Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Bernie Sanders, Dorky’s Arcade and other lessons in racism

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The first time my social media feed blew up last weekend, I was sitting next to a campfire two states away.

Originally, my plan for vacation had been to unplug completely and go offline. I failed miserably. And, so, when two protestors associated with the Black Lives Matter movement interrupted uber-liberal presidential candidate Bernie Sanders during a rally in Seattle last Saturday, I quickly knew all about it.

A day later, I was still two states away when my phone once again jarred me out of vacation mode. This time it was something much more disturbing — an N-word-laced, racist tirade from the bullhorn-wielding co-owner of Dorky’s Arcade, directed at activists from Tacoma Stands Up who were blocking traffic at Ninth Street and Pacific Avenue.

Video evidence of the ugliness made its way into my social media feeds almost instantaneously.

It was deplorable and difficult to watch, and most of Tacoma was quick to condemn it.

Rightly so.

What these two events make crystal clear is something we already should have known: Racial inequality is the issue of the moment, and, as much as some people might like to wish it away, it’s not going anywhere until we meaningfully engage with it.

Collectively, we’ve spent the last week dissecting and analyzing both events, trying to decipher them.

Nationally, the question of whether Marissa Janae Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford were justified in upstaging Sanders has been a hot debate topic. “How dare they interrupt Bernie!? Of all the candidates for president, Bernie Sanders is the ONE guy NOT to interrupt!” many exclaimed.

More on that in a minute.

Locally, of course, we’ve been left to deal with the Dorky’s debacle. Predictably, many have vowed never to set foot in the arcade again.

Les Voros-Bond, the now viral arcade owner, has offered what feels like a sincere, contrite apology, promising he’s not a racist and vowing to do what he can to make things right.

Meanwhile, Rev. Gregory Christopher, president of the Tacoma chapter of the NAACP, penned a letter in The News Tribune urging us to accept this apology and “show love.” And on Friday, Tacoma Stands Up issued a statement calling for an end to the boycott of Dorky’s while publicly acknowledging Voros-Bond’s “efforts to work towards reconciliation.”

Whether to give heed to these urgings is an individual decision. Certainly, some will find it in their heart to forgive Voros-Bond and some won’t. I can understand either reaction.

Here’s what’s also apparent: Combating and condemning overtly racist acts like what happened outside Dorky’s last week is the easy part. It will take far more — especially from white people like me — to make the difference that’s needed.

I want to be very clear about this. Overt acts of hate and racism cannot be accepted, in our community or anywhere else, and the backlash to what happened outside Dorky’s is exactly what should have happened. So, too, the dialogue that has followed.

But, as Tacoma Stands Up correctly pointed out in its initial response to this regrettable chapter, “The movement is bigger than Dorky’s.”

What exactly does that imply? For starters, it means dealing with the injustices of racial inequality that have birthed movements like Black Lives Matter and Tacoma Stands Up, and going beyond condemning angry use of the N-word and those who openly hate.

It means getting at the root of the institutional racism that leads to things like the disproportionate incarceration rate for African American males, the disproportionate discipline rate of African American students in our schools, the way the media routinely misrepresent communities of color, and the all-too-common instances of police violence against African American males — to name just a few examples.

But the difficult reality in our “post-racial” society is that none of those things are propagated by people or institutions that consider themselves racist. All of them would tell you, “I’m not a racist.” And they’d be adamant about it.

The problem, unfortunately, is complex. And getting to the root of it means finally acknowledging the deep-seated, often unseen institutional racism that goes back to the beginning of our country — the stuff that, at this point, is much more subtle than a guy on a Tacoma street corner yelling the N-word.

Which brings us back to Bernie Sanders and those inconsiderate Black Lives Matter protesters.

I have no doubt that Sanders and his liberal supporters — many of whom are white, like me — would consider themselves allies to the cause of ending racial inequality. Many of them surely are. I like to think I am, too.

But that doesn’t mean all of us shouldn’t be reminded — even rudely, every once in a while — of just how far we still have to go.