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 

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 

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

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