The new book “Blood At The Root” by Patrick Phillips chronicles the ethnic cleansing of Forsyth County, Georgia, during the 1900s. As in, the entire 1900s.
The process involved lynching, dynamite and the stoning of any African American who so much as drove into the county, much less tried to live there. (My country ’tis, indeed.)
This couldn’t happen today. It’s too blatant. In our subtler times, racists run for office, host websites and make snap judgments about … wait, am I talking about me?
It feels that way. Because despite my study and advocacy, votes I’ve cast, dollars I’ve given, and lines I’ve stood on or crossed, I find racism in my heart. I know that it’s a problem.
Recently I did some non-scientific airport research. First, I observed African Americans and identified a few behaviors I found annoying. Like, walking three abreast down the middle of the concourse. Slowly. Or slurping a soda while morbidly obese. Or giving me hard looks. (Me!)
Then I concentrated on looking for white people exhibiting the same behaviors. This was unsettling. I could no longer glance past white people; I had to focus in order to find annoying behaviors. Which I found — quickly, in fact. But not until I looked purposefully.
Was I engaged in disappropriation, the shunting onto one group of people (African Americans in this case) behaviors that I dislike in general? Is it like making black people involuntary “sin eaters” for the rest of us?
Here’s what I’m thinking. Not sure about, but thinking.
First, racism isn’t genetic. I doubt my grandmother in the Ukraine knew anyone from Africa or any black people. I bet she never saw a black person until she stepped off the Brooklyn bus from Ellis Island. This stuff is learned. Which means it can be un-learned. Overturned, like a flawed ruling from a lower court.
Second, stereotypes have just enough truth to be dangerous. Like African Americans being poor. Yes, one in three black kids in America lives in poverty, the worst proportion of any ethnic group. The tricky part is remembering that lots of — most of — African Americans aren’t poor.
Or the link between poverty and street crime. Indeed, it’s poor people who rob liquor stores and pistol whip strangers. (Middle class people commit other crimes more appropriate to our status.) Since many black people are poor and poor people commit most street crimes … well, you can see how the chain is built. One weak link after another.
Third, the key to unlocking the chains of my own racism is this: to increasingly see other people as unique and in their moment — despite the paradoxical fact we’re much alike much of the time.
When we’re in that state of immediacy, as Walt Whitman wrote in the poem “Song of Myself,” we “shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead.”
Looking through the eyes of the dead. Now that’s a useful metaphor.
Seeing ‘first hand’ is hard work. It’s a challenge to grok the grocery checker, to really understand her, when she answers my query of “how are you?” Hard to remember she’s not Checker 2.0, one of the seemingly robotic hundreds in my life.
She may be awesome in that moment when she answers me; she “contains multitudes,” as Whitman would say. Even if she piles the canned food on the fruit.
It’s OK. A bruised peach is a small price to pay.
Ken Miller has lived in Tacoma since 1970. He’s served on the board of the Tacoma Housing Authority and on the city’s 2014 Charter Review Committee, among other civic activities. He’s been white from birth.