Sunday, May 14, 2017

A hard read, but a necessary one

kw: book reviews, sociology, race relations, polemics

After I finished reading this book, I gave myself a couple of days to think it over. Professor and minister Michael Eric Dyson confronts whiteness and white privilege in a way nobody else has dared to do, in Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. And, being about as white as they come, of course I knew it is directed at me. This is the only way to properly receive a sermon. If you are there to hear (or read) it, God has arranged it: It is for you.

So I thought it over. I remembered a few things.

I remembered a lovely young woman I took on just one date. This was in the Los Angeles area, in 1967, and I couldn't tell if she was Hispanic or what. When I picked her up, though, I saw that her father was black, though he stayed in another room, probably hoping he would not be seen. It didn't matter to me. She and I had a nice time. On the way to take her home in Altadena, it was raining a little and I was stopped for speeding. The policeman was matter-of-fact, I was very quietly polite, and he decided not to ticket me. As we drove off, though, I did notice she was looking at me like I was from Mars. The reason didn't occur to me until decades later…

What did occur to me was to wonder what might happen if I continued to date her and my parents met her. Mom from Arkansas. Dad from Missouri, whose sweet mother called Brazil nuts "Nigger toes". Sheesh! They had got all up in arms when I dated a Catholic girl. What about a "black" one (even if she didn't look particularly black)?

Twenty years later: I remembered living next door to a black family, a couple a few years older than we were, in Oklahoma. They were living "north of the tracks", in our neighborhood because they couldn't stomach the "black culture" at the other end of town. But it had a long reach. Their two boys, both in their twenties, were into gang culture, and their daughter was a cocaine addict who stole from us a couple of times. Still, we hung out with them once in a while, though some of our neighbors would kid us about eating too much watermelon.

I thought about other things, but it is better to think about Dr. Dyson and what he has to say. In plain fact, according to his own experience, and experiences of his family, all very well-educated people, America is still two nations, one white, one black. Hispanics and other "people of color" are largely ignored outside of their own enclaves, and don't seem to belong to either nation. But Black America is an occupied country. Plain and simple.

When I am stopped while driving, I always know what I did wrong. I stay in my car. The policeman is calm and matter-of-fact, and whether I get a ticket or not, the encounter lasts no more than ten minutes. When a visibly black person is stopped, it is a different world. The driver has seldom violated any law he or she knows about: more than half the time the stop is for DWB, "Driving While Black". The policeman is at best stern, usually loud, and issues sharp commands. The driver, and sometimes all the people in the car, is frequently told to get out of the car, hands up, and to "assume the position", with hands on the hood, legs spread. All too often, a ticket is issued for some trumped-up reason the driver knows is false. The car is frequently searched, and if even a trace of marijuana is found, everyone gets at the very least a night in jail. It easily escalates from there. All the car's occupants are praying, "Lord, let me go home alive." In about 250 cases in 2016, somebody whose only offense at the time was "being black while breathing" wound up dead. One is bad enough; five per week is appalling!

Dr. Dyson is a skilled preacher. He goes straight for the heart. It is the heart of America that is sick, particularly White America. We don't have to be racist to get racist results. We benefit from a system that was rigged in our favor generations ago, and the "civil rights movement" has hardly made a dent in that. Sure, in most places the "white sheets" are no longer seen, but the "white environment" still eases the way for the non-colored, and holds back all the rest, with varying degrees of rigor.

Where does the rubber hit the road? What is the bottom line? Dr. Dyson's book is in the form of a worship service, but I suspect you've never been to a service this soul-searching. But you ought to. It is like eating your vegetables; it is good for you. If you say you don't see "white privilege", it is just a kind of institutional blindness. Let the book open your eyes. But what to do? The "Benediction" part of the "church service" is subtitled "R.E.S.P.O.N.S.I.V.E." It would rankle you if I spell out these ten words. Read the book and see. These are actionable items, and they directly touch on the responsibility every so-called "white" person has for the state of our two-country national culture.

I'll keep to myself the things I can do or have done, because to do otherwise would be grandstanding. I am humbled by Dr. Dyson's honesty.

I use the term "polemic" in the keywords advisedly; a sermon is polemical. The "sermon" in this book is a polemic in the most positive sense.

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