Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Problem We All Live With

The Tea Party helped mainstream racist views
It's become uncomfortably clear in this country that the divisive tone of the 2016 Republican presidential campaign seems to have had the effect of granting people a tacit permission to publicly and openly express bigotry, racism and intolerance in ways that seem dredged up from darker corners of America's troubled past.

Ever since the results of the November 8th election last fall it's been difficult to keep up with all the different ways in which hatred bigotry and divisiveness have manifested in the actions and words of some Americans.

In the months since the start of the chaotic presidential transition, we've witnessed a disturbing rise in hate incidents, from young Muslim women being harassed in public for wearing the Hijab, to grave stones in Jewish cemeteries being overturned and desecrated.

There've been deadly consequences as well, like last month when a 51-year-old Kansas man named Adam Purinton was charged with murder after opening fire on two Indian engineers in a crowded bar after yelling at them to "Get out of my country."

Four days after Donald Trump was elected president, as multiple reports of schools across America being defaced with sickening racist and anti-Semitic graffiti, I blogged about having discovered that some individual, or individuals had defaced the elementary school I attended in Bethesda, Maryland with swastikas.

Up to that point, that's about as personal as it got for me, but that changed last Wednesday.

A horse-drawn wagon with a coffin bearing the
N-Word leads a funeral procession in 2007 
An incident that took place in my office at work reminded me that even though it's been ten years since the NAACP symbolically buried the N-Word during a ceremonial funeral that took place during their annual convention in Detroit in 2007, the word is alive and well in this country.

I can't speak for all African-Americans or people of color, but I can recall with perfect clarity the times during my life that a white person has called me a nigger to my face.

Few words in the English language possess the kind of power that one does, and it's my personal choice not to use it in general - it's a degrading and detestable racial slur with toxic historical connotations.

As Randall Kennedy observed in "All About That Troublesome Word", an informative essay on the historical context of the N-Word published in the September / October 2016 issue of American History magazine, "Sociologist Elijah Anderson has written, 'There comes a time in the life of every African-American when he or she is powerfully reminded of his or her's putative place as a black person.' Anderson refers to it as the 'nigger moment.' "

One of the more unpleasant aspects of being an apartment leasing agent is that you have to process tenant complaints, and rest assured, there were a huge volume of those during the snowstorm that hit last week.

As some of you know the problem with the snow that hit New Jersey last week was that it was so cold that the temperature never got above freezing the day after it snowed.

Cars piled with frozen snow in NJ last week
And the night after that, any snow that hadn't been removed from cars on Tuesday basically just froze solid.

The parking lots, walkways and streets were cleared, but a lot of older tenants waited until the snow was basically like ice to try and dig their cars out.

Those who didn't go out and clear the snow off on Tuesday, their cars looked like those in the photo to the left.

And on Tuesday night, all that snow froze solid, it wasn't powder, it was like a block of ice.

So this older white tenant in his 60's comes into the leasing office on Wednesday and starts complaining about the frozen snow between he and his wife's cars; unless people move the cars out of the parking spaces, crews can't use the plows to clear them out - there's no room to use equipment between parked vehicles.

We'd been getting calls all day by the time this guy came in, and even though he'd been out in his truck and was able to get around, he was complaining about the snow around the sides of his wife's car not being cleared - but it was still frozen so the crews couldn't do anything about it, they were all busy clearing other walkways and sections of the lots anyway.

After several attempts to explain that nicely to him, he kept getting angrier at me and at that point the phone was ringing and there wasn't anything else that could be done until the snow started to thaw; the only thing I could do was give him the number to the main office so he could register a complaint.

That made him angrier, so he walks to the door points his finger at me and threatens to call the local Township and I told him he was welcome to do that - so he storms out and said, "Fuckin' nigger!"

Now I was pissed, I know the guy, he's a Trump voter and he's embittered about the state of everything and here he is during one of the worst snow storms of the year calling me a derogatory racial slur because there's ice piled around his wife's car.

Center for Media Justice Founder Malkia Cyril
Controversy related to the open use of the N-Word is also reflected in the realm of social media as well.

Last year Ruth Reader wrote an interesting article posted on examining the efforts Facebook is making to try and confront some of the same issues related to race.

Malkia Cyril, founder and executive director of the Center for Media Justice and a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement, met with Facebook company leaders over issues related to opponents of the BLM movement and trolls using the N-Word and other inflammatory and threatening language in the commentary sections of the various public BLM Facebook pages that she manages.

As Cyril pointed out in Reader's article, when women of color post photos of their breasts on Facebook BLM pages as a way to bring attention to the deaths of black women; Facebook quickly pulls the photos down.

But, as Cyril told "And yet, being called a nigger, which is equally an explicit violation of Facebook's policies, not only can take weeks to get addressed, but also frequently we're told, 'It doesn't violate our code of conduct."

While Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has written publicly in support of Black Lives Matter and initiated internal efforts to improve Facebook's efforts to remove racial slurs that violate it's policies, Cyril's accounts of the huge volume of incendiary race-based comments that flood the commentary sections of BLM's public Facebook pages reflects a deeper problem with race in America.

One that's grown worse with the rise in divisive right-wing media, the formation of the Tea Party during President Obama's first term and the eventual election of Donald Trump.

The home where I grew up on the right, and the
street where I was first called the N-Word
My first nigger moment came when I was eight-years-old, I was outside my family's home on the quiet tree-lined suburban street in Bethesda, Maryland where I grew up (pictured left).

I was the only black boy in a group of about five boys playing on a warm summer afternoon when a relatively minor dispute over something silly turned into a shoving match between me and a white boy a year older than me named Greg.

He was older than me but I was a little bigger than him, and in an effort to get him off me I sort of pushed him into a bush and he tore his t-shirt.

Out of the blue he narrowed his eyes and sneered at me, "Nigger!"

Like it was an accusation or a pronunciation of some sort that was meant to end the dispute.

I recall the energy in the air as we stared at each other breathing heavily from our boyish shoving, and I remember becoming simultaneously conscious of my skin color, and aware that he viewed me as being different from the other boys - even though we'd all played together before.

Last week I had the same sense of confusion, anger and hurt when the same old guy whose application I'd helped get approved two years ago called me the N-Word to my face.

Would he have called me that two years ago? I don't think so. Is this what Trump and The Stephen's meant by Making America Great Again?

For me personally, some of the thoughts expressed on the pages of this blog over the years are, in some ways, spiritual.

But it's not about my religion, which to me is a very personal thing.

To me there are many paths to God, and different faiths and beliefs choose different ways to get to the same place.
Norman Rockwell's "The Problem We All Live With"
Each morning I take a few minutes to read the Daily Word, its daily message offers a chance to meditate spiritually and center one's thoughts before the busyness of the day unfolds - I find it's often timely to the circumstances in my life.

This morning as I lay in bed thinking about how to use writing to process what happened in my office last week, a particular line in this morning's message titled "Awaken" struck me as particularly helpful in trying view last week's issue.

"I understand that the diversity in people and in all creation is a gift from God."

To me that sums up what most people on this planet think about diversity.

Whether it's diversity in people, plants, animals, planets or stars - the rich diversity that distinguishes life in this universe in all it's forms is a gift.

Simply being able to stop and recognize that is a gift.

So those who would use toxic and hateful words to demean other people simply because of their religion, race, ethnicity, gender or sexual preference are those who condemn, hate and fear diversity.

They are trapped in a place of profound negativity where emptiness, anger, resentment and darkness have clouded their perception of the world around them - so they are unable to see the gift of diversity.

They are unable to understand it.

In that state of ignorance, blinded by a form of self-hatred that is, in essence, anti-life, they are to be pitied.

Perhaps the incident I experienced in my office last Wednesday is, as the title of American painter Norman Rockwell's iconic 1964 oil painting (pictured above) of six-year-old African-American student Ruby Bridges being escorted to the all-white William Frantz Elementary School by four white U.S. Marshals at the height of the tension of the of the New Orleans school desegregation crisis suggests, is simply "The Problem We All Live With".  

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