I'm a little worried about where we are as a country. How did we get to this point? Why did we get to this point? And more importantly, where do we go from here?
Hate, in all it's virulent manifestations, has always existed, whether we admit to personally witnessing it or not. To hide your head in the white sands of ignorance and pretend that it does not exist because some right-leaning talking head once proclaimed that we now live in a "post-racial society" is more than naive. It is enabling the culture to grow unchecked by your unwillingness to face the truth that lives all around you. Perhaps though, the problem is less not wanting to look, but more not knowing how to see.
The neighborhood where I grew up in the 70's was, at the time, the last unintegrated area of Chicago, and the white inhabitants intended to keep it that way. Being a kid, 7, 8, 9 years old, I really didn't know any better. I didn't watch the news, and if I did happen to catch a glimpse of a story about a race riot, it meant very little to me. Those activities were nothing I could personally relate to, since I never viewed them on any level with my own eyes.
That's not in any way meant to suggest that I was unaware of "them". The Blacks. Although, blacks wasn't the word of choice around my house. The N-word was tossed around with such casual frequency by my father and other family members that I wouldn't be surprised to open my baby book and read that it was one of the first words I uttered.
In my defense, I did not know any better. If you're told as a child that Vic Damone is the greatest singer in the world, then you believe in the lone magnificence that is Vic Damone, because, after all, that is what your parents told you. For a long stretch of your early life, especially back in the days that preceded the internet and satellite television, your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and family friends were your only credible news source. They informed you of a worldview that was not broadcast anywhere else. You learned of subjects that your school neglected to teach. What to eat, what to wear, pet or no pet, Pepsi or Coke, etc. And weighing even heavier than the subject matter was the commentary on the subjects themselves. What to think. Until the time when you are exposed to a wider range of ideas, and become sophisticated enough to make a valued decision on your own, your parents' opinions are your opinions, too.
I'm ashamed to admit that I lived in a shadow of ignorance for as long as I did. I heard all the jokes and thought nothing of them. They were as prevalent as the standard issue Polish/Italian/Irish jokes of the day ~ to an 8 year old, nothing more and nothing less. When they were repeated around home, school, or elsewhere, no one intervened to enlighten our under-developed minds of the inherent ugliness and hatred that clung to every punchline, or to warn us that with each laugh, we were laying the foundation to a possible future of blind hatred and corroded morals. We would stand under the flag as it waved proudly over the school's door, and cruelly dismiss and marginalize a segment of the country's population by repeating the crude jokes that were overheard, and in some cases, told to us directly, by the adults in our lives, without ever knowing just how wrong and unintentionally hateful we were.
If you've ever seen the original "Blues Brothers", then you are familiar with the scene in the park where they encounter members of the Illinois Nazi party. That idea did not randomly form in the imagination of Dan Aykroyd. It was all too true. The park was Marquette Park, on the southwest side, and the Illinois Nazis were an actual hate group with an office in the neighborhood. They would boastfully strut around town wearing Nazi uniforms, and not just at parades or events, either ~ I remember seeing a man in full regalia shopping at a nearby grocery store. They were considered so commonplace in the area, that I recall being handed fliers, while in the playground during school hours, warning us of the Black Menace that was plaguing the city. The missives were as racist as you could imagine, but filled with cartoons and jokes to attract interest from us stupid kids. Why pass up the chance to cultivate a future generation of hatemongers?
One of the biggest purveyors of these sick notions was my own father. But as much as he so willingly proclaimed to anyone who would listen about how much he hated, hated, blacks, (again, I use a placeholder word here), I slowly began to notice a disconnect between his words and his actions ~ he would watch, and seemingly enjoy, black people on television. Sammy Davis Jr., Redd Foxx, Flip Wilson, and Nipsey Russell would all make him laugh, while Walter Payton and other black athletes made him cheer. Something in my young mind found this puzzling, so I asked him why he didn't seem to dislike these black people as much as the other ones I constantly heard him complaining about. What made them so different?
He replied without a moments deliberation. "There are good ones and bad ones. These are the good ones."
The response was so swift and effortless, as if he was absently answering the question of "Fries or baked potato?", to finish out his dinner order.
For quite some time I struggled with the concept of good ones and bad ones, because as a white boy, I had heard, read, and seen my fair share of bad ones who wore the same color skin that covered my own body. And if it's true that there are good ones and bad one within a race, is that in itself enough to cripple and destroy the entire race? Are we all to be judged by the worst examples of people our own color? If so, then the entire white race was just as guilty of everything we accused the black race of being. My father and his sublime bigotry provided me with an unintentional lesson in race relations.
Even though my thoughts were reaching in new directions, the neighborhood was still all white, and my friends were all white. Certainly not their fault ~ you can't blame someone for being white, just for acting white, and at this ripe age, that's really all many of us knew how to do. I was not yet old enough to drive, so that impaired me from experiencing any interactive diversity on my own. City buses were available as a mode of transportation, but you couldn't step on to one without hearing the words of your parents ringing through your head ~ "Be careful. Don't go too far away from the neighborhood. It's dangerous." As open-minded as I was, or rather, wanted to be, a fear persisted inside, one that was implanted in me as a child and could not easily be shaken off. You tried to see the world with a new set of eyes, but were continually haunted by those foundational teachings, as repulsive and wrong as they were. If the adults were attempting to create human Pavlov's Dogs of Intolerance, they succeeded.
It wasn't until 1979 when I was 16 and working at a movie theater in the local shopping mall that I came into daily contact with African Americans. I know, sad, isn't it? Slowly, that inner fear which would unexpectedly grip me from time to time began to erode, because guess what? I realized that black people weren't any different from the white people I knew ~ some very nice, some not so nice, and a whole lot more residing between the two extremes. How could my father, and so many others like him, hate this entire group of people? Why did they hate them? It was making less and less sense to me, and I began to see my fellow white people in a new light. A light that was exposing flaws I had not previously seen. Or chosen to see.
The turning point for me occurred one day while working at the cinema. For the first time, an African American had recently been hired as an usher ~ not because of a sudden desire to compensate for years of inequality, but rather because our theater had a weekend softball team, and in his lust for wanting to crush teams from other theaters, our assistant manager tried to hire as many burly guys who applied for summer jobs as he could. Enter this African American teen, who, for the sake of this story, I will call Dave. Dave was a nice guy, kind of funny, but for the most part, kept to himself.
One day, after walking out of the theater where I just made my rounds, I entered the lobby where Dave was working as the ticket taker. For the sake of clarity, the cinema had three theaters, each with its own separate entrance, not like now, where a moviegoer would find one entrance that funnels into twelve or more separate theaters. What I found though, when walking into the lobby, was not Dave standing at the door, but rather backed into the concession counter by five white kids, all his age, but half his size. They were threatening him, throwing out the N-word, and telling him he didn't belong there. I don't know what the hell came over me, because I had never considered taking a stand against racial prejudice at any point previously in my life, but the next thing I knew, I was standing in front of Dave, telling those five white kids to get the fuck out of my theater, or I'd personally kick all of their asses. The truth is, I wasn't a big guy, and would have undoubtedly lost miserably. But there was something in my fury that spoke to them, and they left without further incident, other than calling me a n**r lover and kicking the glass entry doors, that is. I felt good about what had just happened, but then Dave opened his mouth and ruined all my self-satisfaction.
He said, "Thank you."
I was suddenly struck with a horrifying epiphany. The reason Dave kept to himself wasn't because of his personality, it was because of his geography. The mall was on the outskirts of the still all-white neighborhood in which I lived, so even though people his color came regularly to shop at the mall, he was fully aware that he was still outnumbered and unwanted. Looking back on this, it was incredibly brave of him, given the time and place, to even submit an application. I can't think of one white kid who would have done the same in an all-black neighborhood. In that instant, all of the comments, all of the behaviors, I encountered over years culminated into this single moment, and I saw the world differently for the first time. There wasn't black and white. There weren't good ones and bad ones. There were just people. People who wanted to live normal lives like everyone else, but were at times scared to death by the inescapable clamps of racism. Dave was as big as any two of them, and could have knocked them senseless with exerting very little effort, but because of where he was in space and time, he was unable to stand up for himself. He needed the help of a skinny white kid with a big mouth, and that made me feel sick inside.
That was over thirty years ago, and I've never forgotten it. I wonder how many other Daves there are in the world ~ nice normal people who are weighed down by fear, and the invisible anchor of a diseased and antiquated dogma. I thought we had progressed beyond that point in these subsequent years. Perhaps I was too hopeful, or gullible, but I actually believed that, at the very least, the success of "The Cosby Show", Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, and other African Americans in the mainstream of America might relax some old prejudices and open even more eyes, but the truth is, it was always there, boiling just below the surface like a toxic oil, bubbling up from the ground occasionally, but usually plugged up in time to make any real mess.
Pardon the cliche, but 9/11 changed all that. After we were attacked, a group of powerful people realized that they could advance their own personal agendas as long as they continued exploiting our fear. Initially, they preyed upon our collective fear of being attacked again, but it soon morphed into a fear of "others". People who weren't like "us". Once that sentiment was allowed to grow, the earth opened up and all of that lingering racism exploded, finally climaxing with the extremism of the Tea Party.
So this is where we are, in an America where racism is once again the accepted norm. A place where people openly ridicule our President's skin color, a land where chairs representing Obama are hung from trees. A country where influential people claim he was not born in America and demand to see his birth certificate. (John McCain was born in the Panama Canal, but I don't remember one Democrat of any color making an equal fuss.) The most powerful country in the world, but one where a chunk of society is willing to pretend they believe the lies of the rich, white, male candidate simply so they can vote the black male candidate out of office.
Right now, the country is similar to a relapsing alcoholic ~ sober for a long time, but now binge drinking with no intention to stop. So, where do we go from here? The good news is that I don't believe it's entirely hopeless, but we are in desperate need of an intervention. We need leaders, people of authority to step in show us our disgusting behavior. Not leaders like politicians and celebrities, but community leaders, people we know personally who have actual influence over our lives. It needs to start small. Do not look the other way when someone you know behaves inappropriately. Show them how they are wrong. Humanize the issue. How would they like it if they, or someone they loved, were treated in the same manner? And if they once were, then they should know better than to repeat the cycle of hate. It will take more than just seeing the problem, the offenders will need to establish better habits. It's one thing to accept the problem, you have to want to repair it. Since it's our collective problem as a country, are were willing to take it on?
It's not easy. There's a lot to be fixed, and that's what has me worried. For better or worse, we all have to live together for the duration. Why live in hate and fear? If you say you are a Christian, then act like it. If you say you are a patriotic American, then act like that. But whatever you do, do not pretend it doesn't exist and look the other way, because eventually, the other way will circle around back to you.
Apathy kills. Take a stand, for yourself and everyone else.