Fearing for our country after Ferguson, but so far, not at home.
Every now and then I or someone close enough to me to know they won’t get slapped will make a joke about how people around me forget that I’m black. I’ll save the long explanations behind that sentence for the book, but as I’ve been ruminating, over-analyzing, not-sleeping, and filled with an anxiety over race relations in our country that intensified into writer’s block, a memory occurred to me of when my friends had a stark reminder that I am, indeed, black. If the white friends in the room that day had any inkling at all that my blackness might be some form of envious tan, this moment in time shook the thought right out of them as they realized that it is true that my skin color—not my education, income, profession or number of nonprofit boards I’ve served—puts me in the place of a second or third-class citizen in the eyes of some people. One might think it odd that in Columbia, SC people were surprised to see blatant racism in action. I’m not sure if that has to do with the nature of area of town in which I live or the way I’ve curated my friendships over the years.
The father of one of my best friends had died. Our families have become so interconnected through the years that our younger kids actually believe they’re related. As the family was reeling from the loss, I was asked to lead the charge in planning the visitation the day before the funeral and the reception the following day. Many people pitched in with time, resources and care. This was a very well-loved, popular man who had touched many lives—we knew that there could be upwards of 700 people passing through his house to pay their respects. The best way to handle the after-work visitation crowd was to hire a local bartending service. When the woman from the service arrived to set up I’d run back home to change out of my furniture-moving clothes and into a dress. When I arrived back at the house 15 minutes before the visitation was to begin it was already completely packed. It took me a while to make my way to where the bar had been set up, but once I’d made my way through I introduced myself to the bartender as the main contact who had spoken with the owner of the company.
The evening went on in a manner that would have put a smile on our friend’s father’s face. The police even showed up at one point due to all of the cars in the street, and we had a good laugh thinking of the silly giggle that would’ve shaken his shoulders if he’d known the cops had shown up and busted his visitation.
The crowd eventually thinned, but there were many who really wanted to spend time engaging in some of the best storytelling moments of our friend’s life. Thirty minutes before the bartender was slated to leave one of the volunteers came to tell me that she appeared to be packing up early. As she passed through the kitchen with a bag of garbage I stopped the woman to ask what was going on. She stuttered a bit and then said something about her contract—at which point I asserted that I’d spoken to the owner of the service who’d assured me of her times and duties. She tossed her frizzy blond hair over her shoulder and continued to insist that it was time for her to leave. When I offered to call the owner’s mobile phone to make sure I hadn’t heard him wrong she huffed at me and put her hand in front of my face, fingers spread. “I’m not going to argue with you here in front of all these people,” she said. “I’ll go serve a little longer, but I’m not supposed to.”
My friends who were in the room blinked incredulously. I shook my head and poured myself a glass of rosé from the ‘secret friend stash,’ then heaved a heavy sigh. I was tired. I wasn’t in the mood to process what had just happened.
An older friend who lives across the street from me (and wasn’t in the room when she’d thrown her painted, red talons in my face) asked what was going on with the bartender and if he might ask her to stay an extra hour or so. With another sigh, I wished him good luck with that endeavor, at which point someone explained what had transpired. The next thing I knew, my intimidatingly tall, white-haired, pale-skinned neighbor--a retired attorney and former journalist who’d seen some of the worst of 20th century Southern history--was standing over the short, crimson-lipped, pasty pallored woman, looking as if he was giving an obstinate child a lecture that would be followed by a memorable butt-whipping. A minute later she was standing in front of me saying, “Ma’am, what can I prepare for you to drink? Just let me know what you’d like and I’ll bring it back here to you.”
I had a drink, but politely asked for a glass of wine as everyone in the room barely stifled their giggles and my neighbor watched her like a prison warden.
To this day I have no idea what he said to that bartender, but when she returned the following day to serve the reception she practically curtsied every time we crossed paths. When I asked my neighbor about it he shook his head and pursed his lips. “She thought you were the help,” he said with disgust. While most of us had picked up on the racial undertone of her attitude, none of us thought I’d been characterized as the family maid by this woman.
I think the events in Ferguson say quite a bit about quite a few things in this country. I also believe that part of the problem we saw there is linked to a disturbing national voting trend. As individual Americans feel more entitled to aligning themselves with and helping those who think like them, we’re moving deeper into a populist cycle that has roots in the late 19th century, when a group American farmers, weary of the lonely, isolating work of the agrarian trade, came together for events that would provide some social interaction. This occurred around the same time the U.S. Was jumping on board with the world’s notion of rail transport, which the group saw as a threat to their finances and way of life. Thus, the American attitude of the working and middle class vs. the elite was born. Of course what eventually turned into the Populist movement—following a political doctrine that follows the interests, ideals and fears of the general population as they contrast with those who are considered “elite”—helped enforce checks and balances on unchecked economic opportunists during the Gilded Age, when American industry was booming, yet the income gap remained wide. Is this starting to sound familiar yet? There are some pretty glaring parallels to today’s political climate. But while the Populist Party’s ideals were eventually absorbed by the Democratic Party as the 19th century neared its close (unlike in Europe, where the movement started moving toward authoritarian fascism), today’s movement of the general population preys on the most incendiary fears possible. Black people are using tax dollars to buy food stamps and watch television all day while white workers have to work 40 hours a week and pay those taxes to put food on the table. Black men are more likely to go to prison, so all black men should be feared. Immigrants want to use the money we pay in taxes for a free ride to do nothing while refusing to learn to speak English. Gay people are out to destroy the very moral foundation of the family unit.
Really. Really? What, exactly, does this have to do with political theorem and practice?
Nothing. That’s the problem. The further we go down this road, the more people seek to elect officials who are “just like me.” No fancy degrees from fancy colleges, no egghead ideas from spending too much time with a nose in a book. Hands mustn’t be soft, they must be calloused, with dirt under the fingernails because these people know how to do *real* work. Or they’ve raised a family in the “traditional” manner that is an invention of the 20th century while they or their spouse has gone out done that sweaty, greasy, *real* work and she spent her days cutting coupons and counting pennies.
Guess what? These are the realities for the majority of Americans, no matter their race. And those realities are difficult. And those realities often do result in a work ethic that’s unparalleled when compared to other groups in other parts of the country or the world—but that’s also because it’s a different kind of work, a different kind of struggle, a completely different kind of reality than what others experience. None of those realities negate the others. For some reason, however, we tend to believe that our reality is the only reality around here. As this new form of fear-mongering populism continues to gain traction, not only do people place their realities above those of people who aren’t part of their peer groups, they feel as though they have to make the possibility of such realities disappear altogether. Now that a black president has been elected—not once, but twice—it’s harder to dismiss the realities of a group of people whom many lump together as being all the same. Disparaging our highest elected official is no longer enough. People are voting to elect candidates whom they view as the complete opposite of President Obama. People who’ve worked the blue-collar jobs. People who haven’t been a part of the obviously flawed political machine. Unfortunately this also means that we’re finding more and more elected officials on state and federal levels who have little or no basic knowledge of political history. They don’t know the protocols that keep different political groups, interest groups, U.S. regions and even different countries able to amicably have conversations that at least let each other know the page from which they're starting. The extreme result of this lack of cultural and institutional knowledge is Ferguson, Missouri.
I wonder if, as he called for the National Guard a week ahead of the grand jury’s decision to not indict Darren Wilson, Gov. Jay Nixon noticed any sort of parallel to Gov. Orval Faubus’s call for the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the desegregation of the state’s schools in 1957. There hadn’t been any violence reported that would give cause to jump all the way up to Level Freak Out And Barricade In. Given the events of the summer, a heightened awareness among state troopers would probably have been warranted, and perhaps a daily or weekly memo of some sort that kept all law enforcement—including the National Guard—abreast of the actual developments in the situation. But the closer Ferguson’s officials came to the day of the announcement, the more they increased the possibility of a clash by outwardly showing their fear of the black population. We live in an age of political extremes, everyone. When in history have sweeping extremes resulted in much good? It was proven this week that such extremes remove our ability to remember the lessons of our past.
Before you say that I’m only honing in on one area, let me give you another example—one that hasn’t led to the death of any unarmed teenagers, but it's still disturbing.
Last week my husband, who’d recently returned from the British-American Project Conference in Las Vegas, sent an email to me that contained a public statement from a BAP fellow with whom he’d become friendly. Nevada State Sen. Aaron Ford had played host for the conference, which switches back and forth between the U.K. and the U.S. each year. A week after the event the digital news threads were aflame after a series of inflammatory, bigoted news columns were exposed that had been written by Nevada State Senator (and hopeful leader of the State Assembly) Ira Hansen (R) during his time at The Sparks Tribune. Frankly, I’m shocked that more oxygen tanks weren’t tossed into the fire with statements such as these:*
“Today, when Army men look at women in the ranks with 'longing in their eyes' it very well may constitute ’sexual harassment.’ The truth is, women do not belong in the Army or Navy or Marine Corps, except in certain limited fields."
"The lack of gratitude and the deliberate ignoring of white history in relation to eliminating slavery is a disgrace that Negro leaders should own up to."
"King's private life was trashy at best. … King Jr. is as low as it gets, a hypocrite, a liar, a phony, and a fraud."
"The shrewd and calculating [black] 'leaders' are willing to sacrifice the children of their own race to gratify their lust for power and position. The relationship of Negroes and Democrats is truly a master-slave relationship, with the benevolent master knowing what’s best for his simple minded darkies.”
"Considering only about 2 percent of adult males are homosexuals, the numbers show why homosexuals have been historically regarded as such a threat. Male homosexuals are grossly disproportionate in child molestation cases, and the youth orientation of male homosexuality drives this trend."
These are not the statements of a person who has experienced the lively cultural richness that is the United States—or the world. Or, apparently, his own community. These are statements that expose the dark heart of this new breed of populism. These are shock-jock statements (and yes, Sen. Hansen once had a radio show, as well). They whip the fears of working Americans into a frenzy of racism, homophobia and xenophobia. These are the kind of phrases that are written and spoken as cheap, mindless entertainment for an American culture that finds the process of becoming informed too bothersome to deal with.
Nevada Senate Democratic Leader Aaron D. Ford released a statement highlighting the special melange of cultural heritage which actually exists in the Nevada Senate Democratic Caucus, stating: “We are committed to representing the communities to which we belong. Moreover, we will represent all Nevadans to foster an inclusive, accepting environment for everyone.”
Apparently these types of placid, accepting statements are just boring as hell to most people.
Sen. Ford also said in his statement, “I am saddened that I once again find myself in a position where I have to explain to my children why and how someone who was elected to office in our home state would make such antiquated and bigoted comments.” This statement, above all the others from Nixon, Ford or Hansen is the real kicker.
I have to explain to my children.
Once upon a time, parents told their children that they wanted them to work hard, provide for their family, and do what they can to make the world better. The night of the grand jury announcement I was fearful—down to my core—that such a sentiment was going to fade away from the parental missives of this country. I was in such disbelief that 12 people who weren’t there to determine Wilson’s guilt or innocence did not find reason for the officer to have that guilt or innocence determined in a court of law. After an unarmed child had been shot. An unarmed black teenager who had a large figure and, because of his youth, had probably not yet figured out how to move his limbs through a graceful-looking gait. Thanks to the constant fear-mongering of a movement that is gaining entirely too much airtime, Mike Brown would have been looked upon as a potential menace even if he’d been sitting on a park bench eating a pack of Skittles.
How am I supposed to explain these things to my young boys? How am I supposed to explain to them that there are still days where I walk into a clothing store or boutique and I feel the need to keep whatever items I’ve picked up for purchase in full view until I place them on the counter at the register? I live in a big, nice house in a fancy, lovely neighborhood. I drive a nice, comfortable car and my husband and I recently purchased a third car for date nights and road trips for two. But unless I know the people working in the store, the thought always occurs to me that I need to keep my items in view, because my skin color will always give some people cause for suspicion.
Yesterday I carefully stepped out of my home, expecting for there to be fear and tension everywhere as I ran my Thanksgiving errands. Instead I found the opposite. People were friendly with each other. A woman stood in a parking space at Whole Foods when she saw me coming from the other side in order to make sure that I could get it instead of continuing to circle. People whom I didn’t know were asking about the guy on Facebook who’d made a snarky comment in response to my profile update that was a plea for my fears for our country and my children to be proven wrong. What the hell was up with that? they asked. I just said that I didn’t know, and that I didn’t know the guy.
I’ve been luckier than many in that I have yet to see any heartless, incendiary posts (with the exception of the guy who randomly visited my profile) in any of my social media channels. I’m extremely thankful for that. Sweet people whom I haven’t seen in years have been leaving notes of love and praise and support for my family no matter what road our country chooses to follow from here on out. This morning I woke up to find more notes and I cried happy tears. I know we’re going to be okay in our bubble in our part of Columbia. As I watch the continued protests happening throughout the country on my television, I just hope that the people who don’t seek camera attention are loving each other the way I’m seeing people love each other where I live right now.
This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful to be surrounded by friends and community who practice empathy. People of different races and backgrounds who don’t want to see each other shaking with fear over their children's future. I’m thankful that I live in a place where so many still actively tell their children to go out and do what they can to make the world a better place.
*since I actually started writing this piece a week ago and have given it 3 or 4 lives, Sen. Hansen had been removed from his leadership post 2 days before this was finally published.