to us kept staring at Amanda and shaking her head. When she had finished eating the lady walked to our table and asked about Amada. She wanted to know if she was a friend of the family or if she was with us. My dad proudly said that she was his daughter. This lady then said with a snide, “I think it is flat out wrong that a white family should raise a black child and rob her of her culture.”

The lady who came to our table was a black woman and her remarks caused our table and the tables around us to fall silent. It had honestly never occurred to me that we might be taking something from Amanda. To me, all we had ever given her was unconditional love and she was as big a part of our family as me or my other sister. We sat silently for a minute and then my dad said something I will never forget. He said, “Lady, we are from Big Spring, Texas. We don’t have culture in Big Spring. We just have family.”

The lady stood there for a moment. She looked again at Amanda, then back to my dad, and then turned to walk away. Amanda, who was 3 at the time, yelled, "Bye!" and waived as the lady left. I could tell my dad was seething, but he turned to us and said, “Never forget that loving each other is the most important thing you will ever do. Family is stronger that culture, or skin color, or money.” I have never forgotten that day.

I guess because of Amanda I have maintained a heightened awareness of racial overtones. When I see things, like the ongoing protests and riots in Ferguson, it truly saddens me. I see people pitting themselves against each other purely on the basis of the color of their skin. I see people who decide not to like each other because they look different. They never even get to know the people they decide not to like. It reminds me of what my Papa said. He told me, “Son, it takes a special kind of stupid to dislike someone because of the color of their skin.”

So why does the racial divide still exist in so many places? Why do kids, who when they are small love and play with all kids, suddenly decide they do not want to play with another child because of the way they look? Watch small children some time. They will all play together – white, black, brown and yellow. No problem. If they are willing to run and scream then they are in. But as they get older, we begin to see some kids separating themselves and even getting ugly with other kids who look different. They begin to learn to not like other people because they look different or talk different or act different. In other words, racism is taught.

The funny thing about racism is that its existence makes no sense. A black man, brown man, and white man who all grow up in West Texas will have a lot more in common than two white men who grew up in West Texas and New York City respectively. A black women and a white woman that grew up in the Pacific Northwest will have much more in common than two black women who grew up in Atlanta and Portland respectively. Racism just doesn’t make sense.

So what do we do about it? We have to begin, at a very early age teaching our kids that people are people. Yes, some people look different but those differences bring us the variations we have in our society. Think how bland our eating choices would be if there was only one culture and one color. Think of how bland our music would be if we were all the same culture and color. Think of how bland life would be if we all looked alike and acted alike and ate alike and talked alike. Differences are what make us intriguing. Differences are what make life exciting. Differences should be celebrated not shunned.

One of the big emphasis points of Leaps is that kids need to learn to be themselves, be comfortable with who they are, but then afford the same comfort to the people around them. It teaches our kids that every race, every culture, both genders, and people from all walks of socio-economic life have made contributions to our world that make each and every one of our lives better. If you live in a home, talk on a phone, ride in a car, go to the doctor, eat in a restaurant, and just live a daily life then you are taking advantage of something that a person of another race, another culture, another country, and another language invented or perfected. We live in a world dependent on multiple cultures, so multiple cultures are part of our everyday life. That is a point that should be celebrated

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said:

“When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

This promissory note Dr. King talks of is the promise that we all make, as Americans, that we will recognize not only our civil and individual rights but also those of all the people around us. We have every opportunity this great nation affords, but we also have an obligation to our communities and fellow Americans to recognize and respect the individuality and rights of the people around us.

How do we stop events like what is happening in Ferguson? We stop them by starting very early in teaching our kids that our differences are what make us great. Our differences should be celebrated, not used as a dividing point. We have to teach beginning at a very early age that our skin color is not a divider, it is a national treasure. Our differences are what make our society the most unique on this planet. America was once called the “Great Melting Pot” because people from all nationalities, all cultures, and all walks of life came together to create a dream and an experiment that said: if treated equal, all who try can succeed. While there are those who struggle within this grand experiment, it cannot be denied that people from every walk of life and with every color of skin have succeeded in grand fashion in our society. If we teach our kids to look at those successes and realize the contributions of all cultures and celebrate our differences as the uniqueness that makes us great, then someday, as Dr. King said so well, “this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of the creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'"

When we celebrate our differences, we will rise above racism, and we will realize that we all have opportunities are all individuals. We should not and cannot blame a group of people for our problems, nor can we expect a group of people to carry our load. This grand experiment is a success, because people from all walks of life have contributed to the common good and because of that, they have succeeded as individuals.

May this grand experiment never fail!