Race Relations Could Use “Help”



The other day I turned on my television and saw that the movie The Help was on. Abandoning my chores and plans for the morning, I sat down and sank into this compelling drama about race in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s.

The movie is based upon Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel of the same name, and it chronicles a young white female journalist’s attempt to tell the story of race relations from the perspective of the town’s black maids. Some reviewers criticized the conceit of yet another white character being the “savior” of blacks. Those critics missed the point of The Help.

During the course of interviewing the black character Aibileen, the journalist, nicknamed Skeeter, comes to see the plight of the people who serve her and the other whites in town through one black woman’s eyes. Herself a misfit in a world of strictly proscribed roles for women of any color, Skeeter is first horrified, then determined, not only to tell the story of  the black maids around her, but also to find out the truth about her beloved Constantine, the black nanny who had raised her.

As I watched the story unfold, the many indignities suffered by blacks in the film – separate bathroom facilities, seats on the back of the bus, condescension and threats from their white employers – I had the sense that in many ways we’ve come so far, but in other ways we have a long way to go. In particular, I was struck by how frightened the black characters are about reprisals from whites for standing up for themselves. The entire book Skeeter writes is done under cover of darkness and published anonymously against a backdrop of civil unrest and the murder of black activists. Today this fear plays out in African-American neighborhoods, where young black males are afraid to get on the bad side of a white police officer.

The message of The Help is that the only way to improve race relations is for blacks and whites to know each other, to see each other as fully human and filled with inalienable dignity. The friendship that develops between Skeeter and Aibileen, as well as Aibileen’s sassy friend Minny, is one born of hours sharing food, tea, and stories in Abilene’s kitchen.

Ignorance breeds fear; knowledge brings understanding. Let’s try harder to see things from the other side of the racial divide to bring hope and healing to race relations in America.


Restoring Trust Between the Community and Law Enforcement


Sal Headshot.jpg

My name is Sal Lejarza.  My dear friend and high school classmate Mary invited me to serve as her guest blogger for today, and of course I am very honored and gratified to do so.  As I have served over 23 years as a civilian administrator for a suburban New Orleans police department, Mary asked me to provide my views in light of recent police-related incidents around the country as well as from the last several months.  A couple of those incidents happened over the summer in Baton Rouge, just about 70 miles from my home.

There is no need to rehash individual incidents as most of us know the circumstances.  We do know the following: minority-group citizens (particularly African-Americans) as well as law enforcement officers both feel under siege.  Too many of both are being killed or injured.  Rather than point fingers of blame at one another, which solves nothing, law enforcement professionals and community leaders must seek dialogue to solve the problems at hand.

In the suburb where I work and live, this is exactly what we have been doing for years.  Our city’s population (approximately 70,000) is about 65% white, 25% African-American, 8.5% Hispanic, and the remainder are Asian (Indian/Pakistani/Arab/Far Eastern), including a small but vibrant Muslim community.  And with such a diverse citizenry, we had almost a 39% decrease in crime in 2015 compared to 2014!  How does that happen today?

On the law enforcement end, our police department does three things right.  First, we strongly vet our police officer applicants.  Anyone with a remotely questionable background is not hired.  This minimizes the probability of negative occurrences in the future.

Second, all of our police officers undergo constant and thorough training annually to brush up their skills as well as to learn new methods and issues that confront the law enforcement profession.  The key is to keep that training as contemporary as possible.  A well-prepared police officer is a very professional police officer!

Third, and just as vitally important, our department has a very active community relations bureau that communicates and interacts with various civic/community organizations, including but not limited to neighborhood organizations, churches, schools, and social service entities.  Police officers can’t do it alone. Citizens must provide them with additional eyes and ears in order to keep their neighborhoods safe.  This is why our chief and police officers frequently meet with these groups in order to get the public’s pulse on problems while finding ways to solve them.  No police department can be successful without a community relations component.  Our department also offers various programs for citizen involvement (Neighborhood Watch, Citizen’s Police Academy, and Women’s Self-Defense Classes, just to name some).

These are just some of the ways our police department has been successful in keeping crime down while (and I emphasize) building public trust. Yes, more police officers, equipment, and technology help, but building public trust as we have done makes keeping our community safer so much easier.

Some police departments around the nation may not have the resources to do what I’ve outlined above.  Then what?  This is where citizens can make a difference.  Many have mobilized to form 501(c)3 non-profit organizations to raise funds and work with their local law enforcement agencies on various programs, including but not limited to the purchase of crime-fighting equipment, training, and community outreach.  Working together in this fashion, law enforcement and the citizenry can build trust with one another while solving daily problems in a positive manner.

Another way citizens can become involved is more direct: becoming a police officer.  After the terrible murders of police officers in Dallas, that city’s police chief challenged law enforcement protesters to effect change by becoming police officers; many of those protesters accepted the challenge and submitted their applications.  Those individuals will now get a view from the other side.

Law enforcement and community leaders are better served when they talk to each other instead of at each other.  Building mutual trust as I’ve outlined above will not happen overnight, but the process must start as soon as possible if we wish to solve the problems at hand.  As the saying goes, “You can attract more bees with honey than with vinegar.”



Judge Not



The other day my husband said something very judgmental about the decision of a parent we know. I was a bit taken aback but realized I myself am often judging the actions and decisions of others in my daily life.

It’s easy to be insecure when you’re a parent. There are so many daily opportunities to mess up. Our children are not sculptor’s clay to be molded into the exact image we want but rather moving targets we hope to keep up with and keep safe. Some of the questions my husband and I have had to consider over the years are: How late should our child stay up/out? When are they old enough to go to the mall with friends or take the train downtown? Should we allow our teenager to sleep over at a friend’s? How much allowance should we give? Should our kids do more around the house? The list goes on.

I have found that it is very difficult not to look at other parents’ answers to these questions for their own children and judge them. Often I have thought, why can’t all the parents in my community have the same rules for our kids? It would make life so much easier!

It’s not that I am a moral relativist. I do believe in right and wrong. To paraphrase my mother from days of old, if my friends all jumped off a cliff, I would not join them. But there are so many gray areas, and it’s not up to me to be the parenting correctness police. As an example, a friend and I were talking about movies, and he related a funny story about his own permissiveness when it comes to which movies he will let his kids see. I shared the fact that I am ultra-strict when it comes to the age at which I would allow my children to watch certain TV shows or types of films. The point is, neither of us is necessarily right or wrong. We have simply done what is comfortable for us and what reflects our own values.

It takes humility to be tolerant of other people’s behavior and choices that don’t conform with our own judgments. I certainly don’t want to be judged on the fact that my kids are not required to do any chores, for instance. And it takes strength to insist upon the rules and values we hold to be important in our own lives and with our own families. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said to my children, “I don’t care what other kids are allowed to do. This is the rule in our family.”

As the Bible says, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” (Matthew 7:1) Wise words indeed.


Terrorism and Semantics



One of the terms that has become increasingly politicized in the past several years is the word terrorism. The simple dictionary definition is: “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” The FBI gets more specific:

“Domestic terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:

Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and
Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S. (fbi.gov)

There has been some dispute, usually falling along political party lines, as to whether recent acts of violence in the United States constitute terrorism. Just yesterday, a man armed with a knife attacked people at a shopping mall in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Was he a terrorist or just a crazy man with a knife? Despite his reference to Allah and apparent Muslim affiliation, it’s difficult to tell what his motivations were. An ISIS-controlled media source called him a “soldier” for their cause. But was he truly one of theirs, or were they just claiming credit for inspiring him to the heinous act?

You might say it doesn’t really matter what you call it. Violence is violence, and the dead or injured don’t really care what the terminology is. But the fact is, calling a bombing, shooting, or other act of violence terrorism affects foreign and immigration policy, as well as attitudes towards American Muslims. So it is imperative that we neither jump to hasty conclusions without clear evidence of a terrorist connection nor ignore the possibility of terrorist cells operating within our borders.

Mayor Bill De Blasio was criticized for hesitating to call the NYC bombings, which occurred on the same day as the Minnesota incident, terrorism. It seems more likely now, in view of the facts coming to light, that the suspect had become radicalized. Until more investigating is done, however, we won’t know the extent of the suspect’s involvement in terrorism. More importantly, though, there was a hue and cry over De Blasio’s restraint on the matter, and I find that disturbing.

History has shown that public fear often gives way to an abrogation of civil rights for members of the ethnic or religious group under suspicion. At the extreme is the extermination of millions of Jews in Germany and Eastern Europe. But even the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the persecution of suspected Communists during the Cold War point to a dangerous willingness to act on half truths and suspicions rather than facts.

It’s not political correctness that makes leaders cautious about labeling events terrorism; it’s prudence. Law enforcement officials were able to apprehend the NYC bombing suspect within 24 hours of the incident. That is both impressive and reassuring. Let’s allow them to do their jobs thoroughly before rushing to judgment. I believe such restraint will make for a much more fair and effective war on terror.


Sister Act



Last evening, my husband and I got together with some of my college girlfriends for dinner and drinks. This was unusual for a couple of reasons. One is that it is far more common for us to get together with my husband’s fraternity buddies or work colleagues and their spouses than for my friends to be at the center of our plans.

The other unusual aspect to the evening was that these women have known each other since the Seventies, yet when we get together (all too infrequently), it seems as easy and natural as wandering down to one another’s rooms in the sorority house where we became friends so long ago.

When I was a freshman at the University of Illinois, I reluctantly decided to participate in sorority rush. After all, my lifelong pal and roommate was rushing, as were my two new besties across the hall. Now, sorority rush was not a natural fit for me. I was shy and not very good at small talk. I didn’t wear the most fashionable outfits, and I had a lot of insecurities. Needless to say, the number of bids I received to join a sorority were few. I declined to pledge.

But my good friend Lori did pledge a sorority called Alpha Gamma Delta, and she encouraged me to meet the girls in the house and spend some time over there. After a period of informal rushing in the spring, I was offered a chance to join AGD, and I accepted.

Being part of a sisterhood was very good for me. I was a rule follower, so I took naturally to all the regulations and expectations that were part of being a member. (True to my nerdiness, I became Scholarship Chairman during my years there.) And the ability to live with a group of women and really get to know them helped me feel a sense of friendship and belonging. It also allowed my “sisters” to get to know the real me beneath the shy and awkward exterior.

I have fond memories of endless conversations around the popcorn maker in someone’s room; skits and spontaneous performances by some of our more flamboyant members; dances and socials and nights out at the bars proudly sporting our Greek letters and garish red, yellow and green sorority colors. (Well, maybe my memories of those nights are a bit fuzzy.) My sorority sisters were my anchor in a giant sea of undergrads at a Big 10 university.

Nowadays when I get together with these sorority sisters, our conversation tends more toward updates on our children and careers, travels we have taken, and yes, a little reminiscing about those college days. And it is still my friend Lori who pulls me back into the warmth of that sisterhood we shared way back when.

So to paraphrase one of our songs from back then:

Here’s to my sisters, my sisters, my sisters
Here’s to my sisters, who were with me last night
So drink chug-a-lug, drink chug-a-lug
Drink another glass of wine chug-a-lug
Here’s to my sisters who helped make my days bright


No Privacy Rights for Presidents?


44e69e7bd5c54f92b35558e9b5e8260fIn the latest episode of “Get Hillary,” Democrat(!) David Axelrod accused Mrs. Clinton of having a “penchant for privacy.” The nerve of her! The public has the right to know every time she sneezes, belches, or farts, by golly. And we want a full accounting of her sex life and movie-watching history while we’re at it.

I realize that the general health of a presidential hopeful is important to the public in deciding whom to vote for. But this Pneumonia Gate scandal-mongering needs to stop. If Clinton were a man, the media would be applauding her toughness and dedication in refusing to miss the 9/11 memorial in New York to take to her sick bed. Instead, we get speculation on what dire, life-threatening condition she might have that would disqualify her from being president.

I expect such shenanigans from the Trump campaign. But from Clinton’s own party? And a front page story in the Chicago Tribune with the headline “Clinton perpetuates unhealthy lack of trust”?  I guess if you say so, Trib, it must be true.

Hillary Clinton has gone through hours of grilling on her private email server and her performance as Secretary of State during the Benghazi attack. She has been investigated since her own husband’s White House days with a relentlessness few public figures could withstand. And yet here she stands, the first woman candidate for President of the United States, unbowed and unaccused of any wrongdoing – at least by individuals using facts and not rumor or innuendo.

Meanwhile, accusations against Donald Trump relating to his charitable giving, his apparently fraudulent Trump University, and his refusal to disclose his tax returns have all met with an indifferent shrug.

Political writers have been pointing out lately the dichotomy between Hillary’s approval ratings when she is running for office vs. when she actually holds office. The fact is that her popularity goes up once she is not competing with a man for a political position. Sexist much?

The Trump campaign loves the bashing Hillary bandwagon because it distracts from the myriad weaknesses of its own candidate. Let’s get off that bandwagon and start talking substantively about the direction the country should take and who is best qualified to take us there.


Dark Day



Fifteen years ago today, I was home with my three-year-old son while my two older children were attending school around the corner from our home. My husband was away on business. Not being one to have the television news on during the day, I was unaware of the terrible events that had just begun to unfold in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.

The phone rang, and it was a friend from L.A. who wanted to know if I was aware of what was happening.

“Turn on the TV,” she gravely said. And I did.

While my young son played with dinosaurs on our family room floor, I watched as first one, then another giant airliner crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. I watched people fleeing the scene, ghosts covered in soot and terror. I saw flames leaping out of the towers, and when the news media started showing people plunging out of the windows to their deaths , I had to turn it off.

That week, my son turned four. My husband struggled to get home from across the country, as did countless other Americans trapped by a shutdown of the nation’s airports. My older children asked me questions I couldn’t really answer about why people would do such a horrible thing. I learned the name Osama bin Laden, a name that will be forever etched into the public mind, a synonym for evil.

Fifteen years and the protracted war on terror seems unending and ever more dire. The tactics of terror have become ever more medieval. And our fears have not necessarily brought out the best in us.  The U.S. involved itself in a pointless and unsuccessful incursion into Iraq, with destabilizing results that have given rise to more terror. Across the world, there is a growing anti-Muslim sentiment that has helped spawn the politics of hate.

Fifteen years, and loved ones still mourn their beloved dead. For them, this dark day is a  prelude to unending grief.

Yet on that same dark day, people displayed remarkable heroism. First responders rushed into the towers to try to save people, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. And on United flight 93, brave souls attacked the hijackers of their plane and crash landed it on a field in Pennsylvania before it could slam into the White House or the U.S. Capitol.

That Sunday, our church was overflowing with attendees. I remember trying to sing the beautiful hymn “Be Not Afraid” through my tears. Across the country, people turned to their faith – and to each other – to help see them through the darkness. Fifteen years later – another Sunday – I pray for all those lost in the attacks of 9/11, for their families and friends, and for our country. May we always stand for, and in, the light.