Divided We Fall

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Aretha L. Franklin, President George W. BushThe news that Aretha Franklin died this week created an outpouring of tribute on social media. Everyone posted articles, photos, videos of performances – all honoring the Queen of Soul. It was heartening to me to see, for one brief moment, a meeting of hearts and minds on a subject.

In our divided country, you can’t even talk about the weather without potentially getting into a fraught argument over climate change. Everything from the Robert Mueller investigation of Russian collusion to the prospect of NFL players taking to their knees in protest this fall is cause for anger and vitriol.

It’s not that thoughtful people can’t disagree on a subject. With a two party political system, free speech, and a free press, it’s inevitable that individuals will have differences and the urge to express those differences. What’s new about the current state of discourse is that one needn’t confront someone face to face. With social media, we can sling insults at each other from a safe distance.

A case in point is Donald Trump’s use of Twitter. The president usually tweets in the wee hours of the morning, a time when most people’s discernment and judgment are not at their highest. These pronouncements are often filled with vitriol, as Trump attacks anyone he perceives as an enemy. And even though said “enemy” can take to Twitter to send a counterpunch, there is something not quite real in the exchange. If Trump were forced to confront these people face to face, I doubt whether he would act in such a hateful and spiteful manner.

This is true for all of us, and it is making America an inhospitable place. “Comments” sections on social media are minefields we should approach on tenterhooks. Feelings get hurt, friends get “blocked,” and our images of people we’ve known and liked, or even loved, are tainted.

The divisiveness prevalent in today’s society should worry us. It feels as if the very social fabric that makes up civilization is being irreparably torn. And once it is in tatters, it may be impossible to put back together.

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Privilege

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IMG_E1701I’m on the campus of an Ivy League college so that my daughter can attend a soccer camp for high school girls.

The above statement reeks of privilege. How many teenagers with some promise in the field of soccer are able to travel to and attend such a camp? How many parents can afford to take the time to bring them? Furthermore, our daughter’s skill has been developed over years of participation in expensive club soccer, an opportunity unavailable to many youngsters in America.

I’m not trying to apologize for my ability to give my child opportunities or advantages. But neither can I ignore that many of the things my family takes for granted in our lives are the result of white middle class privilege. Conservatives may roll their eyes at the idea of “white privilege,” but recognizing the pervasive influence of race and social class on upward mobility is well overdue in our society.

Americans like to think our democracy assures that the American Dream is equally available to anyone willing to work hard. But the limitations put on some Americans, particularly African Americans, date back to the days of slavery. With a legacy of enslavement, brutal treatment, being denied an education, and Jim Crow laws keeping the races separate, black Americans have never been able to catch up to whites in terms of equality of opportunity.

The separate and unequal world of African Americans comes to light in the excellent Showtime series The Chi, a show set on the south side of Chicago. In the series, characters struggle to make ends meet and often find that the only way to make real money is to “hustle” – that is, to find illegal ways of making money. They live in a blighted neighborhood where gangs control various streets and a gangster mentality even infiltrates the lives of impressionable middle schoolers. And even those who tow the line with gainful employment and an attempt to raise morally upstanding children find their loved ones victimized by the random violence on the streets.

It’s hard to square the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story of American opportunity with today’s world in which black youngsters working a paper route have the police called on them for no reason other than the color of their skin. Young black men, in particular, live under a cloud of suspicion that would make any white person positively murderous with rage if they were to experience it. For instance, filmmaker Daveed Diggs recalls that when he was in his 20s, he was pulled over by the police about 36 times in 3 years.

I’m not trying to suggest that whites apologize for being white. However, we need to support efforts to even the playing field, such as affirmative action and police reform. We need to make a serious investment in minority neighborhoods to bring true economic opportunity. Most importantly, we can’t sit smugly in our white privilege and insist that we’ve gotten where we are purely by dint of hard work.

I feel incredibly lucky to be able to afford my daughter opportunities in life that will, I hope, lead to success and happiness for her. All I’m asking is that as a society, we work to make opportunities available to all, regardless of the accident of their birth.

Goodness: Pass It On

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16351925_GMost Americans would agree that race relations in 2018 are fraught. Stories about police brutality towards minorities, the Black Lives Matter movement, the rise of white nationalism: all point to the fact that inequity and tension still define relations between the races. Yet just this week, I read some news articles that tell a different story.

One of those stories was about an elderly white woman in Phoenix who discovered that an African-American man had no place to stay while he waited for his newborn daughter to be old enough to fly home with him. The man had been given custody of his child but had no funds to stay at a hotel for the 7 days required by the airlines for the baby to be allowed on a plane. The woman, a volunteer in the NICU at the hospital, simply told the man, “I’m coming to get you and take you home.” She welcomed this stranger into her home with his tiny infant. The two have promised to keep in touch.

This week I also saw a video wherein a black man sitting in his car encounters a homeless white veteran walking down the road with no shoes. So the black man gets out of his car and chats with the man, asking about his welfare, where he’s going to stay etc., all the while removing his brand new sneakers and giving them to the homeless man. What struck me about the encounter was not just the selfless gesture of literally giving someone the shoes off of his feet. It was the respect and caring in his conversation with a man clearly down on his luck. I’m sure the personal encounter meant as much to the homeless vet as did the new shoes.

And again, the other day I read that after discovering his new employee had walked 20 miles to his new job in Alabama, the CEO of the company offered the new employee his car. Here too the lines of race were crossed with sympathy and understanding, the CEO being white and the new employee black.

These stories give me a bit of hope. While there are many who live with fear and distrust of those who are different from themselves, there are also those whose innate kindness motivates them to reach out and take a chance on someone who has walked a different path in life. I hope our mass media continues to find and celebrate ordinary people working to make the world a better place. And I hope these stories will motivate all of us to pass on goodness wherever and whenever we can.

Personal Touch Foils Prejudice

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Like many people, I am prone to snap judgments. Upon meeting or even seeing someone for the first time, I immediately make an assessment about their likability and character. That would be all well and good if my judgments proved to be unerringly right; but so often my first impressions have been dead wrong.

I can recall a girl in my high school English class whom I immediately characterized as a spoiled rich girl. She was impeccably coiffed, made up, and dressed, and she was not afraid to speak up in class. All this made me dislike her out of hand. As the school year progressed, though, and we were thrown together on class projects, I discovered the girl’s real self: an eccentric, witty, self-deprecating girl whose passion for literature matched my own. For her part, she had me pegged as a prissy goody two shoes based on the sole fact that I never crossed my legs. Of course, we became fast friends.

We all have our prejudices, and it’s probably a vestige of our survival instinct. Prehistoric humans needed to be able to assess danger within seconds in order to protect themselves. So they developed an ability to categorize an animal or other human instantly as either dangerous or safe. With the development of more sophisticated societies, these snap judgments remained while the need for protecting ourselves from outsiders dwindled.

Over the past 50 years, America has made great strides in civil rights. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. himself would probably find it hard to imagine the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Yet with the candidacy and election of Donald Trump, much of the remaining racism in our country has bubbled to the surface. Now more than ever, our citizens need to find a way to come together and surmount the deep-seated fears and hatreds with which we have grown up.

Here is where the personal touch can help. It’s harder to demonize whole groups of people when we have personal relationships with some of them. A case in point is the story of Chris Buckley, former Klansman and Army sergeant with an unyielding hatred of Muslims. Buckley’s wife reached out to an organization that helps white supremacists leave behind their hate-infused worlds. A member of that organization introduced Buckley to Heval Mohamed Kelli, a Syrian Kurdish refugee who had made a life for himself in America and is now determined to give back to the country that took him in. (Chicago Tribune, June 10, 2018)

Chris Buckley’s encounters with poor African Americans and with men like Kelli have helped dispel the fear and hate he had built up in his heart. Himself a drug addict and the survivor of an abusive household as a child, Buckley has chosen the path of compassion and help for others who are struggling as he has struggled for most of his life.

In my previous post, I wrote about how the personal touch can help us feel more connected and less lonely. But I believe it can do even more. Personal encounters with people of different races, religions, and social classes can bridge the gaps in our understanding and break down the walls of prejudice we have falsely convinced ourselves we need for protection.

Stories like Buckley’s make me hopeful that there is deep goodness inside each of us, and with some effort we can all bring out that goodness for the betterment of society and even for ourselves.

 

 

 

Animals

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President Trump has once again revealed his true self. Speaking at a White House meeting on his attempts to rid America of undocumented immigrants, he said, “These aren’t people, these are animals.” (New York Times, May 16, 2018)

He was referring to notorious members of a gang called MS-13 who, according to Trump, are crossing the border in droves to rape and murder Americans. The problem with this reasoning is that MS-13 is a home grown gang that started in the largely Hispanic underclass neighborhoods of Los Angeles. According to PolitiFact, it is difficult to determine how many undocumented youth in MS-13 were gang members before they arrived in the U.S. and how many were recruited once here. (“Immigration, MS-13 and crime: the facts behind Donald Trump’s exaggerations,” Miriam Valverde, politifact.com, Feb. 7, 2018)

Highlighting the heinous acts of a Latino street gang is just another of the Trump Administration’s attempts to vilify non-white immigrants and build a case for his precious wall. Trump has consistently called non-whites criminals, rapists, and animals, and he has vilified their countries of origin as “shitholes.” How this transparent racism is allowed to stand is a mystery to me.

Trump’s latest remarks have concerned many people who recall that Hitler used the same term to refer to Jews before his successful campaign to exterminate millions of them. I think the rhetoric of this administration deserves universal condemnation from our leaders.

But let’s think for a moment about animals, forgetting for the sake of argument that all humans are considered animals. Animals are predominantly creatures of instinct. They spend their lives in a difficult environment just trying to survive. Some eat only plants, others just meat, and many are omnivores. Although there is some evidence that our close relatives the chimpanzees perpetrate wanton violence, most animals only kill in order to live or protect themselves and their young.

The scariness of the fictional Cujo notwithstanding, animals do not lurk in the shadows waiting to do harm. They can’t lie, cheat, or steal. They aren’t bullies or con artists. Their intentions are much more pure than that of even our own beloved children. (Just ask any pet owner.)

I really don’t think Donald Trump should be calling people animals. It’s an insult to animals.

Things Blacks Can’t Do in America*

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tdy_sun_radford_starbucks_180415_1920x1080.today-vid-canonical-featured-desktopThese are the ordinary activities blacks aren’t allowed to do if they wanted to avoid being questioned/arrested/shot by police:

  1. Go to Starbucks.
  2. Shop at Nordstrom Rack.
  3. Fall asleep in the library.
  4. Golf.
  5. Refuse to give up their table in a restaurant.
  6. Be outside in their relative’s backyard at night with a cell phone in hand.
  7. Rent space at an Airbnb.
  8. Walk around in a “white” neighborhood.
  9. Sit on their own front porch.
  10. Try to enter their own home in an upscale neighborhood.
  11. Drive.
  12. Walk.
  13. Breathe.
  14. Exist.

Every day I read about another case of egregious harassment based on race. Increasingly, the stories feature white citizens taking it upon themselves to call police upon black citizens purely based on the color of their skin.

Some of this increase is no doubt due to the tenor of the Trump presidency, a mindset that emphasizes minorities as alien and criminal. After Trump was elected in 2016, hate crimes against minorities went up substantially. White supremacist groups, largely marginalized throughout the past 50 years, became emboldened by Trump’s dog whistle politics. Some Republican politicians have started campaigning on racist and misogynistic platforms with little to no subtlety.

Yet in a larger sense, these stories point to the reality that we are far from the “post racial” society that many Americans imagine our country to be. I would like my white friends to imagine what it’s like to get in one’s car on a daily basis and pray that they don’t get stopped or, worse, killed by a police officer. I’d like them to walk into their favorite store, restaurant, movie theater, or golf club and feel watched and harassed just by virtue of being there. I wonder how whites would feel if they were on the premises of their own property or that of a friend or relative and had neighbors calling the police on them.

Blacks can take nothing for granted in our world. What they wear, how they speak to strangers, even whether or not it’s wise to put their hands in their pockets. They live under a cloud of suspicion for no other reason than the color of their skin.

Certainly police training on bias would be helpful lessen the number of tragic shootings of blacks. But our society needs a sea change in our attitudes. Part of the problem is the segregation under which many Americans still live. We scarcely interact with people of other races or ethnicities, and therefore we are less comfortable around each other.

Far from ushering in a new, more tolerant age, the election of our first black president, Barack Obama, created a backlash on the part of many whites who fear that their own opportunities will be diminished by a more racially tolerant society. Blacks are held to a much higher standard for behavior than are whites. So it is up to us whites to fight for more inclusion, more opportunity, and more acceptance of African Americans – and indeed for all minorities.

Conservatives are fond of the expression “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Let’s apply that concept to race relations and not just trickle down economics for a change.

*Adding to the list:

15. Swim at a public pool without being questioned about whether you showered first.

16. Canvass as a lawmaker among one’s constituency.

17. Have a paper route.

 

 

 

 

Hug It Out

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I’m thinking of setting up a “Free Hugs” booth somewhere in downtown Chicago – a busy train station, say, or Daley Plaza (once the weather gets nicer). I recently read the about the physical and emotional benefits of hugging.

Hugging stimulates the production of oxytocin, a hormone that promotes well-being and reduces feelings of anxiety and stress. Oxytocin is the hormone that helps mothers and infants bond, for instance. And studies have shown that hugging can help the heart and the immune system, making it not only a pleasurable activity but a potentially life-saving one.

I’ve noticed that as I get older, my opportunities for hugs have diminished. When you have little ones at home, you are constantly holding and hugging them, and being hugged in return. As they get older, kids often attempt to individuate by keeping their physical distance. And while I hug my husband on a fairly regular basis, I think I’d like to become more demonstrative with friends, even ones I see on a daily basis.

Amid the current divisiveness in America, I think it would behoove us to hug each other more. I’m reminded of a protestor approaching riot police in Charlottesville last year and offering hugs. There was also an instance of a black man hugging a white supremacist outside a Richard Spencer event. The black man kept asking the white man, “Why don’t you like me?” The white man had nothing to say until the black man hugged him and whispered the question again. The white man admitted, “I don’t know.”

Americans are much less physically demonstrative than many other cultures. Decades ago, psychologist Sidney Jourard studied how often friends from different countries touched each other. He found that Americans touched each other about twice an hour whereas the French touched each other an average of 110 times an hour. Puerto Ricans touched more than 180 times an hour. (“How Hugs Heal – Have You Had a Hug Today?,” articles.mercola.com, May 20, 2017)

In doing some web research, I found out that I’ve just missed #NationalHuggingDay, which was January 21. It’s interesting that this year the date happened to correspond to the Women’s March and followed on the heels of the March for Life, both events where like-minded people gathered in large groups for a common cause. No doubt there was plenty of hugging to go around.

What I’d like to see, however, are more healing hugs, where people take the risk to reach out and connect heart to heart with someone different from themselves, whether racially, politically, religiously, or ideologically. So maybe my Free Hugs booth is not such a bad idea. Or how about a social media phenomenon akin to the Ice Bucket Challenge from a few years ago. People could gather donations for every random hug they gave and posted.

Hugs are warm and life-giving acts, and I plan to start giving out more of them. How about you?