“If you’re black and you haven’t been successful in the last 50 years, it’s your own fault. You’ve had every opportunity, it was given to you. You’ve had the same schools everybody else went to. You had benefits to go to college that white kids didn’t have. You had all the advantages and didn’t take advantage of it. It’s not our fault, certainly.”—Kathy Miller, former coordinator for the Donald Trump campaign in Mahoning County, Ohio, this week. She resigned upon being quoted and called her remarks “inappropriate.” (What aspect of the statement qualified it as “inappropriate,” she left a mystery.)
“Look at what’s happening in the world today. The blacks are getting uppity again. I don’t know why, but it’s scary again.”—a personal acquaintance of mine, explaining why he has started carrying a gun again here in Orange County, New York.
Two decades ago, I worked for a weekly newspaper. Even though it was a small-circulation publication, the fact that we ran a “Letters to the Editor” section meant that we received letters. Lots and lots of letters. Our editorial policy was simple: no profanity or personal abuse.
I, a young assistant editor at the time, did not understand this simple policy, because the letters were often awful, hate-filled documents, even when they were free of profanity and free of personal abuse. My boss, the editor of the newspaper, explained that these individuals wanted their thoughts exposed, after all, and we were helping to expose them. “Let them show the world what it looks like,” was her reply to me concerning one letter’s ugly racism. “It is better when they (racists) are out in the open.” Absent profanity, I was not to edit, “clean up,” or not publish the letters.
As 2016 has unfolded itself like a prank snake-in-a-can, that statement has echoed in my mind. Perhaps it is better when the racists are out in the open. Perhaps that open-ness is a new phenomenon, perhaps it is the only positive thing that will come out of this year. Because anyone who knows that equality is real must concede that even if Donald Trump loses on Election Day, which I do not think is what will happen, those of us who know that equality is real will have lost. Even if Mr. Trump only wins 45% of the vote, many of the voters making up that 45% have openly proclaimed their support of someone who will fight to deny equality. We lost.
I was taught that fear and hate are plants that wither in the light of day. I was raised by optimists. I now think that this is a load of crap. Hate takes very little encouragement to show itself proudly. Fear gains power from its own hunger; when it is not nourished, it grows stronger. That is what 2016 is teaching me, anyway.
Americans seem to understand that “racist” is something one ought not be, so many racists take pains to explain how “racist” is what they are not, while their words proceed to show that “racist” is indeed what they are.
The statements this week from the mouth of Donald Trump’s former volunteer campaign manager in Mahoning County, Ohio, grabbed my attention not because Ms. Miller’s words were so very anomalous or shocking in their bluntness but because I hear them, or statements similar to them, quite frequently here in Orange County, New York. (New York State is considered to be a “blue” state, a liberal bastion of some size, but this is mostly because more than half of its population resides in one, usually liberal, city. The other half lives in suburban or rural counties. Donald Trump will likely win Orange County’s vote. [That is my county.] A Trump supporter two doors from mine puts his Trump sign on his yard each morning and takes it in each night, as if it is a flag he is tending with care and respect. None of my neighbors have rival banners.)
When the person I was chatting with this summer used the word “uppity,” it got filed away in my mind. I remember that word. When I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, that word, “uppity,” was one that comedy writers placed in the mouths of characters in television comedy shows to quickly designate the character as a racist. I had not heard a real human being utter that word in a real conversation until this year. It was fascinating.
It is a conversational moment that I have come to dread over the years, the moment I learn too much about what is going on inside the head of an acquaintance whom I had up to that moment held in esteem. The individual and I, chatting convivially about a mutual interest, reach an “I always knew I was going to get along with you” moment. The other party’s shoulders relax, and then my Spidey-sense tingles; invariably, I find that I want to say, out loud, something like: “You are about to disappoint me, aren’t you?” I don’t, and then they do: “The blacks are getting uppity again.” (I just re-heard part of what he said in my mind: “The blacks.” My own lack of sensitivity made me gloss over that usage, which probably occurred to him as some sort of concession to his polite non-usage of a word or words that start with the letter “N.”)
Even people with whom I have not yet become friendly: my skin color gives me entry to a club that ought to not exist, at all. On line at the grocery store one day, it was taking a long time for a cashier to finish processing a customer, who was a woman with children. The children may have been the reason it was taking a while longer than usual, but it wasn’t. She had an EBT card (“food stamps”) and was having to subtract items so the balance on the card could pay for her groceries. (Anyone with food stamps or who has used food stamps knows this moment and remembers blushing their way through something similar. Inside one’s head, it is embarrassing on its own merits, without anyone making it embarrassing.)
A customer ahead of me, between the woman with the food stamps and me, looked at me, rolled her eyes conspiratorially, and said with a quiet sneer, “We paid for those groceries. Look at all those kids. Pathetic. They make me sick.” She used that word: “They.” The woman with the food stamps was black, the woman who spoke to me was white, and I am white. I thumbed my EBT card in my pocket. I wished I had said something quippy like, “Yes, you certainly sound sick,” but I am a coward. I said that I had forgotten something and left the line.
In the interview that got Mr. Trump’s former volunteer campaign manager in one Ohio county in trouble, Ms. Miller sounded just like the woman in front of me at the grocery store that afternoon not long ago. She sounds sick:
The recording of Ms. Miller was not a secret taping that someone released to get her or the Trump campaign in trouble. That is why I am highlighting it. It was something that she said on-the-record during an interview with a reporter. She was (and probably still is) confident that she is correct, that her hate-filled words simply described a portion of reality, that her words were no more incendiary than, “The sky is often blue.” It was not a gaffe.
She quit her volunteer job with the Trump campaign because she knows that racist is something that one ought to not be, like one is supposed to not relieve oneself at one’s table in a restaurant, but that some people out there (like me) are saying that her words were the equivalent of someone relieving herself at her restaurant table. To my ears, there are no explanations fancy enough to make her statement not be racist and hate-filled; to her mind, there are no explanations fancy enough to make her statement not “sound racist” to overly sensitive people like me. That is why she quit.
Neither Ms. Miller’s statement nor her resignation will attract or deter voters who are on the fence about Donald Trump and his pro-hatred campaign. That is why she could quit and sink below the surface of this long election campaign soundlessly like a pebble tossed in a still pond.
To Ms. Miller and Donald J. Trump and the 50% of my fellow Americans who will vote for Mr. Trump: Keep showing us what it looks like. Keep being “uppity.” Burn an image of racism into our psyches for an entire generation to respond to. Apparently, we needed it.
The lottery that I won at 6:37 p.m. on November 18, 1968, was not the product of any hard work on my part. It was not a reward for playing fairly or for especially clean living, nor was it awarded to me for playing by the rules and earning my way.
It was a scratch-off ticket, generated at random, and someone else could have gotten it just as easily as I did. Like the service at a lottery counter in a gas station, life is a first-come, first-served proposition. It was a scratch-off, and, my gosh, did I win a nice jackpot.
If reincarnation existed, one could say that someone else may have deserved this life more than I did or do, and one could certainly argue that someone else might have done a better job with it than I have so far, but it is mine. It is the golden ticket.
The lottery that I won paid off immediately: I am white in a country that treats this minor genetic condition like it is something one diligently worked for and earned. And I am male. I am heterosexual. This world and this country rewards the bearers of those accidental tickets pretty generously, too. When I was a child, my family was middle class in income if not status in a country and at a time when being in the middle of middle-class life in America meant one was living more comfortably than three-fifths of the residents of the rest of the world. And citizens in this country treat that privilege like a victory over immediate enemies rather than the several-generation accumulation of incidents that it is.
Education? Paid for through high school by virtue of being born where I was. By which I do not mean the Spackenkill school district. Nor Poughkeepsie. Not even New York State. Being born in America in 1968 meant an education. (The states were not yet privatizing education or dictating their own local test-versions of education, so I benefited from learning when the dinosaurs existed and the one main reason for the Civil War.) Thanks to my parents, my mom especially, I do not remember the experience of learning how to read or count, because I was taught before my earliest memory (age two and a half) is time-stamped.
Perhaps it is a bit of speculative science fiction to offer the idea that none of these matters are in and of themselves good, righteous, holy, or even earned things. I could have been born in a country that does not privilege the pink pigment of white skin. Or I could have been born in this country but not white. We could have lived in a country where money did not provide some piece of status and “our type” might have been punished at random moments. My mother was born and raised in America, but she had cousins in “the old country” (near Minsk) who were exterminated. They had money.
So I know that I am racist, sexist, whatever-ist. By virtue of being born white, male, and middle class in America in the late 1960s, how could I not be? The day that I walk through (every damn day) is a different day than any woman, black person, gay person—any member of a minority group randomly pre-selected according to these criteria by society—walks through. And the sad, simple fact is that it is a luxury for me to even type that sentence or play with that thought. I do not need to consider what life is like for me, what my day is like, because no power group makes me aware of it.
Oh, sure, it’s society’s rules and some people seem to know how to play by them. “If you don’t commit any crimes, what do you have to worry about?” And that is the thing: I don’t. Simply because I am guilty of white, guilty as charged of male. I am a born member of the power elite, me with my $11,000 annual disability income.
Why does anyone march? Or protest? Or agitate? Or riot, finally? Because if you told me that I had “earned” the genetic anomaly that is taking my legs away, which I did not, not any more than I earned being white or heterosexual, I would attack you with my cane, with every fiber of my being.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 23 asks us to reflect on the word, “Generous.”
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