At the end of the 1991 sci-fi action blockbuster, Terminator 2, Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor ominously but confidently announces over the quickly passing city streets of Los Angeles — the great American city of endless roads — "The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it for the first time with a sense of hope, because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too."
While such sentiment can seem cliché in the third decade of the 21st century, two months after the end of the L.A. Riots it captured the hope of America. Having defeated communism and ended the Cold War, the United States turned inward to heal the wounds of its history that had festered over the course of 300 years.
The most gaping wound in the heart of America in the minds of American cultural elites was the historic divide between black and white Americans — the failure of America to fulfill the promises of liberty and equality presented by the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
In the 1990s, Black Americans were still the avatar for "minority," and the message provided by cultural elites at this time was not the eradication of "whiteness" or the death of Western civilization, but rather the integration of black Americans into the social fabric of the United States.
Television shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air as well as Family Matters — featuring the humorous and lovable nerd, Steve Urkel — and The Cosby Show showcased black families achieving middle-class or upper-middle-class status in America while maintaining an authentic grounding in their identity as black Americans.
The (ultimately hollow) growth of the economy, as well as the feel-good atmosphere created by such saccharine songs such as Smash Mouth's 1996 hit "Walking on the Sun" and Sugar Ray's 1997 dreamy hit "Fly," everything seemed just fine in what was shaping up to be the world's sole remaining superpower: The United States of America.
In regard to race relations, on the surface, everything seemed to be getting better.
The economic health of the black community soared in the 1990s, and although over 10 million immigrants entered U.S. states beyond just those at the border, immigration was not necessarily a central issue of the United States in most communities.
The feel-good American optimism enveloping the same country that conquered German National Socialism and Soviet communism also believed that the L.A. Riots were the last gasp of an old era of racial tension that would soon be a thing of the past. Optimism also flourished in light of emerging e-commerce and the free flow of goods and people across a borderless world created by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.
Within the Church herself, American Catholics were caught up in "JPII fever," which had been ignited when Pope John Paul II touched down in Denver, Colorado for World Youth Day in 1993.
As the Church and the world rounded the second millennium since the birth of Christ, a new breed of Catholic media figures and scholars took the field.
Appearing on TV networks such as EWTN, writing in the pages of journals such as First Things, and publishing books via the rising Catholic publisher Ignatius Press, figures like Scott Hahn, Fr. John Corapi, and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus appeared to echo John Paul II's call that a New Advent was upon us. Peace and prosperity would reign throughout the world and the historical wounds that had afflicted the human race would be healed as a new century of love arrived — the Jubilee Year of 2000.
However, as America and the world rounded the millennium, things quickly changed.
Within the Church, the revelations of the 2002 Boston Globe investigation shook the faith of many Catholics. It cast doubt on the American Church's ability to root out and eliminate abusers and degenerates that had not only infiltrated but, in some orders and dioceses, come to infect significant portions of the clerical ranks.
In the secular world, the bursting of the "dot.com bubble" and the subsequent emergence of the new national security state and the emergent War on Terror quickly dashed the pre-millennial euphoria of the 1990s.
On the home front, the presidency of George W. Bush revealed that Americans were divided politically, as they had been since the 1960s.
Out of the vortex of rage and fatigue prompted by the 2003 Iraq War — and the ongoing insurgency that claimed thousands of American and Iraqi lives — came the election of the first black (although not technically from the historic black American community) president, Barrack Hussein Obama.
In the view of many liberals who voted for him and the begrudging conservatives who did not, the election of Obama was a ratification that America was no longer a racist country. There was no obstacle to what black (and other non-Western) Americans could achieve.
However, as the post-election euphoria of Obama's inauguration faded, Americans did not see the emergence of a post-racial utopia.
While the black community ascended to economic prosperity, many white Americans crushed by the 2008–2009 financial crisis and saddled with crushing debt began to slip into poverty.
Moreover, ethnic anxiety and anger in the black community exploded during Obama's tenure with the 2014 Ferguson and 2015 Baltimore riots.
These riots, coupled with what appeared to be a deluge of illegal immigration and economic depression galvanized the white American community into a defensive posture. These forces helped to trigger the emergence of the ethno-nationalist Alt-Right.
America, on the cusp of the 2020 election, is a bruised and fatigued country that is too tired and bored to engage in ethnic clashes. At the same time, the internet has become a veritable cesspool of ethnic animosity and "verbal violence" that could very easily spill once again into street fighting.
Many Americans today, including American Catholics, feel confused about how they can maintain a strong sense of ethnic identity while extending true charity toward others.
Many things are needed in our country, but what is most needed is a true and authentic charity that transcends the sentimentalism of the 20th century as well as the bitter and moody pessimism of the 21st century.
In his discussion of charity in Question 31 of the second part of the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Universal Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, explains true charity. Unlike the claims of those who advocate racism, true charity incorporates all humans (especially those in the Church); however, at the same time, this true charity should be first directed toward our own kinfolk or those closest to us.
Arguing that "[g]race and virtue imitate the order of nature, which is established by Divine wisdom," Aquinas states that "every natural agent pours forth its activity first and most of all on the things which are nearest to it." As a result, "we ought to be most beneficent towards those who are most closely connected with us."
However, Aquinas further clarifies that that kinship is not the only "connection" shared among humans; there are other "connections," including that "intercourse" of "fellow-citizens ... in civic matters" as well as "of the faithful ... in spiritual matters." Nonetheless, in all of these matters, "we ought in preference to bestow on each one such benefits as pertain to the matter in which, speaking simply, he is most closely connected with us."
This principle, however, is qualified by "various requirements of time, place or matter in hand," for there are, Aquinas argues, situations in which a person should "succor a stranger, in extreme necessity, rather than one's own father, if he is not in such urgent need."
Thus, those in America and around the world who argue for ethnic solidarity among a given people — as well as the regulation of borders — are not contradicting but fulfilling the demands of charity.
Moreover, there are times and places in which charity should be given to a stranger before one's own, and, more importantly, charity is ultimately directed toward the wellbeing of all the people of the world and the salvation of their souls.
This charity can only be found in the Church, and it is up to Catholics — especially lay Catholics at this time — to take up a missionary mantle of spreading the Good News of Our Lord Jesus Christ to our fellow Americans.