Many years ago, in conversation over dinner with a man I had just started dating, we got on to the topic of Thomas Jefferson. Turns out we were both reading Jefferson biographies. It didn't take long to reach a point in the conversation where it was clear our racial backgrounds were leading us to a fork in the road of sorts – we certainly held different views on Jefferson. Ultimately, our discussion took a turn that made me decide this would be our last date.
When talking about race -- or specifically about racism -- it's difficult to bridge the gap in understanding that exists between whites and blacks. It's not impossible but all too often our vastly different perspectives lead us to draw conclusions that are hard to reconcile and even harder to dismantle.
It's been my experience that trying to bridge this gulf often leads to a type of exchange that I can only characterize as “talking past each other." Even when it is clear we each have a desire to understand and be understood – it takes time, a real commitment, and still, a real meeting of the minds can be hard as hell to accomplish.
The best way for me to shed light on what I've experienced, is to use an analogy.
A couple of years ago a story broke that grabbed the nation's heart. Two U.C. Berkeley police officers met with a man who was inquiring about using the Berkeley campus facility to put on an event. The man brought along his two young daughters. Something about the girls' demeanor and overall appearance led the officers to be suspicious of the man. The police did a little checking and discovered that the man was Phillip Garrido, a convicted kidnapper and sex offender.
They took action. Their actions led to the arrest of Garrido, who had kidnapped Jaycee Lee Dugard and held her captive for 18 years. From the tender age of 11, Jaycee Lee Dugard had been locked up in a shed in Garrido's backyard where she was routinely raped and abused by him.
For almost two-thirds of her life, she was his prisoner and sex slave, giving birth to the two girls Garrido brought with him to Berkeley that day. In fact, on that day she was still his captive. But not for much longer.
Because of the actions of those U.C. Berkeley police officers, the nation learned of the horror this little girl experienced. For 18 years, often just feet away from adults who could have and should have protected her, Jaycee remained a captive.
Garrido, a convicted rapist and kidnapper, was on parole had opened his home to parole officers and other authorities dozens of times during those years, all the while little Jaycee was locked up in a shed in the backyard just feet away.
ABC News reported that the failures of three separate governmental entities were at the heart of this story: the United States Parole Commission, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and the local Contra Costa Sheriff's office.
I watched Diane Sawyer interview Jaycee Lee Dugard and all I could think was, “How could this have happened?” I doubt there is a sane person in America who doesn't wish this had not happened to Jaycee Lee. I doubt there is a sane person in America whose heart doesn't go out to Jaycee's mother. And I doubt there is a sane person in America who wasn't overjoyed when Jaycee Lee Dugard finally came home.
What we learned, when we look at this tragedy, is that our systems failed. In fact, I don't think it's a stretch to say that the systems were Phillip Garrido's accomplice, along with his wife Nancy. But for a network of failed systems, Jaycee Lee Dugard would not have had to endure those horrors.
I tell this story because as I sat misty eyed watching the Diane Sawyer piece with mixed feelings of happiness and disgust – I also felt a tinge of sadness for a nation that doesn't seem to have the capacity to experience the same level of horror, outrage or even regret when equally terrible things happen to children or people who don't look like Jaycee Lee Dugard.
A term coined about a decade ago, “Missing white woman syndrome (MWWS),” comes to mind. According to Wikipedia, MWWS is “a vernacular term for the alleged disproportionately greater degree of coverage in television, radio, newspaper and magazine reporting of a misfortune, most often a missing person case, involving a young, attractive, white, middle-class (or above) woman, compared with cases concerning a missing male, or missing persons of other ethnicities or economic classes.” There are great many cases I can cite that illustrate this point but in the interest of brevity I'll list a couple.
Sherrice Iverson -- Sherrice Iverson was a 7-year-old black girl who went into a public restroom at a casino in Nevada. She was sexually molested and murdered in that restroom by an adult male while his companion stood watch at the bathroom entrance. The story of this child's sexual molestation and murder got scant coverage compared with another tragic story that happened at about the same time - JonBenet Ramsey.In a rare departure from the norm, the Los Angeles Times published an article on the disparate coverage given to missing or murdered women and children of color. Quoting University of Southern California Professor Todd Boyd, the article said, "I don't think a media director is sitting around saying, 'Hey, there's this black woman in Philadelphia and she disappeared and we don't care...' " Said Boyd, "It's an unconscious decision about who matters and who doesn't. In general, there is an assumption that crime is such a part of black and Latino culture, that these things happen all the time. In many people's minds it's regarded as being commonplace and not that big a deal."
LaToyia Figueroa – LaToyia Figueroa was a young black Latina who went missing when she was five months pregnant. LaToyia was later found, murdered by the father of her unborn child. LaToyia Figueroa's story was barely a footnote in the local news. But a similar story -- one just as horrific -- the Laci Peterson story dominated the national print media and airwaves for months.
I can't imagine that it's not that big a deal to the victim. But perhaps Boyd is shedding light on what's at the heart of what I see as America's lack of empathy or what Dr. Martin Luther King frequently referred to as indifference to the suffering of others.
But let me get back to the night I broke up with the guy and why that story is relevant here.
As you might have guessed, the man I broke up with is white. I am black. I listened that evening as he extolled the life's work of Jefferson and the other founding fathers – his adulation barely containable. I'd always found it curious when people who have actually studied history continue to hold Jefferson in such high esteem. I asked how he could revere a man who well into adulthood and during his early career condemned slavery, took affirmative steps to end it – yet abruptly changed his tune and then over the remainder of his life held more than 650 humans captive, exploiting them for labor and sex – as in the well-documented case of Sally Hemings who he began having sex with when she was 14.
My dinner companion brushed my comment aside as though it were meaningless. Contending that I could not judge Jefferson through a contemporary lens, he insisted that Jefferson's behavior was well within the norm for that era and that Jefferson's greatness shouldn't be judged on that basis.
What my date didn't understand was that I was not judging Jefferson – I was judging him -- my date -- or more specifically his exuberant reverence for a man who committed atrocities that by today's standards would be abominable. Or are they?
That was the question that led me to end the date and the budding relationship. But over the years, I've thought about that conversation more times than I can count. A century and a half ago, what he conveniently deemed "normative behavior" – keeping humans in bondage, often torturing and exploiting them for sex and labor -- is abhorrent today. I began to wonder what people, 150 years in the future will see as abominable when they look back in history at what we see as "normal" today.
So, now I'll jump back to the Jaycee Dugard story. That story broke many years after the debate I had about Thomas Jefferson but, as I said, over the years I often thought of that conversation so naturally I began to make connections as I watched the Diane Sawyer interview. What I experienced when I learned of Dugard's 18 years of hell was empathy. And this is where I suspect there is major gap in many of the discussions around race in this country.
Before I end, I want to stress that I, in no way, believe that all whites are unempathetic towards the plight of blacks in America. But I do believe this country has systematically minimized or sanitized the reality of being black in America in ways that lead those who do not have meaningful connections with blacks to be out of touch -- often believing they have an understanding of what it means to be black based on the depictions they've seen in the media.
To highlight what I've characterized as an empathy deficit, I've created a few scenarios using the Jaycee Dugard story with the hope that my message will be made clearer. If you are still reading -- thank you:
Scenario I: Over the years, several movies are released about the Jaycee Lee Dugard story but in each, the plots focus is Campbell and Jacobs not Jaycee. Who are Campbell and Jacobs you ask? They are the U.C. Berkeley police officers. --- Wouldn't this seem odd? But this is just what I often seen when I go to see a civil rights movie -- the lead and focus of the story is frequently a white hero. This has become such a norm that it is often unnoticed– think “The Help," “Mississippi Burning," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "A Dry White Season," "A Time to Kill."
Scenario 2: Wouldn't it be strange if Phillip Garrido were found not guilty and never served a day behind bars even after admitting that he committed the crimes. --- How many of you know that at least one of the murderers of Emmett Till sold his story to Look Magazine, admitting -- even bragging he had done the heinous acts. He was even paid for this story.
Scenario 3: How about if shortly after Dugard was found, the media began to report that she had gotten a D on her report card the month before she encountered Garrido. --- This would never happen in this kind of case but in the case of Trayvon Martin, attempts to smear that child's reputation were widely reported.
Scenario 4: What would people think if Garrido's home with the shed still intact in the backyard became a national monument. --- Unthinkable right? But Mt. Vernon, Monticello and probably other national monuments have just this evidence of maltreatment on display not as something to disdain but as a depiction of normal life back then. I recently visited George Washington's Mount Vernon estate in Virginia. There were hundreds of white people taking the tour which included the slave quarters. There weren't many blacks on the tour. It's not hard for me to see why.
Scenario 5: How about if talking heads begin to crop up questioning why people are up in arms about a single case of kidnap, rape, and pedophilia when the real issue, is white-on-white crime, which is at 86% of all crime experienced by white victims. --- Wouldn't this seem bizarre? What the heck does white-on-white crime have to do with what happened to this poor girl. But wasn't this the focus of mainstream media recently in the Trayvon Martin case? In what I interpreted as an attempt to minimize racist aspect of the Martin case, George Will of ABC said of the case, “about 150 black men are killed in the country every week and 95% are killed by other black men”. He neglected to mention that in the vast majority of murders in this country, the victim and the murderer are the same race.
Scenario 6: What if this case was cracked, Dugard was found and Garrido was arrested but the media didn't think it newsworthy. They said she wasn't a sympathetic victim. --- I doubt America could wrap its head around that but there are young girls of color all across the United States who are living as sex slaves. The media knows about it but many say the victims are not the type who would garner sympathy and so these atrocities go unreported to the vast majority of Americans.
In an attempt to bridge the gap that I talked about earlier in this piece, I write on this topic somewhat regularly on my site - the LA Progressive. But somehow, I suspect that 150 years from now when my grandchildrens' grandchildren look back to 2012 they will be appalled at what we see as normal.