America lost many things on 9/11. Some say America lost its soul; others say we lost our freedom; still others argue that we lost some ill-defined "innocence." I believe we lost something else as well: a sense of America as a black-and-white nation.
I mean this both figuratively and literally. Since at least the late 1950s, the American conversation about tolerance, minority rights and obligations has been dominated by our view that we were divided into "two Americas," one black, one white. LBJ's Great Society in time became defined by its effort to pull blacks into the social and economic mainstream. A generation of left-wing academics, such as Andrew Hacker and Jonathan Kozol, saw America through this binary vision. And, while feminists, gays and Latinos didn't see America so monochromatically, they nonetheless tried to appropriate the black civil rights model. Blacks were the frontline minority in the struggle for progress because America's sins - bigotry, poverty, family breakdown - fell upon them disproportionately.
The war on terror, no matter what your attitude toward it, irreparably cracked the black-and-white lens. It reminded whites and blacks alike that we are all Americans. (The Vietnam War, by contrast, seemed to highlight racial and class differences.) And 9/11 made Muslims the new frontline minority.
How government and society deal with Muslims and Muslim Americans is the subject that gets the American Civil Liberties Union and the lawsuit factory working overtime. Editorial boards, Hollywood and academia are fixated on it. Similarly, most conservative commentators can't even be bothered to complain about affirmative action or quotas anymore.
There's nothing sinister about this. It's predictable and natural. Muslims, at home and abroad, are dominating the news. And "Muslim" issues simply aren't very analogous to the old racial issues. Despite the efforts of groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations to emulate the black civil rights model, the simple fact is that Muslim Americans are a different kind of minority.