Monday, September 26, 2011

Sensitivity Training


I watched Morgan Freeman on CNN's Piers Morgan Tonight last Friday (Saturday morning here). I think Freeman is a fine actor when the part calls on him to be, as in Glory, Driving Miss Daisy, and Seven. At one point in the interview he said that the Tea Party were being racist when they claim they will do whatever it takes to ensure that Barack Obama will be a one-term president.

"[The Tea Party's] stated policy, publicly stated, is to do whatever it takes to see to it that Obama only serves one term. What’s, what does that, what underlines that? Screw the country. We’re going to do whatever we do to get this black man, we can, we’re going to do whatever we can to get this black man outta here."

While I might be satisfied with the interpretation of the Tea Party's avowed goal that it is nothing but the usual election rhetoric, and that perhaps Freeman, like other black Americans of his generation, might be seeing and hearing racism where none was intended, I am inclined this time to agree with him, with one distinction.

I have examined this subject before, and I believe that, while some white Americans are often surprised when a black American makes the charge of racism against speech and behavior that appears to them to be quite innocent and innocuous, it is due to the fact that white Americans are oblivious to racism simply because it is never directed at them and because they have never lived under the cloud of racism all their lives.

When I lived in Des Moines several years ago, I worked for awhile for a private security company that was contracted by the city to patrol the downtown skywalks. My uniform made me look more like a cop than those worn by the city cops, since my shirt and pants were navy blue rather than dark blue, and the patch on my arm was a shield, while theirs was a circle. My job was to walk the skywalk, all five miles of it, and make sure that no one was there between the hours of midnight and 4 AM. If I found anyone there, I had to help them along to the nearest exit or call for police backup if they refused.

One night I was walking through a bank building when it was about five minutes 'til midnight and a black man was walking toward me. As soon as he was within about ten yards from me, I asked "Do you have somewhere to go, sir?" That was my line. When the answer was "yes", my next question was "Well you had better get there before midnight because the skywalk is closing."

But the black man didn't answer me. He didn't even look at me. When I asked him the question a second time as he passed by me, he didn't respond then either. Finally I turned around and raised my voice, asking the question for a third time. The black man spun around and hissed the word "yes", and gave me a look, a look that said, "I am holding you personally responsible for 350 years of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation." Then he went on his way.

How did I know that look? Where had I seen it before? Or was I simply reading all that into the black man's expression because I have a guilty conscience about all those things? I could've just attributed it, like white people always do, to the racial chip that some black people have placed precariously on their shoulders, quick to respond whenever the slightest contact makes it fall. My co-workers, all white people like me (1), certainly assured me that it was the black man's problem, not mine.

I was only doing my pinchey job, even if the uniform I was wearing, the badge and the duty belt, stood for something the black man instinctively hated. Since it was me in that uniform, standing behind that badge, all his contempt was directed straight at me. And I wanted nothing more at that moment, as I turned and, suddenly exhausted, walked away, was to tear that uniform off and never put it on again.

Wasn't the Tea Party created some time in 2009? And wasn't Barack Obama sworn in as the first black American president in January of that year? Is there some connection between an extremely conservative political group declaring its existence a few months after the inauguration of Barack Obama? If it is merely a coincidence, it is one of the most unfortunate coincidences in history. While I often get the feeling that some of the Tea Party's loudest voices, who have been calling Obama a socialist, a fascist, and questioning the validity of his nationality ever since he took office, are simply using all those words and tactics because they can't bring themselves to use another word, a word that is also a slur (and to them, calling someone a socialist is one of the worst insults they can imagine) but which is no longer acceptable for use by white people, I think Morgan Freeman may be confusing the words "racial" and "racist". Is alot of the Tea Party's rhetoric racially motivated? Probably. Does that also make it racist?


(1) Latest statistics show that Des Moines is 82.3% white. The Tea Party is estimated to be 79% white.

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