The racism in me

“Racism, one of the most baneful and persistent evils, is a major barrier to peace. Its practice perpetrates too outrageous a violation of the dignity of human beings to be countenanced under any pretext.” ~The Promise of World Peace, 1985

Esther Harrison at 90
One of two strong women who quietly acted as grandmas to my daughter many years ago.  My mother was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, my husband’s mother was 1500 miles east and unwell.  This photo of Esther Harrison  was taken several years ago in Albuquerque.  She passed away two weeks ago, peacefully.  The other de facto grandma was Eleanor Person, a widely travelled Army wife and registered nurse who was also happened to be black.  And of a firm character, indeed.

Results of America’s long simmering, latent, at times overt, racism fill the news and the minds of many.  I look out from my second floor balcony in the heart of the Silicon Valley, where in the streets there is a flowing sea of faces of so many countries, a murmur of conversations in so many languages floating upward.  All sorts of skin tones but, curiously, few black ones.

I miss them.  One of the drivers behind me leaving my native Massachusetts in 1976 was how white the area where I grew up was.  White and middle class.  My heart craved a wider experience.

1945 Mount Vernon
Google street view of the Savannah condo building where I live.  Our balcony is on the right side, screened here by a tall tree.  Recently while rolling along this sidewalk I was struck by the fact that these condo buildings are known to Mountain View residents as  “the black and whites”.

I lived in New Mexico for twenty-four years altogether, spent three years in Santa Maria north of Santa Barbara, California, where there were all kinds of people, and that was great.  It was in the late 1970s.

Here, back in California for about six weeks now, I’m a bit removed from conflicts playing out in various parts of the country, in which too many non-black cops shoot to death too many black people, usually young men.

Is it just a cop thing?  Is it because law enforcement is necessarily involved with extreme attitudes in its communities, often engaging with the worst kinds of human behavior?  How big a role is played by officers’ previous dangerous encounters in the decision to pull triggers on dark-skinned men who later turn out to have been unarmed, little or no threat?

Should law enforcement people be required to take regular sabbaticals in order to refresh their experience with human nature in a different setting?

Should they go through a wider kind of training than most currently do, studying some humanities, for instance?  Or would this only complicate their decisions about what’s lawful  or safe and what isn’t?

Or is the trend in law enforcement pulled from the larger communities they represent, then magnified by exigencies of the job?  In other words, are things this way because communities let it be?

I once knew an Irish cop who was an all around character.  One night in Boston he was called to a big, tony house where suspicious activity was reported.  Sure enough, a break-and-enter in progress, so in went Officer M. He found a fellow lifting silverware and such in the dining room.

The two men took the measure of one another as Officer M’s .38 aimed itself more towards the floor than the burglar, till the pair perched tentatively against the sideboard to discuss the situation.  The child of poor immigrants, Officer M was struck by the burglar’s egalitarian attitudes — as though he was facing Robin Hood.

So … When the stolen goods left the dining room it was carried by both the burglar and the guy with the brass buttons on his uniform, for a short distance, anyhow.  The conscience of the police officer didn’t let him to cross the front threshold with loot.

Only Officer M could be sure about veracity in this tale, but the spirit in which he related it struck me.  No bars were involved, it was during work hours and the man was quite sober.  From the moment he saw the burglar — and I don’t know what color he was, only that this was an area where the odds of being black were relatively high — the cop was mentally stowing his sidearm.

He did have a flexible definition of what it took to break a law.  His affability kept him in good standing for a good while, and it took another decade or more till Officer M’s career in law enforcement did not conclude to his satisfaction. He was a cop who professed not to give a hoot what color anyone was, so long as they weren’t bothering anyone.  Whatever that meant.

I couldn’t imagine Officer M shooting somebody unless the person was in the act of trying to kill somebody.  But… would I really want him protecting my possessions from burglars?

How many of us have the kind of principles that help us to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves, and stick to them under duress?  How many times are we are carried away by fear or pride or dumb carelessness and don’t hold ourselves accountable later on?

Knowing and liking all kinds of people, including spooks and cops and people passing years of their lives in prison, does not soften the searing pain across my spirit now, awareness that this greatest challenge to the peace and unity of this country — racism — hasn’t lessened much since I was fourteen, stumbling into the first black-only women’s restroom I’d ever encountered — in Washington, DC.

I was on a bus loaded with a camping group, all girls, known as the Sundowners, who had been visiting the recreated colonial village of Williamsburg, Virginia.  A place that showcases the earliest, idealistic roots of the USA.  A place where I, whose favorite book at the time was Gone With the Wind, entertained the others one evening in our motel, by wrapping a scarf around my head, putting on a lot of lipstick to make my mouth look bigger, all the better to channel my version of Mammy, Scarlett O’Hara’s childhood nurse.  It wasn’t what we think of at this time as politically correct, and it got loud with shrieks of adolescent laughter.

So no big surprise when somebody from the next room pounded on our door to suggest that we keep our noise down.  For the seemingly long seconds as the man — white, well dressed and southern by accent — gazed intently into our faces, bolts of shame shot through me, for what I was doing was unworthy.  My portrayal of the stalwart Mammy from a long ago era could hurt people.

Perhaps it was a fit of penitent solidarity with those whom I considered to be my thus far unknown relatives in the human race. I deliberately passed up the white bathroom and instead hopped my way with crutches and braces into the Black Only facility.  Where I probably complicated the lives of the few women in there, though they treated me with distant and — I later realized — nervous courtesy.  This small sharing of a human commonality was so easy for me, and would have been unthinkable for them, in reverse.  At the least they’d have risked jail.

Some years later I was a newly minted reporter in the early 1970s, naturally covering the doings of police and fire fighters on my small beat.  My brother had recently died in a fiery car wreck and some of the officers had known him in his wild teenage years, warned him repeatedly about the foolishness of driving his Superbee a hundred miles an hour on twisty country roads, been genuinely grieved at his death.  That made a bond for me with a few of the police.

That in itself was a striking change from attitudes developed in my last several years at Boston University, when I, dressed as a hippy, went on an anti-war march to Washington, DC, got teargassed, became familiar with Black Panthers, heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Boston, began calling police pigs, and so on.  Launching a long string of experiences of life as others know it that humbled and informed me about the foolishness of judging many members of a human subset to be much the same.

It’s not that simple, then or now.  I don’t like watching violence, but I did watch the shooting of Michael Ferguson a couple of years ago.  And of what appeared to be the suicide-by-cop shooting of Dylan Noble, a young white man who walked towards two armed officers with one hand reaching towards his waist as he said, “I fucking hate my life”, last month in Fresno, California.

I found lots of room for doubt in my own mind about what I was seeing.  Surely, surely there was some other solution?  When a person is down what is the need to keep shooting?  And how often is there truly a reason to shoot to kill?

Such fear-driven occurrences are so likely to escalate.  As they have to where deliberate shootings of police by black men has been in the news more than once.

Over the years I’ve counted a few law enforcement people as friends, listened to stories from them,  stories from black friends, experienced first hand what can happen to a well educated, utterly honest, good young woman who happens to drive down a small New Mexico road at the wrong moment — and gets hauled out of her car by police, questioned intensively and treated with general disrespect. All for the reason that because she is black she is suspected of trying to break into somebody’s house (mine) and setting off a burglar alarm (my dogs had done that).  The non-black cops had to be convinced that she hadn’t been burglarizing my place.  The convincing took over thirty minutes, all the more strange because I was nearby to vouch for my friend.

And I have the memory of some of those long ago Massachusetts cops I counted as friends, how their personalities seemed to change when they brought in a black fellow they were suspecting of some misdeed or other.  How they put him in a cell while I was in the station, how they looked at me in what you might call a “got his back up” way and said they were calling brother officers from surrounding towns to come in and make sure that the black prisoner was never alone while awaiting either bail or the next day’s court.

“But what will all these cops do?” was my naive question.

I got a look as though I’d just dropped off a truckload of baby turnips.  Followed by a demo of a sly eyed officer sashaying back and forth like a tiger, brandishing a nightstick, taunting the man in his small barred cell, shoving the stick in through the bars…

My jaw dropped as I twirled around and left the station.  All I had been able to say was, “My God, that is awful!”

And how complicit was I that the story I wrote contained very little about what the police were doing, that I knew that it was unacceptable and yet felt powerless to get my editor to agree to make a big fuss about it?  The prisoner was known to be responsible for not a few misdemeanors and felonies in the area and I think, so many years later, that I allowed his bad record to cloud my judgement in the way I handled the story.  Which was a small story in that day’s news.

It is one of my haunting regrets.  What we do in these sudden moments of unanticipated opportunity makes our characters.  Mine has been missing something for a long time now.

All these years later how can the chasm be lessened between police and the darker skinned ones they look askance at?  What I can do is to encourage the people who see the kind of thing I once saw and did little about to answer to a higher moral code, and to insist that it is wrong.  To not see it as business as usual, but as the gross violation of a person’s right to be treated humanely while in police custody.

To remember Nelson Mandela.

I am still inwardly shaken when I discover a trace of racism within my own being.  How would I react at the non-thought level, I wonder, should a black police officer pull me over on the highway?  Would I find myself wondering what gave him or her the right?

Though I hope I wouldn’t, there is still room for doubt in my mind, if not in my heart…

And isn’t it noteworthy, how some places call police cars black-and-whites?

Dodge b&w cop car
A Dodge publicity photo

From a Baha’i book, about black and white relations in America:

Let neither think that the solution 
of so vast a problem is a matter 
that exclusively concerns the other. 

Let neither think that such a problem 
can either easily or immediately be 
resolved. 

Let neither think that they can wait 
confidently for the solution of this 
problem until the initiative has been 
taken, and the favorable 
circumstances created, by agencies 
that stand outside the orbit of their 
Faith. 

Let neither think that anything short 
of genuine love, 
extreme patience, 
true humility, 
consummate tact, 
sound initiative, 
mature wisdom,
and deliberate, 
persistent, and prayerful effort,
can succeed in blotting out the stain 
which this patent evil has left on the 
fair name of their common country.

~Shoghi Effendi
The Advent of Divine Justice
p. 40

Transiting & lemon squeezing

wind farm
A tiny part of the wind farms around Temecula, California.  Drawing by Emily Lee

Moving involves a fair amount of self re-creation and may bring into play the re-discovery of potentials we once glimpsed, only to let slip away.

You think you are a country person, and here you are, by your own choice, in a city.  You used to roll your badass power wheelchair around quiet village streets, now your daughter bumps you along crowded sidewalks in a rickety little manual wheelchair, your two small dogs attached to your waist by a bungee coupler — hoping they don’t wrap themselves around a pole, or the legs of that umpteenth geeky guy striding eagerly towards you as he listens so intently to something on his smart phone that you are sure he thinks he’s the only person for miles.

Who would expect, though, that little city trees in somebody’s yard would produce wonderful lemons the size of grapefruits, that you could make the best lemon-honey tea ever from?  Things like that, visits and dinners with good friends, provide some golden times here.

Life in California’s Silicon Valley is pretty much what you expected, except you did not anticipate that upon your arrival in this quirkily fascinating place between techie mountains named Google, Apple and Facebook, your wheelchair batteries would go south and your leg brace would pop a rivet.  Again.  And when you discovered that these medical mishaps were occurring, you sure didn’t expect to find yourself sobbing loudly because you knew you were about to be grounded in your apartment for months.  Three of them, anyhow.

Had you foreseen how extraordinarily slow this process is right here, you would still be wailing.  Happily these misfortunes are not revealed to us all at once.  A series of small wails is more bearable than one big heart-busting fit of doom.

This is thanks to Medicare, the system which distrusts power wheelchair users so profoundly that it takes a few months to get authorizations for emergency repairs.  At least it does whenever you get into a new system, or need an especially expensive repair, or a new chair.

It was particularly galling to learn that I cannot even BUY a set of batteries privately.  “We need to wait for Medicare’s first refusal,” was the airy response to my stunned reaction at this piece of information.

So I’m grounded, other than when the aforementioned daughter manages to squeeze time in for a roll around the neighborhood one evening, or a weekend afternoon trip to pick up a friend in Salinas, where you get to see the sign — whoo hoo! — for the John Steinbeck museum, and wish you were free to visit it.  Salinas, an old, established place, is well worth a look around, anyway. So different from Mountain View, where we now live, where today’s vacant half lot is tomorrow’s newest spot for apartment development.  They squeeze these complexes into unimaginable spots…  This place, at least the section where we are, is wall to wall apartment complexes of different styles and ages.  Mountain View took off with early semiconductor companies in the 1950s, and  growth has accelerated steadily ever since.

And you sure didn’t foresee not having a vehicle of your own for the first time since you turned twenty two.  That was forty six years back.  A good long time to thumb my self-reliant nose at anyone who insisted I stay put when I was not so inclined.

To be fair, you suspected but were still stunned to discover that the cost of a decent used wheelchair mini van is around $35,000.  Not real feasible to somebody intending to survive on Social Security in the most expensive housing market in the USA.

So here I be, observing progress of balcony repairs and restorations in this and nearby buildings. Of roof repairs on condos on the other side.  Lots of time to think about how lovely my two dear roommates (and faithful dog walkers) are, how grand that I noticed a tiny hummingbird mom checking over our balcony plants one day, and was able to get a feeder up promptly for her.  How lovely that she came back with a friend or six.

Lots of time to muse over spending more time cultivating my neglected bonsai trees, over investing funds from the sale of my New Mexico home, becoming more of a non-consumer, lessening my carbon footprint, figuring out the best way to use Mountain View’s free ride service.  Time to catch up on reading, binge watch Netflix (of which I weary easily), and to blog.  Time to figure out how to get over to the bay just east of here to check out the birdlife, to visit the Googleplex on the way by.  To view progress on the Apple Donut going up in Cupertino nearby.

These days, rather than doing my daily meditations in my enclosed back yard, I sit in our second floor living room while the roomies are at work, facing the balcony.  Our newly resurfaced balcony, now that the Spanish speaking fellows have finished their work.  I find myself missing their rapid fire conversations, the lilt in Spanish that makes me smile.  They are nice guys, even moving the bonsai and other large plants into our living room during the resurfacing project.  Later they returned to put the plants back outside.

What worldly news there is lately to run through my mind is…. Just awful.   So many police officers have been shooting more black people than ever, especially young, or youngish, men, there’s no surprise when a veteran, probably black, has made a stand and shot a lot of white police officers in Dallas.  We are a racist society, definitely, and it’s time to bring that right out into the light.

Justice.  We must create that together, or perish apart.

News of the presidential campaign as it is gradually shaping up is fully as divisive and dismal as news of the shootings.  News from abroad is — well, should I be surprised or just shrug my shoulders — also very divisive.

How is the human race ever to get past glaring accusingly at one another’s differences if we keep focusing down on our otherness-es?

This stuff has snowballed to the point where it’s only too easy to miss the good news that is whispered as the rest is screamed.

Several quotations run through my mind  of late:

…”for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness.”

“When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love. Thoughts of war bring destruction to all harmony, well-being, restfulness and content.“  ~Baha’i

One cannot meditate constantly, however homebound they may be.  Time to bring back other pastimes, other ways of moving the mind outward, away from that scared, shivering little self not wishing to be hemmed in by a broken down wheelchair and fading strength.

Lately I’ve been remembering scenes that flew by us as my daughter and I drove here from my former home in New Mexico, followed by two friends driving a rental truck with my excessive belongings in it.  I love my friends a lot, but once I got here and realized the extent of size difference between my old house and my new rented condo I … almost … wished the truck had rolled over a cliff while my friends were out of it for a few minutes.

Fitting into a different space, that’s a story for some other time.  Today I am writing about mind space, adaptability, life’s inevitable changes, attitude towards that.

Part of the adaptation process has taken the form of me drawing on my iPad, using the Procreate app.  Since it wasn’t possible to take photos while driving — we were in quite a rush —I fixed a couple of scenes inwardly.  Keep it in mind that I make no pretense of being a painter or of being able to draw.  I’m a wood carver, a three dimensional artist, turned two dimensional of necessity.  These drawings are my way of exploring things I’ve seen, stripping away the irrelevant bits.

Here from my hours of enforced sitting arounded-ness, are two sketches I did this week.  One, below, is a wisp of memory from something I’d passed a number of times on I-40 headed west, in New Mexico.  It’s a Navajo type outfit, with a small ranch house, a hogan and a corral with an earth colored horse in it, set against towering cliffs.  I simplified it in my artist mind. It wouldn’t take much to visualize this place in Tony Hillerman stories.

The other, above, is of the spooky looking wind towers sticking every which way out of miles of mountains around Temecula, California,  It  (als0) wouldn’t take much to imagine these great hulks waving their flexible blades around way up there, chatting with ET.  Waves of future energy, menace to birds, bats and who-knows-what-else?

Oh, science, why is its growth so poky?

horse and hogan touched up
Some fantastic cliffs in northwest New Mexico, with horse and hogan.  Drawing by Emily Lee

…To me growth is so likely when we focus on the good, and so slow or non existent when instead we choose to look at things we hate.  To act rather than react, that is the big question.

Here is a prayer for America written in the early 1900s, more about what we can be than the way things are just now:

O God, Almighty Protector! O Thou Who art the confirmer of every just power and equitable empire in eternal glory, everlasting power, continuance and greatness! Strengthen with the abundance of Thy mercy every government which acts with equity towards its subjects, and every dominion under whose flag the poor and weak find protection.

We ask Thee by Thy holiness and bounty to pour out Thy blessing upon this government which has stretched its tent over citizens from every land, that its inhabitants, its industries, its territories may be penetrated by justice.

O God! Strengthen its executives, give authority and influence to its word and utterance, protect its territories and dominions, guard its reputation, make its ideals to echo throughout the world, reveal its traces and exalt its principles by Thy conquering power and wonderful might throughout the kingdoms of creation.

Thou art the confirmer of whomsoever Thou willest. Verily, Thou art the powerful and the mighty!  ~Baha’i