In November 1987, my AP European History teacher assigned us a famously daunting assignment. She sketched an imaginary line from the Elbe river, down around the Czechoslovak border, and down the Danube to the Adriatic Sea and asked us to figure out what that divide meant.
This is, or was, the divide between Eastern and Western Europe, and we students were being asked to look into the history of that divide, figure out why it had come to be, and why it had achieved what appeared to be permanence, or at least long-term relevance. I cannot remember exactly what I wrote 22 years ago, but I suspect many of our papers included some version of the line that “this is how things have been for a long time and probably how they are going to stay forever”. We were, of course, dead wrong. Two years later, twenty years ago this week, the wall was down, the divide was breached. Five years later, I was in Poland running a civic education program. When I visited friends in Poland and Slovakia this spring, I sailed across borders that even in 1999 required passports and scrutiny but now look antiquated and shabby. (I suppose they probably looked shabby then too, but the presence of border control gave them potency they no longer have.) My Polish friends are traveling the world and moving back and forth across the Elbe and Danube to attend school, visit family, explore job opportunities.
This week, 22 years after writing an essay on the history of a stark divide, I found myself on the other side of the table, grading midterm essays that asked students to explain how teachers, schools, and other institutions in the United States make race matter. My students had seen videos on the history of race in the United States and read contemporary studies that explore race in school, and the midterm asked them to explain the workings of a divide that often seems to have foundations so deep, support from interests so powerful, and psychological ramifications running so far in our souls that it is likely a permanent feature of our world. Over and over, my students told me that race has always been an issue in the United States and that therefore it always will be.
I expect that two years from now, there will still be racial privilege in the United States, but in 1987 I expected the Berlin wall would still be standing. That it was gone two years later speaks to the refusal of large numbers of people to accept such fatalism. Of course it takes more than willpower. In June 1989, Tiananmen Square showed us that. But a fatalistic acceptance of the way things are is not the only alternative. If the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of empire in Eastern Europe teach us anything, it ought to be that refusal to accept present realities as indicating the limits of possibility can sometimes work wonders.