This is the second of three reflections on the coronavirus pandemic. The first, published a month ago, was named Pandemic Ramble. This one, more wistful, is named Pandemic Shamble. It addresses also the pandemic of racism. Since the future may be messy and confusing, I’ve tentatively chosen the name of Pandemic Scramble for the third yet to be written piece.
The first two have come out much too long. No one would want to try to read the text at one sitting. It probably will prove better to nibble away over a number of days. Thanks for reading!
Two pandemics, racism and COVID-19, are out there slamming against one another, accompanied by ads playing discordant election songs. What will happen? No one knows. I’ve decided to shamble along beside the action making note of impressive happenings and hashing out rough ideas.
One of these pandemics, COVID-19, is omnipresent and unseen. The other, racism, is exposed, out there in the open for the moment, but wanting to meld back into the background where it can attack without recrimination. There are also awaiting attention the overlooked pandemics of planetary destruction, species extinction, and nuclear war.
Enter the poor human actors, Gulliver like figures tied up in knots before the gates of Lilliput. All of these slumped figures are carrier-agents and targeted victims of the COVID-19 virus. One is free. His prone figure, already visited by the virus, lies breathless under a murderer’s knee. His name is George Floyd. Like the crucified Christ, death has destined him for fame and a mission of spiritual renewal. Hope for national redemption rests upon more than his killers receiving justice. Equality and freedom for all the people are at stake.
A crowd of onlookers is gathering. Film is shot. Police are accused. Police are defended. Are you our protectors or killers? In this part of town, the answer is known, the police have dominated, jailed, assaulted, and killed black people for decades. The victims have had enough; they say “no more.” Have far-flung viewers peering into screens seen enough as well? Will the killing and jailing stop? Will the taxpayer-employers stop the killing and imprisoning, and experience a change of heart themselves?
Elsewhere, everywhere, figures in growing number, shaken to the core by George Floyd’s murder, kneel, arise, step from doorways to streets, protest, confront phantom monsters, show ingenious signs, and kneel again. They do this in places large and small, night after night, for more than a fortnight. The virus dances around their ankles as they march.
But look there, to the side. Male figures in military garb shouting orders, horses prancing around, pushing back protesters, and lobbing gas canisters. Boundaries are set. Walls are built. An ocean of spectators part. A way clears. Into the clearing a deific figure steps boldly forth, attended by an entourage of acolytes and priestesses. He makes religious pilgrimage to a sacred shrine, poses for a moment, and throws the Holy Book at the protesters.
Pandemics tend to gnaw away and endure!
Visualize a field the shape of a football field. Imagine that field as an infinitely thin card, in a deck of like cards, each one carrying multiple waves of a single physical force, such as the electron, neutrino, photon, proton, or quark, one for every discrete force in nature. Imagine now turning any one force field card around and around, rotating three hundred and sixty degrees in all possible directions. Now imagine all the cards doing the same thing simultaneously in the same space, on their own, passing silently through and acting upon one another. Some, like the neutrino card pass through most all of the other cards without disturbance. Others, like the proton and electron cards, influence most every card they pass. All cards carry forces that influence some other card. Every one is efficacious. This is the way I’d guess the universe works, by intersecting fields of forces eternally passing through each other and interacting. Physicists know of four forces in nature, named electro-magnetism, the strong force, the weak force, and gravity. They apparently exercise their forces in this way, through simultaneously intersecting and interactive fields.
The metaphor of force field is helpful in understanding racism. There is a card everyone knows that references and contains all the force that makes up white superiority. There is another that carries all the force of black inferiority. There are other cards associated with the relative superiority-inferiority of red, yellow, and brown people.
The white race superiority card is dominant and has been for centuries, at least since the 15th century voyages of exploration, conquest, enslavement, and colonialism. Ferdinand and Isabella were probably influenced more by cards associated with Spain, Portugal, and Roman Catholicism than race when they bankrolled their expeditions, but race cards were there too in the manifests.
Think of all possible situations that make for human life, at places and settings like home, school, work, streets, and beaches. A white person can thrive in most all such situations without ever having to remind himself that he’s white. Whiteness is not important to him when people of other colors aren’t involved. But if you’re black, you can’t afford to forget; white people make your blackness relevant. You are, like Cain, a marked man. Whites are going to use the mark to limit, use, abuse, insult, and injure you wherever you find yourself. In other words, whiteness is a force field like the elusive neutrino in regard to its owner, and like an electron or photon in reference to its targets, people of color. It applies force by granting privilege and power to whites, including the ability to overlook and forget. It applies force to black people everywhere, on all public occasions, carrying with it the burden to never forget. Blackness is always relevant and consequential. That’s the enduring mark of the pandemic of racism.
Two Types of Racism
Racism can be expressed in two different ways: intentionally and unwittingly. In the intentional case, I have a stereotype of your kind in mind and I intentionally and knowingly impose it on you with consequence. It may be a positive stereotype that you could benefit from: I think folks like you have game and I want you on my team. Or the stereotype might be negative and vicious. Folks like you are too dumb to do a job; I see that you don’t get the job when one is open. The point about both positive and negative stereotypes is that they apply to mass categories of unknown people, virtual strangers in fictive races that don’t actually exist. The stereotypes are applied anyway to random individuals, however diverse and distinct their aspect, attributes, skills, interests, and being. Intentional racism is hard to change—bigots are usually bigots for life, but still, racism ceases if the racist changes his mind. And this can happen. This does happen. We can take heart from the transformation of the English slaver, John Newton, who in agonizing, prayerful, apologetic, sorrow is enabled to write the transcendent hymn Amazing Grace.
I wanted to put the case this way, and make use of the force field analogy, to show that unwitting racism is more dangerous, and, in that precise sense, worse than intentional racism. Unwitting racism is embedded in culture, in values, norms, laws, and rituals. It is historical, of long-standing, is widely shared by millions, is ubiquitously applied, and yet, goes unrecognized by most of its agents. As is often said, unwitting racism is institutionalized; it’s in literature, history books, and law books. So too are the stereotypes of the intentional racist, but in the witless case the perpetrator doesn’t even know he’s doing it. As I have said, people who buy into the mythology of a “white race” can forget that they are white even as they use its advantage to disadvantage others.
I have in mind a conversation with a friend who took great umbrage from a claim of her pastor that all of his white congregants, of which she was one, were necessarily racist. She wasn’t racist, she said. She wished people of color the best of everything and wouldn’t discriminate against anyone. I backed the pastor by logic such as I have used above. My friend is one of the finest, kindest people I know. Of course she wouldn’t intentionally hurt anyone. She’d gladly help a stranger in situations of need. But I don’t think that’s relevant. More relevant is the fact that she and I, both white, live in communities where people of other colors are rarely seen. Institutionalized white racism neatly segregates peoples of various colors and ethnicities to neighborhoods of relative advantage/disadvantage without having to be aware of how it happens! It’s an exquisite system. Racism thrives, its actions are hidden, its agents are oblivious, and it’s nobody’s fault.
Becoming a Teacher
In early June, 1962, on a Friday afternoon, Professor Dotson, the anthropologist, arrives back at his home department at the University of Connecticut after a long sabbatical in Africa. He is signed up to teach Anthropology 100 in summer school the following Monday. In checking with the Department Chair, he finds to his horror that 80 students are registered, forty over the limit. He’s furious, like Lear! “Split the damn course and find someone to teach the other section,” he orders. “Where am I to find someone at this late hour?” the Chair pleads. “I don’t know, just do it,” Dotson responds as he starts slowly down the corridor. The duo reach my door. I’m the only human being and graduate assistant still in the building. “Callender, do you want to teach a section of Anthropology 100 in summer school.” “Yes indeed, why not?” I responded. My college teaching career began that Monday!
I took the textbook home and read, read, read, all weekend. There was a problem: I knew little anthropology. True, I had assisted Professor Nash when he taught the course, but I had no training in the field. I did have a job in the fall at the University of Maine at Portland, but Beverly and I, with our new baby Anne, were dead broke and needed money to transport ourselves and our belongings to Portland. “Yes, I can do it.” Beverly, with baby Anne in tow, vacated to her mother’s house for the interim.
I never felt more the fraud than I did in teaching Anthropology 100 that summer, but yet, upon its completion five weeks later, buoyed by enthusiastic student evaluations that rivaled Professor Dotson’s, I came to think of myself a real anthropology professor. What’s the moral? It’s easy to kid oneself. What a person comes to believe is true may just be repetition, familiarity, the emergence of habit.
This tale foreshadows the decision to teach race relations when I got to the University of Maine at Portland. I didn’t know anything about that either, but what the heck, the subject was important and I knew how to play the professor. Besides, I had read about Gunnar Myrdal’s prodigious two volume study An American Dilemma, forty-five chapters long. Who could go wrong with that for a text. I’ll read it together with the students, one chapter at a time. So we did that in the Spring Semester of 1963, a dozen or so students and myself, all of us white. Gunnar Myrdal was white too, but from Sweden. By the end of the semester I thought I knew a bit about race in America, but in hindsight, I didn’t. What I thought I knew proved wrong later. Myrdal was wrong occasionally too. For example, his book is subtitled: “The Negro Problem and American Democracy.” As everyone should know by now, America has a big White problem, not a Negro problem. African Americans, and other people of color, are its victims. Black people were called Negro then; the word was used in a race classification scheme in my Anthropology text. This white problem, starting with the importation of African slaves and the conquest of native peoples has been a problem for American democracy—its postponement to be precise— for over four-hundred years. Notwithstanding the sub-title, Myrdal’s book is more than good; it is deeply informative, a nonpareil classic. I say that not having met another soul beyond our small group who had ever read the book.
What I Learned About Teaching
What have I learned about teaching from the aforementioned experiences and other courses I’ve taught? In sum,
- I’m usually troubled by what the texts I’ve chosen actually say. While I would like to understand and agree, I rarely do. I’m incessantly confused and puzzled by something or other.
- As a result, I usually teach something other than what the text says. I make a story up that seems credible and plausible!
- But, surprise—and this is the important discovery—the students always learn something else; they do their own learning. What students take away from a course differs markedly both from the text and from the professor’s pithy teachings.
- Teaching and learning are, therefore, a kind of shared scrum, a circle of co-learning. Co-learning typically attains first honesty, then trust, next safety, and finally community. A spiritual surround takes over the classroom. A mood of co-discovery prevails. Also, Individuality occasionally comes forth. Newly won confidence surprises even its owners. Was that me? Did I just say that? You did!
- Robust, enthusiastic, co-learning is enough. One is lucky to take part. Students may say you’re the professor and you might look and play the part, but that’s the sideshow. Community, personal growth, and meaningful learning are the big payoffs.
Floyd’s brutal death is just one recent atrocity involving police and African Americans. The execution of Ahmaud Arbery, while jogging, is another. The killing of Breonna Taylor in her own bedroom is a third. Rayshard Brooks’ killing in Atlanta for falling asleep at the wheel at a Wendy’s drive-in is another. Amy Cooper’s bizarre 911 report of a fake assault by a black man, Christian Cooper (no relation), a birdwatcher who had only asked her to leash her dog, is another. All of these involve police, Cooper is calling them, Floyd, Taylor, and Brooks are killed by them. Arbery’s killers included a former deputy policeman. All this with the memory of the killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tavon Martin, and others, fresh on people’s minds. This list is, we know, minuscule compared to the thousands of murders of African Americans in their own country by mobs, sheriffs, and police.
Everett C. Hughes’ paper, “Good People and Dirty Work,” Social Problems (Vol. 10, No. 1 (Summer, 1962), pp. 3-11) proved useful in my course on race relations. It is an insightful study of the relationship of German citizens living “normal” lives to the Nazis who did the killing in the Holocaust. These presumed good people were shown, despite extenuating circumstances, to be complicit in the genocide. The findings apply to the role of County Sheriff in the old South. The sheriff was expected to maintain white supremacy in the county using all means necessary without bothering or embarrassing the good Christian white people in town. They didn’t need to know the dirty work that went on in maintaining the race line. But of course they did know. Their attitudes sanctioned the dirty work without ordering it. The silent nods of “good people” legitimate programs of white supremacy.
This expectation has been passed on from the county sheriffs to the big city police departments as they patrol “poor,” “crime-ridden,” “drug infested” “slums”—all code words for black neighborhoods. Huge multi-billion dollar budgets and sophisticated military equipment, replete with swat teams, have been provided to do the dirty work. Just don’t embarrass the good people. Don’t get caught on camera. President Trump reflected these prejudices when he opined: “Please don’t be too nice” when you put “them” in the cruiser. He’s encouraging the no nonsense, tough-guy, military warrior image of policing, and he’s signaling that offenders, as far as he is concerned, should go straight from the cruiser to jail and prison. More than a quarter of young black men do just that. The warrior model exacerbates the problem by alienating the police from the neighborhood—it’s not just a “few bad apples” who need to be culled out. The police function in the United States has always included an expectation of controlling blacks, starting with a concern with “free blacks”—the concern was that they were free—and fugitive slaves. “Stop and frisk,” “short, sure sentencing,” “citizen’s arrest,” “hold your ground,” and “second amendment rights” are code words designed for actions to “maintain” the race line.
New models of the police role are needed to replace the tough guy, military warrior image of policing. Patrick Skinner is a CIA counterterrorist operative who voluntarily gave up that type of work in Iraq in favor of a neighborhood beat officer job in Savannah, Georgia, his home town. Skinner recently published an opinion piece in the New York Times entitled “I’m a cop. I won’t fight a ‘war’ on crime the way I fought the war on terror.” In his police role, Skinner thinks of himself as a member of the community he serves, and as a neighbor helping neighbors. As a white man, he realizes that there are stereotypes to overcome on all sides of town. Still, stereotypes bend when you’re acting like a good neighbor and friend rather than as a hard-assed, “don’t you try me, do as I say” tough guy! I wrote a blog essay a couple of years ago on Skinner when Ben Taub of the New Yorker covered Skinner’s return to Savannah in The Spy Who Came Home. My blog essay is entitled Magnanimous Policing.
Out in the Streets
Reactions to the murder of George Floyd exploded into mass protests across the nation and around the world. Their message: Black Lives Matter. We can’t breathe. Get off our necks. Stop the killings. Treat us like human beings. Treat us as equals. End racism.
Posters and signs at these sustained rallies, four weeks and counting, have been remarkable. The product, including graffiti on the walls of buildings and monuments, can furnish quality artwork for museum exhibitions for decades to come.
Statues are being toppled and removed. Others are being reevaluated. Wikipedia lists forty-five that have been removed, including the Lee monument in Richmond, since the killing of George Floyd. Localities include Jacksonville, Indianapolis. Birmingham, Ft. Myers, Bentonville, Montgomery, Rocky Mount, Athens, Nashville, Greenville, Asheville, Louisville, Mobile, Denton, Forth Worth, Huntsville, Salisbury, Houston, Dallas, Decatur, Quincy FL, and Tahlequah, OK.
- from monuments in the United States to ones in Europe, Africa, India, Asia, South America and the Caribbean;
- from monuments associated with slavery to ones associated with conquest, occupation, and colonialism;
- from civil war monuments to ones linked to the nation’s founding fathers and colonial forebears;
- from statues associated with racism toward blacks to ones associated with racism toward red, brown, and yellow peoples, to all peoples of color.
- from monuments to generals and civic leaders to ones associated with Presidents, including Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson.
Led by Retired U.S. Army general and former CIA director David Petraeus, calls are heard to remove the names of Confederate generals from military bases. Excepting President Trump, the idea is quite popular. The generals were traitors to the the United States and they lost the Civil War. How could this naming have happened? It happened when secessionist states took back by terror and force the freedom, civil rights, and right to vote from black freedmen—in effect, negated the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments—and replaced slavery with sharecropping, prison camps, Jim Crow, and “separate but equal.” Then the history books were rewritten to cover their tracks. Northern politicians were obviously complicit; they shared with the South the underlying premise of white superiority and negro inferiority.
Universities are feeling the need to scrub their racist pasts. Clemson is following Yale’s lead in purging the name of John C. Calhoun from its Honors College. Princeton University is doing likewise by removing Woodrow Wilson‘s name from its Public Policy School. Georgetown University seeks to make amends for selling 272 of its slaves to Louisiana plantation owners in 1838 to keep the university afloat. The Cavalry swords on University of Virginia sports apparel are to be retired. The word Rebels may be dropped elsewhere.
Individuals are getting involved too, and with startling results. Chuba Hubbard, star running back at Oklahoma State University, told his school that he wouldn’t play football if the head coach didn’t desist from wearing an offensive T-shirt. The Head Coach relented and apologized. Trude Lamb, a schoolgirl in Texas has told administrators at her school, Robert E. Lee High School, that she isn’t willing any longer to compete at track with Lee’s name on her uniform. Bubba Watson, who carries the “Black Lives Matter” imprint on his racing car, has convinced NASCAR to ban the confederate flag from its racing events.
Product brands associated with racism are being shelved. Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are two names with racist resonances; they’ve gone to the dustbins of advertising history. Movies are predicted to be next. The much beloved movie, Gone with the Wind, has been outed for criticism as racist.
The developments described above suggest a generalization: when racist abuses become so egregious and numerous—so ridiculously obvious— as to draw angry attention from the majority of people—as has happened in response to the killing of George Floyd— the ugly history and machinery of racism, going back to the days of slavery, gets exposed, and the whole rotten edifice of lies, humpty dumpty like, comes tumbling down. History must be rewritten to reflect truth! The one we tell ourselves isn’t true.
The good news is that public opinion has changed mightily as a result of these protests. A large majority of Americans of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds, in the order of sixty percent, recognize that police brutality against African Americans is real, systemic, and routine. They know that young black men are profiled, targeted, killed, and imprisoned in astounding numbers, with disastrous consequences for their families and communities. They know the police unions are racist and back this system. Most important, they want change. They want the discrimination and abuse to end.
It is also consensus public opinion that African Americans have been discriminated against from slavery up to the present moment, in all domains of living. The coronavirus pandemic, like an X-ray machine, has revealed the detrimental health consequences of race discrimination on African Americans, Latinos, and immigrants. The X-rays come in the form of incidence statistics. Infection and death rates from the virus are disproportionally high in these groups compared to their numbers in the general population. This is true nationwide, state after state, and in other countries. Shocking to me, the disparity is greatest in my home state of Maine.
History and Progress
Protest marches must necessarily dwindle. X-rays are filed away. Visions change. If U.S. history is to be revised, how long will it take? And how will we recognize its trustworthy realization? A “pop quiz” might be of help: What is wrong with the concept of “black history?” Answer: it means mainstream “history” taught in schools is “white history!” When African-American experience and stories are accurately told in history books, becoming all of our story too, American history will be told as one. But that day is a long way off. In addition to black history, indigenous, women’s, LGBTG, special needs, and other excluded histories have to be written, and when written, interweaved.
But look, The United States learned important “black history” from these weeks of protest. In Tulsa, for example—and give the President some credit for the unfortunate selection of a date for his political rally—Americans learned of Juneteenth, the day the end of slavery is celebrated, and they learned of the Tulsa Race Massacre (also known as the Tulsa Race Riot), which occurred over 18 hours on May 31-June 1, 1921, and destroyed “black Wall Street.” There is sentiment now for making Juneteenth, the 19th of June, 1965, a national holiday. This is the day when enslaved people in Texas learned of The Emancipation Proclamation issued eighteen months earlier on January 1, 1863. Juneteenth and the Tulsa Race Massacre have finally entered American history. That’s a minuscule fraction of what actually happened. There is so much more to come.
How shall we measure progress in the meantime? There is one precise marker of the dominance of white racism as a threat to African Americans. That marker is the terror parents of a black son feel when their child is out at night, driving a car somewhere, say to a friend’s house. What will happen if the police stop him? Are any of the headlights out? How about turn signals? If he is stopped, will he survive the encounter? Whatever the fame, fortune, or renown of the family, you worry that your child won’t come home. Why? Because so many sons of color haven’t. Every mother and father has given “the talk” to their sons to try to protect them from the police. When that worry and talk is no longer necessary, Americans will be free. Equality and mutual respect will protect black children. Equality and respect is all African-Americans ask of their fellow citizens.
James Baldwin debated William Buckley in a famous debate before The Cambridge Union in 1965 on the question, “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” In it, Baldwin made the large point that Europeans brought the system of black racism to American shores fully developed and that no fundamental change in that version of reality had happened since. That is true. But today, when protests gather in European cities, it’s obvious Europeans know of their culpability and suffer many of the same problems as Americans! Their system of white superiority is still in good order at home and in their former colonies. What happens to blacks in the United States happens in Europe too, and the role of the police is similarly problematic.
This historical moment is shared worldwide. Statues are toppling in Europe, Africa, and South America too. One of the first was a monument in Antwerp memorializing a particularly egregious racist, King Leopold II of Belgium, whose crimes in the Congo defy description and resulted in an estimated 10 million deaths. The New York Times reports that 65,000 Belgians have signed a petition to remove all statues of Leopold II from Belgium. A like fate awaited a statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader of the Royal African Company, whose toppled monument in Bristol, England ended up in the harbor.
As COVID-19 has spread silently and with alacrity to the far reaches of the planet, reaction to six centuries of racism has spread with equal speed, resulting in this potential turning point in history, a summary reckoning with exploitation and colonialism, and an overcoming of racism.
Can this happen? It won’t be easy. Lying in the reeds, off in the wings, awaits a transnational, authoritarian, male, far right, white supremacist movement ready to counterattack on the basis of a European civilization protection platform. Counterattack is coming.
I should perhaps have mentioned earlier that my bald readiness to stereotype and attack the white race is not that I’m white and a victim of self-hate, but rather because no such entity exists in nature. Race, as we mean it, as a construct in biology, doesn’t exist. No biological races of any kind have ever existed among humans. If biologists were to recognize its equivalent, the appropriate concept would be “sub-species,” but we have none. We are all one species: “homo sapiens,” in the genus “homo,” in the tribe “hominini,“ in the sub-family “homininae,” in the family “hominidae,” . . . in the order “primates.” As a species we are clearly one.
But of course race does exist in another sense, as a cultural phenomenon and sociological construct. We look at people, group them by appearance templates, and call the groups races. Physical appearance is abstracted into features used as marks in manufacturing races. This is a convenience at best. Race marking, at its worst, is genocidal. This means the following:
- Race is a product of the imagination, not science. Race is an invention! it need not have happened. The people marked by appearance (phenotype) into racial groups are identical internally (genotype). They share a common DNA.
- Race schema are relative to culture, continents, areas. tribes, nations, and historical periods. There have been lots of race schema in human history, most now abandoned to the dust bin of history.
- Race schema require racists to survive, because one of the groups is going to claim superiority.
- Races are necessarily multiple. If there were but one it would be invisible.
- Races come in systems, usually in ranked hierarchy, replete with social classes and castes.
- Race systems are built on power. Through their use, benefits are accrued, distributed, and denied.
- Race systems have uses in the economy and society in all domains and situations of living. Life chances are thereby increased or diminished.
- The fallacious notion that races are biological is useful in maintaining dominance and control. The lie is that races exist by the physical laws of nature.
- Race systems are made credible through the principle of self-fulfilling prophesy. The dominant race advertises negative images of others with lesser power and makes those images stick through actions that have that result. For example, a “criminal” myth is shored up by imprisoning people and then saying, “see, I told you so!” A corollary rule applies to unanticipated consequences. If said consequences are negative, claim them as proof of inferiority; use them to reinforce the negative stereotype. If positive, take the credit and embellish one’s image of superiority.
- A race system from a sociological point of view is like a sports league, such as the Premier League in English soccer. Both are organized systems. Both exhibit a set of values, names, norms, rules, routines, habits, and practices. Contestants in both have names and group identities. Both contend for dominance in ranked hierarchies. Both are expected to contend year after year for decades, centuries, eternally. Both have followers who care passionately about their fate. Both produce winners and losers.
- Race system games, nevertheless, are deadly serious. They are so much not games that we forget they are games. By now humankind has convinced itself that races are substantial. We’ve turned sociological entities into biological entities and then fossilized the biological entities into geological entities, solid rock.
Still, these systems are relative, unnecessary, and only human, all too human. They could prove useless with time and go away.
On the possibility of eventual demise, the conversation returns to the distinction between “intentional” and “unwitting” racism. Bad actors, “intentional” racists, would have to desist from terror and change their ways before “unwitting” racism could dwindle and perish. The massive change of attitude that has accompanied today’s protests is a very, very good sign. Cultural change, signifying a decline in “unwitting” racism, is happening. When statues fall and history is rewritten, significant change is taking place.
Invisible White Racism
In the interest of making the concept of invisible racism clearer, I offer myself as an example in three cases:
Sometime in 1963-64, I’m serving as research committee chair for the nascent chapter of the NAACP in Portland, Maine. We’d like to know how African-Americans are doing and what problems concern them. We fashioned a questionnaire and set up interview teams, my wife Beverly being one of the interviewers. But where do our intended interviewees live? We knew a few people, our NAACP members and friends, but that was it. One of our members worked for the newspaper and it turned out the newspaper had a list and a map, replete with street numbers. Wow! Researcher’s gold! So we did our study, wrote a report, and even got some housing legislation passed on the basis of our research. But along the way, as we were doing the work, interviewees wanted to know how we got their addresses! That’s when it dawned on us that the local newspaper shouldn’t have had a list of the addresses of black people; there is no good explanation of that. That was racism on the newspaper’s part, and, by using it, on mine. I guess I thought its use all right because I was a good white guy who could be trusted with the information. I meant well. Those assumptions are racist too.
On May 25, 1965, Sonny Liston got knocked out by Mohammed Ali in Lewiston Maine. A couple of days earlier a party in the occasion’s honor had been held in Portland for over a hundred people. Beverly and I were there as invited members from the NAACP. I had an image in my mind of how African-American attendees would dress. Let me put it this way. Gunnar Myrdal, in An American Dilemma, had described black and whites as rigid castes, with white over black. Within caste, detailed portraits of three classes, lower, middle, and upper, were presented. Americans of both races, it’s no surprise, share common values. I was blown away by how many black people at the party met the criterion for the upper class. More than a few folks looked like models from Ebony Magazine. I discovered a stereotype that I held. It would deny African Americans the benefits and high styles our country has to offer. I found out too that I was hopelessly middle class, and dull!
It’s early summer 1969, Professor Charles Estes, a sociologist from Assumption College, and I are almost through a project of training people with low incomes to assume positions on the board of directors of six hospitals in Worcester, Massachusetts. I am teaching at Clark University at the time. We had organized the participants into six pairs. Both members would go on a hospital board together; they could support each other that way. We met only one night a week, so it was crucial that everyone attend. One afternoon, an African American participant called to say she couldn’t come. She lacked transportation. I asked if I could pick her up. “Are you sure you want to do that?” she asked. I was. She gave me directions to her house. She lived in an apartment on the second floor. When I arrived and rang the bell, and after hearing her response, “I’ll be right there,” out rushed her angry husband, who, as it happened, was running a Black Panthers meeting at the apartment that night. He yelled “I don’t want my wife seen with no white guy. Get out of here.” I returned to my car as quickly as I could, not knowing what to do, and sat there a minute. My ride soon appeared and descended to the car, explaining, not apologetically, that her husband was a good man and wouldn’t hurt me. Up until then I had been in the habit of thinking myself the good guy for doing these civic minded projects. Everyone would love me for it. But that’s untrue. No one in the group had asked for my help, I was being paid, and life is tough. She and her husband, and most of the other participants in the project, were dealing with life and death issues every day. I wasn’t. Black people didn’t and don’t owe me a thing! Black people are not asking white people to save them. Get off our backs and necks! Change the system. Change yourself. Give us a little respect. That’s more the message.
I met two African-American kids in twelve years of schooling; both were acquaintances, not friends. I had two African-American friends in college. There were no African-Americans in either of the graduate schools I attended. I hadn’t known but two African-Americans, both males, until I joined the NAACP. Given this level of ignorance, I didn’t think of myself as white. I didn’t have to. I was English and Scotch. I would have told you I had no racism. How could I have? I only knew two African Americans and I meant people well.
It is obvious to me now, and should be obvious to other people like me, that my life, your life, with all its goods and innocence, is a benefit of the white racist system we were brought up in. So few black people were around because the same system of racism that benefitted me was pushing them off to other fates, often worse than mine. This can remain invisible to us because the white superiority system is so well crafted and operates so effectively. Its machinery has been tested over centuries.
I’ll say this: I don’t have to buy the white race mythology. It’s a choice. While I am unable to escape its tentacles, I don’t have to believe it, and I don’t have to cooperate.
Religion and Death
The several church funerals held for George Floyd were heart-rending. The powerful voices of family members, the amazing singing, and the great sonorous, staccato sermons impressed and inspired. These services made clear to those who didn’t know him what an important person George Floyd was to his family, friends, and communities. The world lost a presence when it lost George Floyd. Every person lost to police violence and to the COVID-19 virus, in these paired pandemics, is unique and special. The incomparable worth of a person often goes unrecognized until death insists upon memory, testimony, and mourning.
Something more happened to George Floyd. His murder—so gratuitous, so cruel, so unnecessary— touched off in response such boundless rage as to fuel a worldwide social movement calling for justice and an end to systemic racism. His name and face, now represented thousands of times in posters and paintings, appears on walls and buildings in innumerable cities, and spearheads protest marches all over the globe. He is now as famous as the American President. Ironically, his death and iconic rebirth is a reminder of another, the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ. Not unfairly, the pastors at his funeral made the connection explicit. He is now the hope of the secular world for a future in which people are respected as equals and not punished for the color of their skin.
Also ironic, thousands upon thousands of protesters participating in protest marches put their lives on the line due to the proximity of the deadly virus. They did this knowingly night after night. Public health officials preach a familiar mantra: wash your hands, maintain social distance, wear a mask, self quarantine, and above all, avoid crowds. Yet, the problem of racism is so long-standing and destructive— the scourge of people of color for endless centuries—that people in great numbers of all races are feeling a moral duty to protest, whatever the cost might be to themselves. Death has its uses. Death is a teacher
In other words, a religious crusade of some kind is underway, with Christian resonances. George Floyd’s face has become its face. Protesters are willing to risk death so that others might live like human beings, free from the affliction of racism.
Elsewhere, we hear whisperings of the camaraderie, solace, and support that evangelical pastors are providing to their brother, President Donald J. Trump. Pastors are shown praying with and for the President in the oval office, with the laying on of hands. Some believe that Trump has been sent by God, embarked on a divine mission, and may be divine himself. The President has often given particular praise to the ministries of William Franklin Graham III, and Jerry Falwell Jr., sons of famous minister fathers. These men apparently represent the president’s brand of Christianity.
I would pay to listen to a thoughtful conversation between these two groups of Christian pastors: those who pastor to black Christian churches, such as the ones that hosted funeral services for George Floyd, and white evangelical pastors, such as those who pastor to President Trump. What are their respective theologies, concerns, and moral judgments? How do they view American history, slavery, race, racism, crime, incarceration, police brutality, poverty, immigration, and related topics? However else their theologies might differ, certainly Christians such as these would be able through dialogue to mount a concerted attack against racism.
"Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?" (Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865)
But alas, I doubt that the President’s pastors are sufficiently humble and thoughtful as to confess to the horrendous offenses their churches once supported, or honest enough to change. I suspect that their views on race are still compatible with those of the ante-bellum Christian apologists for slavery.
Did the coronavirus pandemic influence the response to Georg Floyd’s murder and fuel the protest movement? Yes, I think it did in the following ways:
People were at home at the time, and with access to the Internet. More people watched the video of the killing immediately after the news broke then would have watched on an average workday and workweek. This allowed for an immediate concerted response.
Quarantined individuals were afforded the opportunity to discuss the news directly with their families at home and their friends via phone and social media. Definite conclusions solidified.
Today’s college and secondary students are reputed to be a tolerant generation and already a vanguard for change. Brought up in culturally and racially diverse schools, they favor living in a multi-cultural, multi-racial society. They have developed a different world view than their elders. Shootings at Sandy Hook and Marjory Stoneman Douglas schools, murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, climate change and denial, political polarization and gridlock, all these and more have convinced them to look in other directions, to envision a very different future, and to become leaders themselves. Many had already marched, more than once. They were ready to protest, and they had the time.
Both pandemics, coronavirus and racism, infect people all over the globe. Like the Big Bang, rage exploded in hours until it reached every doorstep. People in remote places were locked up too, and the burdens of racism, they knew, were as close as the nearest street corner.
Sixty-percent agreement on injustice and its remediation is consequential, and this magic number now characterizes the citizenry of the western world. When that happens, culture changes. Racism can be confronted and addressed.
Weathering the Pandemics
In wrapping up this “shamble,” I feel obliged to say something about where we are in confronting the pandemic of COVID-19 and in confronting racism. Every news outlet is doing the same thing, perhaps because the news is so dramatic right now, or perhaps because the month of June is coming to an end. Better summations than I could conjure up are abundantly available, so why not refer the reader to a couple of those, and be done with it. I think I’ll do that but first venture a few assertions.
The world is in a worse place than it was a month ago when Pandemic Ramble was published! The United States is truly in shambles now! The fears expressed in Ramble have all come true. The COVID-19 pandemic is roaring, with no real plans to contain it, with no end in sight. The hardest hit nation, by a very large margin, is the United States. As of today, July first, the world has registered 10,614,353 known infections with 514,622 deaths, 130,123 of those, 25.3 percent, in the United States. Brazil, a distant second place behind the United States, is registering nearly 40,000 new cases a day. Rates are increasing so fast in Peru, Chile, and Mexico that they will soon pass all the European countries in incidence except Russia, now in third place behind Brazil. Still, India will pass Russia before the South American countries get there, and enter third place first. India has been averaging around 19,000 new cases a day recently, summing to 133,000 cases a week. Incidence in the United States has never been higher, and is increasing. We had 46,042 new cases and 764 new deaths yesterday, June 30th. All of these numbers are severe undercounts because so few people have been tested. For a proper perspective, it should be recalled that the incidence before New Years Day was zero. Also, for perspective, think cities, think slums, think minorities, think refugees, think hospitals, think first responders, think emergency care, think ICUs, think essential workers, think economic collapse.
President Donald Trump, it is no longer controversial to say, has done everything wrong recently. Like some kind of an evil genius, faced with a choice, he invariably makes the wrong one. It appears that no advisor in the White House can stop him. He’s an equal opportunity rejector of advice. With that observation out of the way, I invite readers to click on two links, one of an MSNBC interview with Steve Schmidt, the ex-Republican political strategist and Lincoln Project founder, the other on Riane Konc’s column in The New Yorker entitled Presidential Trolley Problems. Schmidt literally claims that the President is unAmerican on three vital policy fronts: he sides with the confederacy and white supremacists on civil war monuments and race issues rather than concern himself with racism and the killing of African Americans by police; he fails to confront Russia, and indeed kowtows to Putin repeatedly, when Russian intelligence services contract with the Taliban to kill American military personnel in Afghanistan, and he gives up entirely on fighting the coronavirus while becoming the poster boy for worst practices—rejecting the use of a mask, holding mass indoor rallies, sicking armed protesters on Governors, insisting that states reopen their economies early, avoiding a national plan, and downplaying the advice of scientific experts. He has devilishly refueled the first wave of the pandemic all by himself! The Riana Konc column employs the metaphor of a runaway trolley to depict COVID-19 advancing headlong into the bodies of the American people. Ten scenarios are laid out in which the President is confronted by the trolley and makes a decision on stopping it. All scenarios will ring a bell with the reader; you’ll be reminded of what the President actually did on a like occasion.
One metaphor useful in depicting our collective situation is ‘weather,’ as in “we’ve run into a patch of bad weather.” Fortunate for us, the poet Claudia Rankine wrote a stirring poem on that theme in response to the pandemic for the New York Times book review section. Here it is. Keep your umbrella near and stay strong!
On a scrap of paper in the archive is written
I have forgotten my umbrella. Turns out
in a pandemic everyone, not just the philosopher,
is without. We scramble in the drought of information
held back by inside traders. Drop by drop. Face
covering? No, yes. Social distancing? Six feet
under for underlying conditions. Black.
Just us and the blues kneeling on a neck
with the full weight of a man in blue.
Eight minutes and forty-six seconds.
In extremis, I can’t breathe gives way
to asphyxiation, to giving up this world,
and then mama, called to, a call
to protest, fire, glass, say their names, say
their names, white silence equals violence,
the violence of again, a militarized police
force teargassing, bullets ricochet, and civil
unrest taking it, burning it down. Whatever
contracts keep us social compel us now
to disorder the disorder. Peace. We’re out
to repair the future. There’s an umbrella
by the door, not for yesterday but for the weather
that’s here. I say weather but I mean
a form of governing that deals out death
and names it living. I say weather but I mean
a November that won’t be held off. This time
nothing, no one forgotten. We are here for the storm
that’s storming because what’s taken matters.”
Will Callender, Jr. ©
July 1, 2020
Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good