The New Stories and the Old

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I don’t follow auto racing, so I’d never heard of Bubba Wallace, a black racecar driver who in June 2020 was told that what appeared to be a noose had been found in the garage stall assigned to him at the race track in Talladega, Alabama. I’ve had CNN on all through the coronavirus time, and they were going on and on about this hate crime of this noose.

American institutions, which are said to be “systemically racist,” took the noose seriously. The racing association issued a statement that “there is no place for racism in NASCAR, and this act only strengthens our resolve to make the sport open and welcoming to all.” Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, Republican, said she was “shocked and appalled” by the “vile act.” The Trump administration’s Justice Department and FBI began an investigation.

They quickly found that the noose — which really was tied like a hangman’s noose — had been on the pull rope for the garage door since at least October 2019, when the garage was assigned to white drivers.

No hate crime, then.

I accept the argument that under certain circumstances putting up a noose can be a crime — for the same reason Justice Clarence Thomas accepted that a burning cross on a black family’s lawn can be a crime. A threat of violence is not protected speech. But here it wasn’t a threat. It was just a knot on a rope to pull down a garage door.

CNN reported the FBI’s finding. They didn’t argue with it, but they kept talking about it on national television as something that might have been a hate crime, and how serious that would be had it been one. There have been other stories like this, the import of which is that America is a racist country. A deeply racist country. A systemically racist country, meaning that white supremacy is baked into the cake and not merely an ornament on it. And the message this conveys is that nothing has changed.

A threat of violence is not protected speech. But here it wasn’t a threat. It was just a knot on a rope to pull down a garage door.

Nobody actually says that nothing has changed, but essentially it means that. To the young this is deep wisdom. They style themselves “woke,” and I think, yeah, that’s about right. You just woke up. You just got here. I am nearly 70. I have been here a long time, and you are telling me that nothing in my country has changed during that time, or at least, nothing important enough for you to concede to me. But you weren’t here.

I am reminded of a passage from George Orwell: “One ought also to stick to one’s own world-view, even at the price of seeming old-fashioned: for that world-view springs out of experiences that the younger generation has not had, and to abandon it is to kill one’s intellectual roots.”

Growing up in suburban Seattle the 1960s, I never saw a “whites only” sign, though there were some color bars I didn’t know about. To take an example of a comparatively minor but very insulting practice: The Seattle Times ran wedding photos in the Sunday paper. Until the late 1960s, they never pictured African-American brides and grooms. I didn’t notice; I wasn’t looking at wedding pictures, and I wouldn’t have noticed anyway. I heard about the no-blacks picture policy after I retired from that newspaper. The features editor who changed the policy had died, and the publisher announced her death to a gathering of retirees. And of all the things she’d done in her career, he remembered her for her change in the picture policy back in the 1960s.

The world has changed. A lot.

When I was a kid in the 1960s, the message from adults was that racial prejudice was bad. Teachers in school said it. But almost everyone in my school was white. Just about everyone on TV was white. Except for Sidney Poitier, just about everyone in the movies was white. Some of the songs I liked on the radio were sung by black women (remember the Shirelles?), but the disc jockeys on my favorite top-40 station were all white men. I remember the first time I heard a white female DJ. It was a shock. I accepted it; there was no reason not to have a woman on the radio. But it also struck me that I had never questioned that all the DJs had been men.

Years later, I experienced something similar. I went to a US government office to help a person who was not white. The clerk took down my name and motioned us to sit in a waiting room that was full of people who were not white. After a minute, a government agent, who was white, called my name and we went up to the counter. Instant service! As we walked out the door, the person I had helped said, “That was fast! Next time I’ll know to bring you along.”

And I thought, “White privilege.”

On second thought, probably it was US citizen privilege. The office where it happened was the United States Consulate in Hong Kong, and the people in the waiting room were probably not citizens.

When I was a kid in the 1960s, the message from adults was that racial prejudice was bad. Teachers in school said it. But almost everyone in my school was white.

White privilege in Hong Kong was real enough, and it occasionally revealed itself. If my wife wanted some purchase returned to the store, it was my job to take it back, because I was white and she was Chinese, and if you wanted a refund it went much better if you were white. Another case: we had a Filipina maid. I commented once how amusing it was that on Sundays, a day off work for both of us, she would dress up and I would dress down. She replied, “But sir, if I don’t dress nicely, the people in the shops will think I don’t have money. You’re white; they know you have money.”

Those were eye-openers, but it was not in America.

I try to imagine what it was like in America for the generation before me. The difference between their experience and mine is at least as much as the difference between mine and the “woke” generation of today. Probably more. My parents lived in the South during the war, and my mother told me about segregation. At the bank, the men in line in front of her stepped aside so she could go first because she was a white lady — but she was a Northern white lady, and it felt wrong. When she wanted yellow cornmeal, she was told that was what the Negroes used, and she had to go to the Negro store for it. Earlier in the war, in the spring of 1942, she had gone to downtown Seattle to say goodbye to her Japanese house cleaner, who being put on a bus to an internment camp in Idaho. She told me she cried, but nobody dared object to the internment.

When I was growing up, all this was ancient history. She was telling me these stories because she had experienced them and I would not.

Step back to the years before the war. In my reading of historical newspapers, I recently came across a news story from July 1929, when my mother was still a teenager. America’s new First Lady, Lou Hoover, invited the wives of newly elected congressmen to the White House for tea. Among them was Jessie De Priest, the wife of the first black congressman elected in the 20th century, Oscar De Priest, Republican of Chicago. (There are 55 members of the Congressional Black Caucus today, all of them Democrats.) In 1929, the First Lady’s invitation of a “negress” caused an uproar among whites in the South. The Seattle Times printed a letter from a white woman defending her fellow Southerners. “The white race is often in an ominous minority in the far South,” the woman wrote. “We there need to be let alone, while we keep the negro in his proper place.”

None of that could happen today — not the objection, not the Southern woman’s argument, and not the namby-pamby reply.

In an adjacent editorial titled, “A Mistaken Attitude,” the Times’ editors gently disagreed. “While asking to be ‘let alone,’ the writer indicates reluctance to let others alone in their judgments,” they wrote.

None of that could happen today — not the objection, not the Southern woman’s argument, and not the namby-pamby reply. It wouldn’t have happened that way in the 1960s. The story is from another world.

Here is a news story from the Seattle Times of Sept. 22, 1929:

Spite Suspected as Negro’s Home Burns

Spitework was seen by the sheriff’s office yesterday in the unaccountable burning Thursday night at Auburndale, near Auburn, of the newly purchased little home of George W. Summers, Seattle negro.

He had invested a life’s savings in the little frame house near the highway, he told the sheriff, and to find his investment completely wiped out had been a shock. Prior to moving out into the valley he had been living at 1518 Yakima Ave., traveling to and from Auburndale during the day to build and make repairs on his house.

On finding the smoking ruins, he said, he visited his neighbors’ homes to learn the cause of the conflagration. Without a single exception, he reported, they refused to speak to him, shutting their doors in his face.

The sheriff’s office was investigating the blaze with the hope of establishing incendiarism and making arrests.

Written today, the story of the torching of George Summers’ house would have none of the condescension of the “little home” and the “little frame house.” It would be full of anger. It would have a photo of George Summers in front of his burned home, it would quote him and his family, if he had any. The story would be all over national TV for a week. Politicians would pontificate about it. There would be protest marches demanding justice for George Summers, and the neighbors who closed their doors would be called to account. Even in the 1960s a story like this would be front-page news locally, and there would have been protests of some kind. In 1929 the torching of this man’s house was a tiny story — three column-inches on page 7. And there was no followup story to pressure the sheriff’s deputies to do their jobs. I believe that had anyone been put on trial for burning down George Summers’ house, the Times would have covered it. And it didn’t.

Back then, when whites burned down a black man’s house, the local sheriff’s office satisfied the press by saying they were hoping for an arrest. Today, a car racing executive thinks a pull rope on a garage door may be a racial threat and it is a major story on national television. In advance of any investigation, the TV people assume it is a racial threat and pontificate about the sickness of “this country.” Down swoop the Justice Department and a phalanx of FBI agents.

That does not look like a racist system.

All the talk about the systemic racism of police focuses on police only. Take the recent killing of Rayshard Brooks, 27, in Atlanta. Yes, a policeman shot him in the back twice when he was running away. But Brooks, who had passed out in his car in a Wendy’s drive-through line, was drunk (blood alcohol of 0.108; legal threshold is 0.08). When he faced arrest for driving under the influence, he fought back. He had recently been in prison under a sentence for false imprisonment, battery, and cruelty to children, and was out on parole, and he knew an arrest would send him back to the pen. In his struggle, he grabbed the officer’s taser and made off with it. None of that justifies two deadly shots in the back, but it is nonetheless damn foolishness to fight an arrest and grab a policeman’s weapon.

No one can justify a cop leaning his knee on a man’s neck for nine minutes, until the man is dead.

The animosity between young black men and police has causes on both sides. Yes, black lives matter. So do people’s attitudes and behavior. It’s not a problem that can be solved by defunding the police and spending billions of dollars on social programs.

The Black Lives Matter movement has a simple, bumper-sticker message about law enforcement: the problem is white police mistreating and killing black men. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis ignited riot and protest all around the country because the story neatly fitted that idea, which people already had in their heads. They were primed for it. Their reaction was, “This again? Enough!” And yeah, enough. No one can justify a cop leaning his knee on a man’s neck — a non-struggling man’s neck — for nine minutes, until the man is dead. But this was not a typical event. In a country with more than 300 million people all doing their thing, atypical events happen. Real events are complicated, and not always what they seem. When a white cop kills a black man, it fits a stereotype. People label it racism before they know the details. Sometimes they are right. But there is also a general problem of police use of lethal force. Unarmed whites get killed by cops, too. Those stories don’t fit the idea that news editors have in their heads, so they are not national news.

Racial feeling exists in all races, and people who are the brunt of it notice it. The Seattle Times recently had a piece by a young writer who was not white, writing about her experience of racism in America. Much of it was her emotional reaction to police shootings in the news — in other words, of seeing it on television and feeling, “I can’t breathe.” But there was no knee on her neck. Her own experience was of the “microaggression” variety — things people said, mostly not intended to hurt, but reminding her that she was different from them.

She had a valid point: people need to think before they speak, and if they say race doesn’t matter, they should make it so. But people also need to keep in mind the distinction between inartful wording and deliberate nastiness, between being annoyed and having one’s house burned down. Intentions matter. Magnitude matters. Individual responsibility matters. Let’s not burn down the Wendy’s and destroy the jobs of the people, black or white, who work there because of what one policeman did in the parking lot.

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