Walter Barger

Walter Barger

Indianapolis, IN

To me, “American” represents the values that I was raised with that define our society. Growing up in the South, I learned from my family and school that America stands for Freedom and Democracy. I learned from my church about Love, that God gave his son to bear all of our sins, and Justice, that we are to love others as God has loved us. A good American is one who practices these values in their daily lives, and who contribute to a society that realizes these values in how we treat each other. When I grew up, I joined the Army and was sent to fight for Freedom and Democracy in Vietnam. Being in a war blew my world apart. It is normal for soldiers to dehumanize the enemy into “krauts”, “slants”, “gooks”, “towel heads”, “collateral damage”, etc. How else can you do what you are trained to do, kill another human being? In one operation where we went through a rural hamlet that had been blown to pieces, a thought went through my mind, “You know, if I were a Vietnamese peasant I’d be out with the Viet Cong fighting Americans”… from foreign invaders killing my family and destroying my way of life. This thought shocked me, and I began to wonder what this indiscriminate destruction had to do with Freedom and Democracy. This started a very painful process where I discovered that fighting in a war was not brave and noble, but had bought out the worst of who I can be as a human being. The war eventually led me to realize who I do not want to be and who I do want to be in life. Like most veterans, when I returned from war it was like being lost in a strange world. Everything that had been familiar no longer made sense. I was going to a church which strongly preached that God is Love, something I deeply needed to hear. One Sunday, the elders met and passed a rule that no Black could attend services. I was shocked! What had happened? Is God not Love? Then Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Where was the “Freedom” and “Democracy” that I had fought for? I realized that the core American values with which I had been raised were not how things actually were. But I still believed in these values, and I began to get involved in the Civil Rights movement, hoping that my society could realize these values. Many years later, I went back to Vietnam, and saw how the Vietnamese had recovered from the war and even treated me their former enemy with acceptance and regard… it was a very healing experience which again gave me more faith that humans can rise to move beyond even terrible events in their lives. These experiences with different peoples renewed my hope in humanity and my commitments to do what I can to support people in realizing their positive potentials in life. Hate can be defined a treating others in a way that causes them harm, not only in hurting them physically, socially, and economically, but on a larger level in limiting their ability to reach their full potentials as a human being. What are the impacts of hate and discrimination, treating others as lesser beings? It may be somewhat easier to see how hate and discrimination harms others. Most of us can read about hate crimes, genocide, terrorist bombings, and other atrocities, and feel empathy for the victims. But what about when we hate? How does hate also harm us? In a general sense, any time we limit others in fulfilling their human potentials, those potentials are denied to all of us. Where would America be if we had denied the creativity and potentials of great figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez? Jewish immigrants like Albert Einstein? When we read about new scientific discoveries and business entrepreneurs and social philosophies, do we recognize that many of the names reflect origins in eastern and southern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, East Asia, and other places around the world? Would we throw away what these minds have given Americans and our way of life? On an personal level, how does hate and discrimination harm us individually and as a society? In my experience, hate and discrimination stimulates the worst of who we can be as a human being. We are all capable of horrific behavior… and we can see glimpses of this when we have been mean or unsympathetic to others. Because of Civil Rights movement, it is no longer acceptable to be racist and to discriminate against others, to treat others as “lesser beings”… unless it concerns immigrants! It shocks me to see that all the old assumptions that I experienced as a child towards African Americans have now become acceptable again when applied to immigrants. I witnessed the horrible impacts on my goddaughter when one day her classmates talked about “Mexicans are here to take our jobs”, “Mexicans are ruining our neighborhoods”, etc. It breaks my heart to see a girl who was once cheerful and outgoing now withdrawn and unhappy in life. She does not want to leave her house and her mother, has lost interest in playing games and going to the zoo, and has given up on school and education. I see the personal impacts of hate in a wonderful young girl as she faces her future. And hate against immigrants has even gone to the point of legal discrimination, just like the racist Jim Crow laws when I was young! A number of laws now seek to punish immigrants for being in America. It amazes me that the politicians who lead this effort consider themselves to be good Christians. No one asks about the economic and political conditions that cause the migration going on all over the world. They fail to see that these are the same conditions that drove their own ancestors to come to America. I am greatly saddened to see America return to the hate and discrimination of the days when I was young. I had high hopes that America had grown beyond these times, and am discouraged about the direction our society is now going. What kind of people are we?

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