One of the most enjoyable experiences in my life was when Eric Robertson was incubating Community LIFT in our office, and the meaningful conversations became a daily activity for about a year and a half.
Often, our day ended with our watching the local television news, and it was revealing to do this with an African American friend. I was surprised at how often I cringed at reports in which white privilege or African Americans as sources of problems were inherent in news reports.
As Atticus Finch said in To Kill A Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
It’s the essence of what it means to be human, and yet, empathy remains elusive for so many people. In this case, I’m thinking of white men, because there seems to be one profile on display prominently for people who engage in bigotry, excuse bigotry, and perpetrate bigotry.
It Was Supposed To Be Different
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In the 1960s, there was so much hope mixed with the turmoil. Fifty-three years ago, the Civil Rights Act was passed, and some conservatives complained that we could not legislate morality.
At the time, I didn’t really care about morality. I just wanted to shut up the bigots and hope that in time, the spirit and justice of the civil rights movement would spread into the bloodstream of America. And yet, events of the past 10 days prove how far we have to go and that morality is still as elusive with some people as it was in the early days of a movement to prove that equal rights were not only for white Americans.
All of us who are white Southerners have seen the racism up close and personal. The challenge is to see it through another person’s eyes.
I remember a life-altering event when I was a teenager in a much smaller Collierville and saw a white man knock an elderly black man off the sidewalk because he did not step aside to let the white man pass. I never attended elementary or high school with an African American student and the idea that a black person would enter the doors of a white church was simply unfathomable. In Collierville, African Americans were required to be “off the town square” on Saturday by 10 p.m., but white teenagers could hang out there as long as they liked.
A Catalog of Deplorables
When, as editor of my high school newspaper, I wrote a short story about the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, my faculty adviser – a beloved English teacher – was reprimanded for not reviewing articles before they were published (she never did). Later, I was fired from my drug store job for allowing an African American to use the bathroom there. In that same drug store, a couple of dozen white men gathered each morning for coffee and comments about African Americans were vile and met no rebuttal.
As a 20-year-old, I was the only white worker in the film library of Memphis City schools, and when we went to the bank to cash our checks, my African American colleagues twice my age needed me to vouch for them to the bank tellers. As a newspaper reporter fresh out of college, I saw a Southern grande dame chauffeured down the tree-lined driveway to her antebellum home ask her driver to back up so she could ask an African American man if he had nodded as she drove by.
There is no one who grew up white in the South who does not have a catalog of similar stories, because it was in this kind of world that we heard racial invective in our everyday lives – at work, at school, at church, and family gatherings. There was no risk in making these kinds of comments because racism was so widely pervasive.
Eventually, the repulsiveness of such comments were translated into images of attacks on young African Americans marching for equal rights, images of when Freedom Riders arrived in Birmingham and police delayed in meeting them so the Ku Klux Klan had time to assault the bus riders, and images of brutal tactics of racist heroes like Bull Connor who set attack dogs and fire hoses on the Children’s Crusade. Ultimately, faced with these images, American public opinion was swayed and racists largely went underground.
Some of us counted this as success, and we hoped that an environment with less racist rants would lead to a world where fair play and justice would become commonly held values. That said, we did not count on a president willing with his demagoguery to encourage Nazis and the Klan members to slither out from under their rocks.
It’s not like there were not warning signs. After all, the eight years of the administration of Barack Obama unleashed some of the most mindless racist comments we had heard since the Sixties.
It is alarming to listen to so many white men justify President Trump’s moral equivalence between American Nazis and the people who oppose them. Some of them are likely to have talked about how the “greatest generation” saved us from fascism, but now they demean these heroes’ sacrifices by giving a pass to people proudly giving the Hitler salute and sweatshirts bearing swastikas.
If there has ever been a moral choice that is uncomplicated and obvious, it is this one: Nazis are bad and anti-Nazis are good. That some people want to act like this is a gray area is nothing short of immorality.
All of this is not merely political theater. It is personal.
My oldest friend – 46 years – is Susan Adler Thorp. She is Jewish and her parents escaped the Holocaust to relocate to Memphis. We met when we went to work as newspaper reporters just out of college.
Children Will Listen
Growing up in Collierville, I knew little about Judaism. The one Jewish family in the town of 2,000 owned a small clothing store on the town square (and yes, despite what the town mayor says now, it was called Confederate Park).
In various fundamentalist Baptist services, I had gotten the impression that Jews were evil (which confused me since the person being worshiped in those services was himself Jewish). I heard more anti-Semitic comments when I was in college but I had developed a defense: I would say my mother was Jewish. Except for one time, it always worked.
Anti-Semitism is as baffling as racism, and the fact that it had been a part of human history for millennia as millions of men, women, and children were murdered in the name of the Jewish savior whose words the killers mangled to justify their own fanaticism and intolerance.
We see a version of it today as evangelicals cavalierly set aside supposedly inviolate beliefs to support a political figure who excuses sexual battery, racism, and anti-Semitism. Then again, at the same time they were pushing pro-Israel America policies, evangelicals nonetheless believed that Jews were going to hell, a sentiment regularly expressed in the South.
Crowded Under That Rock
In Memphis, major department stores were owned by Jewish businessmens, Abe Plough was an entrepreneurial legend, Sam Cooper was equally well-known for his business and charitable acumen, Myra Dreifus led a campaign to fight hunger, and more. And yet, for me, the impact of the Jewish community were fully in evidence when Temple Israel’s Rabbi James Wax stood up to Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb and led the ecumenical call for an end to the sanitation strike.
It was a time when it was just an immutable fact of life in Memphis that there were high-profile country clubs whose bylaws said “No Jews.” I remember in college when someone asked about someone in the dorm. The description was “he’s some white guy from New Jersey,” but someone offered a correction: “No, he’s not white. He’s a Jew.”
We have thought how much the times have changed for the better in the fact that Temple Israel Rabbi Micah Greenstein today is arguably the best-known and most influential member of the Memphis faith community.
And yet, the same rock under which the Klan lives has American Nazis as neighbors. Watching the hate brigade in Charlottesville, it was hard not to wonder what my Jewish friends were thinking: Will we ever live in a time when our children are safe from hate-fueled epithets and ugly stereotype?
It is now painful to admit that I have been naïve. It is not enough that we had driven the racists under their rocks and that the racist language was heard much more rarely. Then came social media and President Obama. Racism raised its head and the results were as coarse and putrid as anything heard in my childhood.
With the election of President Trump, the rock was shattered and the vermin there now feel liberated enough to march in our cities and espouse views that were repulsive when we defeated them in a world war and with passage of civil rights legislation.
Repulsion is now resistance. Again.
It raises the question of how many times do we have to defeat racism and anti-Semitism in this country? We fear the answer.
The Right Questions
That’s because we are afraid that white men will continue to be behind so much of the abhorrent impulses expressed through today’s political vocabularies and behaviors. But here’s the thing: it took a car mowing down counter-protesters and killing a young woman to shock more Americans into reality.
That said, it should not take a death to recognize that bigotry has been shaping federal policies and programs in recent months. These include voter suppression, elimination of hate crime funding, gerrymandering of Congressional districts, programs that fray our traditional safety net programs, crime policies that vilify African Americans, and so much more.
While we are focused on the dramatic incident, the American values of fair play, justice, and equality are being eroded with little public outcry. In repudiating hatred in all its forms, we have to also repudiate changes in federal policies that make minorities more vulnerable.
We understand that the voting decisions of many white men were driven by “economic anxiety,” but it is incredulous that their ire turns to minorities who earn much less than they do, who have had their wealth limited by federal policies, and whose wealth was wiped away by the Great Recession.
In setting out our choices, Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Princeton University’s chair of the department of African-American studies, wrote: “Now we have to confront honestly this fact: the white nationalists in Charlottesville, and in every other town, are as native to American soil as sagebrush and buffalo grass. What is required of white America now is something much more than sentimental condemnation of that fact.
“Ask yourselves: Can you truly give up the idea that this is a white nation? Can you imagine this country as a truly multiracial democracy? Or are you willing to cast this fragile experiment into the trash bin of history, because you refuse to have it any other way?”
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