July 2009

Black Like Me

Suddenly I had had enough. Suddenly I could stomach no more of this degradation- not of myself but of all men who were black like me. John Howard Griffin

We stood in the kitchen. My father and I fixing breakfast during one of my rare visits home in the 1970s. He was at the sink mixing orange juice, three cans of water to the one can of frozen orange juice. He turned to me and said, “I had it wrong. Negroes have a legitimate beef. They’ve had it rough in America. Their anger is understandable.” He stirred the orange juice, flipped the bacon and that was it. He had changed his mind.

My father grew up a privileged white man in the virtually all white community of Sioux City, Iowa. He was connected, he was educated, he drove new cars to college during the Great Depression. He ensured that whiskey by the case was delivered to his father’s front door during Prohibition. He went to law school and joined the family law firm. He married, arguably, one of the prettiest women of a generation. He belonged to the Boat Club and danced the 30s and 40s away. His entire life was insular, insulated and, in many regards, incandescent.

He was the quintessential white boy in America living the white boy dream. Life was good. Life was reasonable. Life was predictable. Life was fair. For him. And for those like him. White people. And the law? Well, the law was for white people. Oh, it was for everyone. Of course.

My father was probably a “closet” racist right to the point of his death. He would have been aghast if any of his children had married a black or, for that matter, an Hispanic. He would have been upset if a black family moved in next door. My father had absolutely no contact with blacks either growing up or at any point in his adult life. He lived a segregated life. By reason of birth and circumstance.

So how does one (my father for instance) become a racist with no actual experience interacting with blacks? From one’s parents and relatives. From one’s equally insulated friends and neighbors. From the skewed history texts. From reading the newspaper or going to a movie. From observing government’s “institutionalized” racism at the local, state and federal levels. In the military. In church. In school. From casual, unthinking observation. From the inherent belief of your superiority. From extrapolating that because many blacks were impoverished and uneducated, that that condition reflected some inherent inferiority of the race, some overt disfavor of the gods.

I write this week specifically to thinking, reflective white people. Most of us cannot imagine what it meant, what it means to grow up black in America. Today. We think (if we think at all about race) that because we passed civil rights legislation in the 60s, that because we have prominent black business leaders, generals, congressman and a black president that racism is no longer an issue.

Is it better? Undoubtedly. Yes, we no longer string up, hang black men for whistling at white women. But I do not know of one black man my age (or any age) who has not had threatening encounters with America’s law enforcement agencies. All their lives. Period. That is fact. It is not imagined. It is not hearsay. It is not urban myth. Nor is it some sad statistic that, well, “that’s the unfortunate price some generations must pay as America transforms itself, that a ‘few’ heads are inevitably ‘gonna’ get knocked around as we shed our Jim Crow past.” Tell that to any black man who is unnecessarily stopped in traffic, unjustifiably frisked on the street or suspiciously watched at the mall, in the store, walking down the avenue or just sitting on a bench.

In America, there is no such thing as just being in the wrong place at the wrong time for a black man. Merely being, being black is sufficiently criminal. In some eyes.

That is the Godawful truth in America. Merely being black is criminal. We whites simply cannot fathom that. Why? Because we have been the dominant race in this nation. Since the git-go. Since our inception. Not only have we dominated but we actually imported and enslaved human beings for hundreds of years. Hundreds of years. We have an ugly, ugly history of racism that only, only in the last 45 years have we made any strides at all in correcting.

We don’t fathom it because we still, for the most part, live segregated, insulated lives. How many blacks do you regularly socialize with? Why is that do you imagine? Uh, uh, uh. We think that because we bury like royalty a black man, a white Michael Jackson that the nation is over its past. It’s an illusion. Google statistics on race in America. Arrests, incarceration, health, education, housing, poverty, on and on. We remain a racially divided nation.

It’s changing, however. America’s older generations of white bigots and racists are, frankly, dying off. America will appreciably change as the Boomer generation dies. We take with us the garbage our parents and earlier generations poured in our ears (and minds) as we were growing-up. We internalized the goofiness of white superiority (maybe not specifically asserted but definitely implied). Perhaps we’ve embraced the “liberal” values (agenda) of the 60s, yet continued to lead our “separate” lives. We don’t get how a black Harvard professor could become so enraged in his home that it becomes a national incident. Why is that? Because white people aren’t typically charged or arrested with breaking and entering or disorderly conduct in their own damn living room.

Most middleclass white folk have not walked in the shoes of a black American. It has been and continues to be an incredibly threatening journey. Open your eyes. Open your minds. Open your hearts. Open your mouths.

Speak up. If my father got it in the 1970s, it’s time all of America got it. Black Like Me was a book of the 1960s that shamed the nation. That was then. Imagine. He’s black; like me, human.

Living in the “Honorable” State of Denial

It’s Monday morning and I numbly watch the blinking cursor on my computer screen alternately appear and disappear. I awakened at two in the morning again incensed over Obama’s (America’s) Afghan war and worked through possible opening leads. Tom Friedman, columnist for The New York Times, had gotten all mushy in Sunday’s paper over educating Afghan girls, implying some moral imperative for America to do so. As if that would change the tide of thousand’s of years of goofy, religiously based male domination of women. That America’s boys should die so girls there could move what, into the 16th century? That’s when the European West started educating its women. Blink.

Blink, blink, blink. I am so over America being at war with the world. During my entire life our nation, from Korea on, has moved lockstep from one damned worthless conflict to another. To what end? Profits. It makes my head ache how gullible we Americans are. Run up the flag, tune up “Over there!” and we’ll reflexively salute, and willingly march our sons off to certain death and call it patriotism. How many of our boys must die because Americans refuse to think? Blink.

Blink, blink, blink. In the August 2009 Harper’s Magazine (page 11) are the following two economic facts. Amount of governmental support that Canadian banks have required during the financial crisis: $0. Percentage of U.S. and Canadian mortgages, respectively, that are in foreclosure or more than 90 days delinquent: 7.2, 0.4. Blink.

Over and over and over again, we Americans are dumber than a box of rocks. We think our politicians are taking care of us, are honorably looking out for the nation’s interests when in reality, the nation’s welfare, our welfare is of secondary or incidental importance. Why can Canada have a financial regulatory system that produces the above statistics and America cannot? Is it possible that another nation (democracy) has more principled, more honorable politicians and government (regulatory & oversight) officials? I think it is possible, nay, probable. Blink.

Blink, blink, blink. President Obama hires and puts in place America’s Economic Recovery Team, the very same men who drove the nation into the ditch in the first place. “We” decide to spend billions upon billions of dollars to bailout the firms of the men who now decide America’s economic future. How can this be? Goldman Sachs is back doing business as usual (”A Swift Return to Lofty Profits” proclaimed in The New York Times). Home mortgages are again being packaged and sold by the same cast of financial thugs who mugged the nation in the first pace. “Hello? Hello? Anybody home? Huh? Think, McFly.” Blink.

Blink, blink, blink. I am so tired of our wars, of America’s uninspired leadership malaise, of Liberals saying “Why aren’t we more like Sweden” when, in my opinion, that is an unworkable model for 350 million souls and counting. Of Conservatives regurgitating their mindless mantra of “government bad, business good” when both can be woefully inept and demonstrated corrupt. Why cannot this nation plan anything but the next issue, the next sale of government bonds? To China, no less. Blink.

Why do individual citizens plan the size of their family but any talk of discussing a national population goal is tantamount to convening/conversing with the devil? All of America’s problems and challenges are directly tied to issues of population. Will there be sufficient natural resources (water, energy, raw materials, usable (producing) farm land, etc.) to adequately sustain America’s burgeoning population. We have 35 million borderline or out and out impoverished in America. That is today. That is 10% of the population. And the number is growing. How many poor is an appropriate number for the nation to sustain? To house? To nourish? To medicate? To educate? To incarcerate? All the things liberals want to provide for and conservatives are adverse to pay for. But to have a national discussion on how we can change the trajectory of the number of impoverished Americans (or the number of all Americans, period) offends both spectrums of the polity, both liberal and conservative. Blink.

Think of America as a large, large cruise ship. To change course requires time. There are no abrupt course changes for a liner. Think: Titanic. If we want to stabilize America’s (or even, rationally, reduce) America’s population, we have to start now in order to see a noticeable change in decades. When we reach 500 million citizens, a tenth (or more) of our population will still be locked in poverty. That is six times the size of Sweden’s entire population today. And we are going to do what, we are going to sustain 50 million non-producing (no taxes paid) citizens how? We struggle mightily today to sustain America’s 35 million poor. Blink.

Blink, blink, blink. “The time has come,” the Walrus said, “To talk of many things: Of Shoes – and ships—and sealing wax – Of cabbages – and kings – And why the sea is boiling hot – And whether pigs have wings.” So said Lewis Carrol. Of Michael Jackson and Starbucks Iced Caffè Mocha Coffee – Of Tiger Woods and those damned Yankees — Of vacation homes and the price of gas and if Michelle Obama should sleeveless go.

We’ll talk of many things, we Americans, but not why we incessantly war or our flawed economic model or the desirability of our ever expanding, unsustainable (quality of life) population.

If denial were an American state, we’d all be residents of Denial. It is not an honorable state. Blink.

What Kind Of Person Are You?

I have a small, tan colored throw pillow outlined in royal red piping that I received as part of an estate. It says in red and yellow embroidered stitching, “He who laughs last . . . Thinks slowest.” It’s a quote from Bob Lockhart.

There was a girl I knew all my life up through high school. She had glorious blond hair and skin so fair you could actually see the veins on her temples pulse. She was the quintessential Scandinavian beauty. Everything about this girl/woman was virtually perfect. Oh, and she was smart too, a good student. But you’d tell her a joke and she wouldn’t laugh. Obviously it wasn’t because she wasn’t smart, but because she just didn’t get it.

I think about all the different types of humanity out there and the number is as incredible as are the six billion plus human beings on earth. We are each unique. Six billion unique humans but with some common characteristics. For some it’s that they don’t get jokes. For others, it’s that they attach some larger significance to the life and death of Michael Jackson and they could get “teary” about him. That is a “kind” of person. Granted?

I came up with a category of people. Perhaps it has already been noted. It is a challenge to be able to “first off” anything. Regardless. Whenever I drive and park I set my handbrake. I set my parking brake in San Francisco. I set my brake in Daytona. I’m the kind of person who would set his brake when parking on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Setting my brake is not situational (on hills, etc.), it’s a habit. I’m a creature of habit and that is a kind of person.

The gist of this essay is not to explore habits, a worthy topic of contemplation, no doubt, but to expand on the broader idea of “kinds” of people.

A quick aside on habits. Habits are a way of organizing your life so you don’t have to think as/so much. (Think: placing your car keys/wallet in the same place all the time.) That said, how good, really, can not thinking be for you? Example: you’ve always been an indiscriminate racist. You grew up that way. It’s your habit. Not so good to not think about that one. Onward.

Kinds of people - Don’t get jokes. Teary over Jackson. Sets parking brake in totally flat parking lots. Puts car keys in same place every evening. Being an unfortunate habitual bigot or racist.

But these seem to be quite specific kinds of people. Most of the time we use much broader strokes, don’t we? For example I’ve said when I like a man and find him credible, “He’s a good guy.” The most common “kinds” of people are often associated with male and female genitalia, if you catch my drift. I’m hearing the “C” word a lot more these days. That could be merely the general coarsening of society (such language) or there simply may just be a surge in the number of “c’s” in America. “Ya neveh know.”

Kinds of people. There are a lot of heroes these days. Although I think the idea of heroism has been watered down a bit, wouldn’t you agree? I think so. Although I didn’t once hear Tiger and hero in the same sentence on Sunday as he won his 68th golf tournament. He did kindly pat on the shoulder a service man with no legs and just one arm sitting in a wheel chair as he walked determinedly by to the 17th tee, I believe. He smiled at him, too. He was, Tiger was, a hero in some earlier golf tournament but not in last weekend’s AT&T tournament.

Good guys. Heroes! Unemployed as a kind of human, that’s growing in use. She’s a beautiful woman. That’s a timeless favorite. Actually for all we know that was man’s (as in male) first clear thought. One of our ancestors at some point in our development had to have just such a “lovey” sentiment. Trust me. He did. And it’s been grand ever since. Ha! I’m having fun.

Good guys. Heroes. Remember, these are broader categories of “kinds” of humans. The unemployed. Beautiful women. I’m going to rip off a few now. Liberal elite. Liberal media. Drive-by media. The poor. The uninsured. Illegal aliens. All the Republican categories: braindead, repressed, sexually infantile, warmongering, da, da, da, da. Democrat categories: weenies, tax & spend, warmongering, lay-down, special interest, cavers, status quo, da, da, da, da. Did I identify lousy, warmongering Democrats as a broader category of people?

If you don’t believe in evolution, what kind of person are you? I have to say that when I confront an individual who publically states just that, I am flummoxed and here’s why. What do you say next? Uh, is the earth flat, too? My mind goes through incredible mental gyrations. I first look for the wink as in, “Yea, you bet I believe the Earth is 7, 642 years old.” Wink, wink.

But if sincerity and genuine belief is exhibited I wonder what other superstitions does this person subscribe to? I smile, shake hands and make some passing suggestion that champagne is called for, but do carry on this lively conversation and please excuse me while I go look for the waiter. Exit stage left.

I’m the kind of person who, on one hand, is intrigued and incensed but ultimately indifferent to the kind of person who doesn’t believe in Darwinian evolution. It’s like a person who doesn’t believe in evolution has checked his or her brain at the door. To me. In this particular way on this particular subject. Imagine: We are actually expected to let them vote and influence our lives through the ballot.

Evolution deniers could logically and legitimately counter with, “You know, Jepson. You’re full of it. If what I believe is superstition, look at what you buy as real!”

And you know what, Intelligent Designer’s have a point. Example: Obama campaigned on a reduced presence in the Mideast. Yet we’re up to our gonads in sand and going deeper. Oh, thank you Russia for letting America wage war easier and faster in Islamland. Who wins on that one? Now think. Not America.

Obama pledged an accounting. I want heads on pikes for the financial crisis (economic collapse) in America. No heads for Obama. No accounting of what went wrong, of who did what and when. Obama says we need to look forward.

I’m the kind of person who asks how can we go forward without a “Golleee Gomer! Did’ja see that coming?” sort of an accounting. If capitalism is about reckonings (some financial “models” fail) I want to see reckonings for those who would so gravely harm the economic future and wellbeing of America. Why should justice be “so” selective? And who exactly is making that determination, Mr. President?

Kinds of people. It takes all kinds.

Ruth Benedict said, “Society in its full sense . . . is never an entity separable from the individuals who compose it.”

Know what? I get that. Benedict is spot on! It does take all kinds. And if America is a great nation, full of promise, it is in no small part so because of creationists and heroes and teary-eyed Jackson acolytes and beautiful women as well as goofy Republicans and spineless Democrats.

To paraphrase Robert Zend, “We have one thing in common: we are all different.”

Here’s the punchline: Praise the lord! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah America!

That’s the way I feel anyway. Not think! Feel. About living free in America.