Too Many Martyrs, Too Many Apologies

I once asked a black man in a hoodie for his identification.

I am not proud of this.

I am less proud because the man in question turned out to be not only someone I knew but someone I worked with, and our job was working campus patrol at my college. It was the night of a big party on campus, the sort of thing where there was a lot of free beer and a lot of other stuff floating around that was probably free if you knew the right people. I was working patrol that night, and one of our jobs, as always, was to get non-students off campus after dark. I saw two people walking toward me from off campus with hoodies pulled down over their faces, and so I asked them for ID. Anthony raised his head up and gave me a look of death. I apologized. Later I confessed what I had done. But to this day every time I think of it, I think of what my drivers ed teacher used to say when we made mistakes: Don’t be sorry, just don’t do it.

I thought that was terrible advice for people like me who were forever mistakenly turning right instead of left. I think it’s the best summation I’ve ever heard of how we need to deal with race relations in this country.

On Monday night I took my nine-week-old son to my town’s Million Hoodie March. It was held on the same pedestrian mall where I’ve been attending rallies since I was fourteen years old. Going there often makes me feel very, very old, which is a common side effect of living in your hometown as an adult, especially if you then have a kid.

There was a crowd when we got there. The days when I used to count people at rallies are over (we used to joke that you had to count yourself, or take the police count and triple it), so I’m not sure how many exactly, but it was in the multiple hundreds. What impressed me was not the size, though — I’ve seen smaller and larger over the years — but the make up. I said to my friends when I found them, “I was going to say this is the most racially diverse rally I’ve ever been to here, but actually I think it’s the only racially diverse rally I’ve ever been to in this town.”

There were plenty of usual suspects there — people like me who are prone to going to rallies and accosting you with quarter sheets on street corners and standing around with signs or candles or red tape over their mouths. But much of the crowd was made up of what I am afraid people around here often refer to as “people from Chicago.” That means black people, of course, but more specifically it means “black people who are not like us.” And “us,” sadly, means people like me.

In a demographic sense, that’s true. Different socio-economic background and work experience and education and religious affiliation and all sorts of other little boxes you can check on forms. But that’s stupid, because they also are like “us”: the “people from Chicago” may be from Chicago, but now they live here, and that means we are all Iowa Citians and we all bear responsibility for our community.

This rally was different from others I’ve attended in another way. It was quieter. That doesn’t make sense, give the level of outrage over the events that inspired it. But I think it was quite out of respect and out of despair.

The problem with racism is that there isn’t an easy legislative solution. We’ve done most of the work of enacting the legislation that ended separate but equal and the denial of voting rights and so on. Those things still exist, of course, but that’s a problem of enforcement, not a problem of the law.

If you are upset about the death of Trayvon Martin and you want to find something tangible you can fix, you will have to look hard. Changing laws like the one in Florida that allows almost anyone to plead self-defense for any reason, or no reason at all, would help prosecute the killers, but it wouldn’t stop the killing.

You can’t legislate attitudes. You can hope to outgrow them. You can think you’re above them, that you aren’t poisoned by their presence, but you’d be wrong. This very blog post is poisoned by them. I can put all the scare quotes I want around “us” and “them” in an attempt to convince you that I find these categories false, but I have still written them down. And that means I’ve thought them. And that means, well, that means I can say I’m sorry all I want, but I still did it.

I don’t have a solution to that. Perhaps one day my son can help find one.

2 thoughts on “Too Many Martyrs, Too Many Apologies”

  1. I teach a graduate level course at a Michigan university; my class includes a student from Zimbabwe. I spoke to her recently and told her to be sure to enjoy the Lake Michigan beaches, not far from our school, but she might like one in particular more than the others because it is more diverse: she would see more people of color there. I told her my partner and I like it because even though we never see queer couples there we feel like “different” is ok. My student said that I was the first person to mention race to her, and she was relieved by that. She feels the tension but doesn’t know how to address or relieve it. It’s one of the things that we are not taught how to talk about, I think.

  2. Hi, Laura – This is an awesome essay. You’re right, you can’t legislate attitudes, but I’d like to add two corollaries. First, civil rights legislation does change attitudes, eventually. So it does make a difference that the professions (the academy, medicine, the law, for example) have among their ranks women, African-Americans, Jews, Latina/os, openly GLBTs, and other folks who have suffered institutionalized discrimination and persecution. And those terrible attitudes are more difficult to maintain when “those people” are someone who teahes you, you go to school with, or is your doctor or dentist, or your next door neighbor. So part of the work of legislating is changing attitudes. Second, ALEC is systematically writing oppressive, discriminatory, anti-democratic, and downright evil legislation, getting the legislators elected who’ll pass it, and then broadcasts the propaganda that allows to stand these assaults on literally every law that protects civil liberty:
    And also, you’re hard on yourself. You “did it” awhile ago. You have the decency to be sorry and to change. I think it’s important to realize that the more we make interaction between groups “difficult” the more difficult being friends is. It’s not that flippin’ difficult. All of these divisions are socially constructed, not written in our DNA. God is good and made our souls good. If we sin, we can say we’re sorry, and do better. If we want we can atone, as you did here. That’s pretty much the foundation of faith, by my lights.

    I think Peter will help you find solutions to this and other problems. Zoe has/does. She just wasn’t programmed to be a racist or a homophobe or any other hateful thing. And that’s not just me, it’s that she spent most of her childhood in Las Vegas, which is an amazingly harmoniously diverse town. Now that we’re here, she hears stuff, not much, and she’s outraged and thinks it’s just plain stupid.

    Oh, and when was the last time I told you how much I love you?

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