Conversation among friends:
I know some of you have been following my posts and rants about facebook and how people have been behaving on there. I had a falling out with a friend of 50 years. Her mother got involved in it publicly (on my friends’ side), and her sister got involved (on my side). It was ugly. And sad.
My position (if you followed it before) was that this George Floyd incident (and perhaps the latest one–we need to wait and see what happened) was horrible; we all pretty much thought it was horrible from what I can tell—haven’t run across anyone who thinks if we have all the information that Chauvin should not be prosecuted (I don’t like to rush to judgment but it seems nearly impossible even if there is more information to justify that situation). But I think but (not unlike Floyd’s own family), that innocent people should not be hurt -violence and burning cities and livelihoods wasn’t right. My friend’s position is that we are a racist country and that if people are criticizing how people are protesting, then they are part of the problem. Usually at least these political posts attack politicians. It’s annoying but ok. But this attacked people and anyone that didn’t see it like them. That felt personal and seemed intentionally divisive and it all melted down from there. I apologized for losing my temper (not for my opinion on it), and she said “alright,” but essentially won’t talk to me.
But in the middle of this facebook fiasco a good friend of mine decided to post. He is a person I’ve been close to for almost 25 years. He started a writer’s group years ago in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I was lucky enough to be part of it — meet him and some other fine writers. Keith was especially important in my journey as writer in ways too numerous to count. I think writers in these groups learn quite a bit about one another as we know each other pretty intimately through our words.
Keith is black. Which of course wouldn’t matter to much of anything except we were of course arguing about race. He jumped on and said he was sending off a post soon he wanted me to see but if I deactivated he’d send it to me by email. And I braced myself because Keith is someone I’d never ever want to hurt.
But he decided to wade into this disaster. I don’t want to put words into his mouth about exactly why he did it. I had my own feelings about why he might have – but I think he had a number of reasons. Some of what he says here is what I was trying to say, but said poorly. Keith made it clear he doesn’t agree politically on a lot of what I say (I’m a libertarian and most writers at least in our literary community in Michigan are liberal if not progressive, so that is no surprise). And of course, I had no idea how he felt about all these recent events. But the things he posted were so moving. We humans are often despicable, judgmental, unforgiving people. His words were so beautiful and nuanced that I asked him if he’d let me post them and he agreed.
He made it clear in another post not included here that he would not “cancel” me for my positions. I don’t know how Keith made them feel since I am not sure if they ever read his words. But they brought me up short.
And they gave me hope.
Here they are:
. RE: Language and Subject of Racism: As a writer I love language and the meanings of words as a form of communication. I like seeing words used for what they mean. People, sometimes, use “racism” to mean many different things. People use the word “racism” but I think it means different things to different people. My Merriam-Webster defines “racism” as: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized. • the belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another.
You stated: “We are not a racist country. Not systematically. We voted twice for a black [president] . . .”
I dislike politicians of any persuasion saying “The American people” want this or that, or believe this or that, because I’m an American “people” and I often don’t want or believe the this or that they happen to be speaking of. 52.9% of America voted for Obama, who happened to be black, in 2008. 51.1% did so in 2012. 45.7% and 47.2% of American’s voted against him in 2008 and 2012 respectively and I’m sure that the vast majority of those who voted against Obama did so because they agreed with McCain and Romney more than agreed with Obama and these people’s votes in opposition to Obama had nothing to do with his being black. and, racism can be such a hard to define, touchy, issue. As you presented, in an email, Joe Biden made a racist comment in 2008 but Obama chose him as his VP anyway.
The existence or nonexistence of systemic racism is too big a subject for a Facebook thread and, again, I don’t have the time or inclination to discuss it any time soon. Is America racist? I’d say NO, but that is because, to some degree, the question presupposes that the country can be viewed as single entity, with a singular viewpoint (i.e. the American people). It personifies the country in a way that doesn’t seem quite right to me and I have to admit, I’m somewhat at a loss for words on how to better articulate what I’m trying to say. It’s somewhat similar to not be able to say that America is a Christian country while it has citizens who are adherents of Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and on an on (not to mention the first amendment). Racism does exist. It’s more prevalent in some areas that in other areas but doesn’t necessarily make America racist, just as the existence of homophobia doesn’t make the country homophobic, and so on and so forth.
Have you ever spoken to a black person about why so many of us have adverse reactions, ranging from anger, to annoyance, to irritation, indignation, hurt, and more when hearing white people tell us something more times than we can count? That something?: “Some of my best friends (or my best friend) is black.” My wife, Theresa, has a good friend who is white. Sandy doesn’t really have many
friends and she counts Theresa as a best friend. Sandy loves Theresa’s mom and goes to Theresa’s family gatherings where Sandy is the only white person present. Sandy voted for Trump in 2016 but she voted for Obama in 20018 and 2012. Sandy does not view herself as racist but she regularly voices prejudiced opinions about black people, Asians, and other ethnic groups. In her former job, she engaged in practices that were clearly discriminatory. She constantly floats tropes and theories based on stereotypical views of the pluses and minuses of various groups. Perhaps, with the exception of “antagonism” she pretty much matches a dictionary definition of racism. In 1974, we became friends with a white couple that would end up impacting our lives in many positive ways. Matt and Jodie helped us in so many ways, including getting me started in business. Our wives gave birth to our first and second children at about the same time and our kids grew up together. Matt wasn’t overtly racist but there were still subtle hints of racism that all black people encounter regularly. At one point early in our friendship, Matt used the “best friend” line saying that his black “best friend” was best man at Matt’s wedding. Another thing about the “best friend” line, it almost always comes from out of nowhere, a non sequitur, apropos of nothing.
One day, when our older children were ten-years old, from out of nowhere, Matt looked me in the face and said, “I don’t want your son to marry your daughter. I know you feel the same.” I assured him that I didn’t feel the same. As with Theresa’s friend Sandy, all aspects of dictionary definitions of racism were there, minus antagonism. Some black people will tell you that they’d rather deal with the overt racism of a KKK member, or the KKK en masse, over the sneaky and subtle racism expressed by people who will insist that they don’t have a racist bone in their body and tell me about their black best friend while also mentioning that they voted for Obama. I’m not one of those black people but I know where they’re coming from.
One day when our older children were about ten-years old, from out of nowhere, Matt looked me in the face and told me that he wouldn’t want my son to marry his daughter and that he didn’t believe in the races mixing. “I’m sure you feel the same way,” he said to me. I assured him that I didn’t feel that way. As with Theresa’s friend Sandy, every element of dictionary definition of racism was there with the exception of antagonism. Some black people (I’m not one of them) will tell you that they’d rather deal with the overt racism of a KKK member, or the KKK en masse, over the sneaky and subtle racism expressed by people who will insist that they don’t have a racist bone in their body and tell me about their black best friend while also mentioning that they voted for Obama.
5. I’ve never totally espoused the ideas of any political party although I tended to align more with Democrats than any other party and, if asked, I would have said that I was a Democrat. I worked with the party in 2008 and 2012 to get Democrat candidates elected. That changed in 2016. I voted for Hillary Clinton, even canvassing for her, but I was thoroughly disgusted by how she ran her campaign and I was thoroughly disgusted by the Democratic party and decided that, organizationally, I didn’t want anything
to do with them even if I vote for them. In some people’s eyes that makes me an independent. Hearing my political views would have some listeners label be as a progressive. Two years ago, the NYT had a “Are You a Democratic Socialist” questionnaire. My answers to the six questions put me 100% agreement with at least six aspects of the Democratic Socialist platform and some people might call me a Democratic Socialist as a result. I reject all of the labels. I’m a human being and my viewpoints about what is happening in the US political arena and elsewhere are about the wellbeing of humanity. I’m not trying to diminish the stance of any political party. I just don’t consider my views related to the “ideas and strategies of a particular party” (Merriam-Webster again.)
6. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
I return to Dickens’ words time and again. They seem timeless and always true. There are extreme and, sometimes absolutist, and unforgiving views political spectrum. I’m open to discussion. I do make some exceptions but I’m generally opposed to canceling people because political disagreements. I mentioned our friends Sandy and Matt. Sandy is eighty-years old. She’s made some changes but she’s going to believe in some prejudices and stereotypes until the day she dies. That doesn’t mean she’s not a good person. Matt no longer feels as he did about interracial marriage. He may hold onto some antiquated ideas and prejudices for a lifetime, too, but he’s made progress and he’s a good person, too. As you can see, we never “canceled” them or thought of doing so.
I’ll close with two stories of Supreme Court justices who would probably have never been confirmed in the cancel culture where people cannot change.
One of the worst and most racist decisions in Supreme Court history is the Plessy vs. Ferguson case from 1896. The decision was 8 to 1. The lone dissenter was Justice Marshall Harlan. The majority declared that it was possible for segregated facilities to be equal, therefore segregation did not violate the 14th Amendment. Justice Harlan wrote a dissent stating that segregation violated the 14th Amendment because it used the law to sanction inequality among races.
Who was Justice Harlan, the lone dissenter? He was born into a prominent slave-holding family. Even though he was on the Union side during the Civil War, he was opposed to the Emancipation Proclamation, and opposed to the adoption of the 14th and 15th amendments. Why, then, did he cite the 14th Amendment in his dissent? Because, he had changed his mind. In fact, whenever the Supreme Court tried to strip civil rights from black people, Justice Harlan was always the dissenting voice advocating for black people. and, he had changed his mind before being nominated to
the Supreme Court. When nominated, he approached members of the senate judiciary committee. He expressed embarrassment and shame, explaining that he was not the same man.
A person’s past is not necessarily their present or their future. Former Ku-Klux-Klan member Robert Byrd called his KKK membership one of the greatest mistakes he ever made and became a civil rights advocate. and, his speech against the Iraq war is one of the most memorable senate speeches I’ve ever heard. Another example: Who was the white judge who joined the KKK, marched in their parades and spoke at nearly 150 Klan meetings in his white-hooded uniform? Answer: That was Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who incurred the wrath of his fellow Southerners when he voted to abolish Jim Crow segregation in the court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Every single one of us may not the same person we are now, for better or for worse.