Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Race to the bottom

I spent many of my formative years in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.  The Pine Bluff of my 1980s youth was already in a state of decline and decay, but it had not yet been abandoned by a white population seeking opportunity in other locations.

Although I grew up a white person in a city with a large black population, looking back, I have to admit that it was a partially segregated experience.  There were black kids in my classes at school, although the persistence of "neighborhood schools"--Pine Bluff somehow avoided the busing program that marked desegregation efforts in larger cities--meant that the schools I attended there, Southwood Elementary and Oak Park Elementary, were majority-white in a city that was barely so, if at all.  These schools stood in start contrast to Carver and Indiana Street, which served the "black side of town" and had few white students.

The churches, of course, were almost completely segregated.  (Martin Luther King famously referred to 11 a.m. on Sunday morning as the "most segregated hour in American life.")  Near the end of my tenure in Pine Bluff, there were a handful of black folks who attended the church where we were members, not without some controversy, but it was unusual.

The other social aspect of my life in Pine Bluff centered around sports.  Most of the time, I played sports through the Seabrook Youth Center--which we referred to as the Boys' Club--which was expressly a white-only organization.1  As a kid I didn't understand that, but when you're a kid, when people tell you what the rules are, you tend to follow them, or at least respect them.  As an adult, I'm embarrassed to have been a part of it, but the truth is that it was the only opportunity in town, to my knowledge, so I have to be careful in my criticism.

1 At some point after I left, the club became a YMCA, which I assume ended the formal racial restrictions, but it also moved to the predominantly white southern part of town.  I believe it has now dropped the YMCA affiliation.

Little League Baseball was big in Pine Bluff, and while the organization divided Greater Pine Bluff into leagues that were partially segregated in the same manner as the schools, there were black kids on my teams, and we routinely played against teams that had black players--or in some cases were all-black.  I don't remember anyone ever making a big deal of any of that.  The closest I ever heard anyone come to mentioning race was when a biracial boy, whose skin was brown but who had a white mother, was the target of some questions from another boy about how he could be black when his mother was white.

In 1988, when I was 12, we moved to Sheridan, which was at that time lily-white, and which still is, more or less.  Sheridan differed from Pine Bluff in some important ways, but it mostly did not differ in my experience with black people, despite the fact that Sheridan is much whiter than Pine Bluff.  There were a handful of black kids in the Sheridan schools, but they lived elsewhere in the geographically large district.

A few months ago, a white friend from Pine Bluff remarked about how people--like us--who have lived in a racially diverse place tend to be more able to talk intelligently about racial matters.  I've turned her comments over in my mind over the last week or so.  I'm not sure that my experience in Pine Bluff was particularly eye-opening as regards the lives led by black people in the same city, but there was a sort of proximity that someone who grew up in a mostly white area would not have had.

One of the most famous lines from To Kill a Mockingbird, and maybe the whole point of the story, is when Atticus Finch tells Scout that "you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb in his skin and walk around in it." That's a difficult thing for a white person to do, to see what it's really like to be black.  Being white has advantages that white people often can't see and therefore don't acknowledge.  

As an example from my own life, I can tell you that I benefited enormously from the opportunity to play sports at the Boys' Club--I developed physical skills, decision-making abilities, teamwork skills, and lifelong friendships from those experiences.  There were lots of black kids who were denied those opportunities because of a racist policy.  

I also went to schools that were newer and nicer than the schools most black kids in Pine Bluff went to.

The truth is that I don't have enough time to commit to writing all of the advantages and privileges I've had because I'm white.  Even contemplating it is difficult, as it's been a lifetime of privileges piled on each other, each one springing from the previous one.

The other day, the actor/comedian Chris Rock gave an interview in which he discussed race in America.  He made a point that I haven't been able to get out of my mind--something I hadn't considered until he said it.

The election of Barack Obama, he said, wasn't a sign of black progress.  It was a sign of white progress.  There were many black people qualified to be President before Obama.  There wasn't anything different about black people in 2008 than at any time before that.  What changed was that white people were ready to vote for a black man for President.  That's white progress.  To say it represented black progress implies that there weren't any black folks qualified to be President before Obama.

It's a subtle thing, but it's an important distinction.  What makes it important is this:  To the extent that the election of Barack Obama represents progress for white people, it's a gain that can easily be yielded by slipping into old ways.  As the experience in Ferguson, Mo., shows, we're dangerously close to that.

I'll be honest--I believe only one thing that Darren Wilson has said about his actions on the day he killed Michael Brown.  His story doesn't make sense--or, more to the point, it only makes sense if you believe that Michael Brown was a raging animal, rather than a human being, who, being unarmed and on foot, would challenge an armed police officer in an SUV for no apparent reason.  But I believe Darren Wilson when he says he was scared, because when you believe that someone like Michael Brown is subhuman, capable of anything, you're going to be scared no matter what, and you'll have no problem putting that dangerous animal down.

I've seen far too many white people writing off Michael Brown's life by saying that he was "just a thug," implying that Darren Wilson did the right thing by ending his life.  Those people haven't even tried to put themselves in Michael Brown's skin, to see things from his point of view.  They haven't considered that Michael Brown has a mother and father who loved him, who are pained by a loss of life that did not have to happen.  They haven't considered that this is, for black people, yet another instance of white privilege that leaves black people dead with no consequences for the white killer.

Well, one consequence.  Between the funds raised for his benefit and the half-million-dollar paycheck from ABC for his interview, Darren Wilson is now a millionaire.

The St. Louis Police Officers' Association complained to the NFL, demanding discipline, when five St. Louis Rams players exhibited the "Hand up, don't shoot" pose that has come to symbolize solidarity with the nationwide protests against police overreach, racial profiling, and legalized murder.

Apparently, in the views of the SLPA, speaking out against racially motivated police violence is conduct that demands sanctions, while that racially motivated police violence is itself met with a shrug, an excuse, and support. 

And as I try to see it from the perspective of the black community, I cannot help but see this whole situation as brazenly and openly motivated by the belief that black lives don't matter.

But black lives do matter.  If we want to make progress, we've got to accept--and live--that simple truth.

Black lives matter.

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