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Passports: The 63 Percent Solution

©Quinton Davis photo

Two out of three Americans don’t have a valid passport. We have the power to change the world, maybe even destroy the world, but two-thirds of us can’t even legally step out and see the world?

That’s just embarrassing.

The good news from our State Department is that after the number of American passport holders dropped by nearly 3 million in 2009, the numbers began to creep upward again last year, albeit by a measly 400,000.

About 114 million of us have passports, which makes us about 37 percent of the population, well above the 25 percent mark that stood for years.

The bad news: That means that 67 percent of us are without a passport. We still have about the lowest per capita rate of passport holders of any nation in the developed world.

In some respects, we may not be as “developed” as we think.

Nowadays, the lack of a passport can be pretty limiting to a person. Forget about seeing any part of Europe, Asia, Africa, Central or South America.

Forget about taking a cruise anywhere, except Hawai’i or maybe one of our quasi-colonies in the world: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa.

In today’s post-9/11 world, you can’t even drive across the border into Mexico or Canada without a passport or a passport card.

What’s up with this?

We’ve long been living on a kind of cultural island, protected by friendly neighbors north and south, buffered by the world’s two largest oceans to the east and west. Behind those shields, the American nation grew powerful and rich.

We also grew isolated, and a lot of us were just fine with that, so long as we remained powerful and rich.

One decade into the new century, things are a bit different. Waves of technology — from the telegraph and the airplane to the telephone, the computer and finally the Internet — send information, culture and people back and forth across the planet almost as easily as air travels over water.

No place is out of reach anymore. The world is well on its way to becoming one large neighborhood, joined by commerce and communications.

But here we sit, two-thirds of us afraid to venture off our sheltered cultural porch, fearing and loathing large parts of a world of which we know little or nothing.

Is this how a great nation behaves?

It’s holding us back economically. A lot of the great opportunities today are turning up beyond our shores, but only those who are culturally agile will be able to make the most of them.

It’s also endangering our safety, because our lack of understanding of the world we live in makes it harder for “we the people” to make smart decisions about our dealings with other nations.

Whether we like it, understand it or not — and let’s face it, we often don’t — we are a part of this world. We need to be able to function it, thrive in it, get along with others in it, take our full and rightful place in it.

And after four centuries of second-class citizenship, that especially applies to black Americans.

There are places in the world where an ambitious young man or woman who’s got the skills and the drive can find success, regardless of their “paint job.” And if you do a little traveling, you’ll see that for yourself.

That’s why I love seeing see talented young black 20somethings and 30somethings making their way out into that world with determined hearts and passports in hand, making names for themselves as students or professionals in virtually every corner of the globe.

In the process, they’re finding that they can more than hold their own, anywhere.

Writing this blog has afforded me the chance to connect with some of them, and through my Out There series, you will, too. They inspire me, and I hope they inspire you. I’m proud of them.

I just wish there were more of them.

Time to step into the sunshine, America…and step off the damned porch.

The State Department has a
Passports Page with all the information you need to get you started on the process of obtaining a passport. If you have a computer and printer at home, you can print out the application and mail it in, along with a regulation-size photo of yourself and the required fee.

This link from State will show you where you can apply nationwide. You can search by state or city, or just enter your ZIP code.

You also can apply at your neighborhood Post Office, the advantage there being that their fee includes taking your passport photo on the spot, instead of forcing you to make a separate trip.

If you need a passport in a hurry, there are passport agencies that will expedite the process for you — for an additional, naturally. The bigger your rush, the bigger the fee.

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