A Beautiful Dream in the Neighborhood: You Be the Change

Another strange week in the neighborhood … literally.  Alex’s bus to school has been unreliable, at best, in the morning, so I’ve been driving him there daily.  To say that I’ve encountered strange reactions from the locals about sums it up.  Though it’s a public school inside the DC/MD/VA beltway, only 1% of the kids attending Alex’s school are black.  So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that when I knocked at a cafeteria door one morning, hoping to take a shortcut, two 5th grade girls — given the demographics, you’d be correct to assume that they were white — just sat there staring at me as I peered in the door and knocked, and made no effort to open the door.  Ultimately, a boy from their class came over and let us in.  To be fair, I was knocking the same day that –unbeknownst to them at that point — the umpteeth gunman since Sandy Hook was engaged in a mass shooting at the Navy Yard less than half an hour’s drive from our location, and during the same week that the school held a state mandated lockdown drill, presumably to make sure the kids know what to do.  Still, I’m not wrong to think that race played a role, and here’s why:  incident #2.  As I said, there are a paucity of black kids in Alex’s school.  Such that when I took the kindergarten tour in June, I was almost shocked to see a little black girl in one of the classes.  Thursday morning, the shock was “on the other foot,” as the same little girl saw me standing in the hall with Alex.  She approached us with some curiousity, and asked if I was Alex’s mother.  I very much attribute that to “my kind,’ being pretty scarce in those parts.

What does it say that a black woman taking her son to public school is such a foreigner in a foreign land in her own neighborhood?  The same thing, I fear, that it says when various quadrants of the country FREAK OUT when this year’s Miss America turns out to be an American born Hindu of South Asian descent.  And, it’s the same message that we got this week from Charlotte, NC when a black man involved in a car accident in the middle of  the middle of the night made two mistakes:  1) banging on the door of a nearby house to seek help; and 2) running toward the police thinking that he would receive it.  The same message that was sent by our contemptuous House of Representatives Thurs. evening when they passed a bill that cut $40 billion out of the only safety net program that functioned well during the recession and kept the wolf from many a door; a program that continues to support many a low income working poor person.

Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deuts...
Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deutsch: 1964: Martin Luther King Português: Martin Luther King (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve rattled off a number of symptoms above.  The disease stems from this simple fact:  not only have we not lived up to Martin Luther King’s aspiration that we would judge people not by the color of their skins, but by the content of their character, we have turned that on its head and made it worse. To judge someone on the basis of their character, you have to get to know them, to take time with them, to invest in them.  Not only are we increasingly unwilling, unable or incapable of engaging to this extent, to the contrary, we reach all sorts of perverse conclusions about people we don’t know.  Witness today’s version of that: where two men who presumably had never met, get into a gun battle because one was allegedly tailgating the other, and both wound up dead.   We’ve lost the ability to give each other the benefit of the doubt, to engage in civil ways with strangers, to be interested in learning people’s stories before we jump to conclusions and decide that they’re not American, or don’t look the part. Moreover, we are acting out violently against people on the basis of who we think they are. Take for instance this account, only the most recent of many that detail Sikhs being attacked because violent individuals believe that their beards and turbans somehow connect them with Osama bin Laden.

The news increasingly suggests that where we may not be failing to engage, we may be engaging problematically by resorting to profiling and stereotyping.  Witness the accounts of the NYPD spying on law abiding Muslims as well as restaurants, communities or clubs where people from 28 “ancestries of interest” were to be found. Additionally, check out both this NPR piece on citizen reporting of “suspicious behavior in CA,” and the reports themselves.  Someone bought a pallet of water, someone showed up at a rally to protest police excessive use of force, someone took pictures of a bridge or a federal building?  And, of course, these reports are generally full of suggestions that the suspicious looking people were Arab or Arab looking … It might be useful before I go on to point out that my brother wears a mustache/goatee and the enlightened citizens of Charlotte, NC were asking whether he was “an Ay-rab” in the days after 9.11.01.  Do any of us really ever “know one [fill in the blank] when we see one?”  I sometimes play a game when I see pictures in the newspaper … I try to guess where folks are from, and I’m rarely right.  And just the other day, I caught myself inadvertently profiling someone by name … Alex’s new vice principal is named Heather Hurley.  The several folks I’ve told this to have said that they’ve rarely heard a more Irish sounding name … and she did come to Arlington by way of Boston.  Imagine my surprise when she turned out to be African American.

So my challenge to you is this … stay open … challenge yourself … challenge others … in my view, we’re kind of past the point where more laws or more civil rights protections are going to help.  We all have a responsibility to push back on the problematic stuff we hear and see … whether it’s a football team with an offensive name, comments on 9-11 like, “Muslims stay home,” racist ridiculousness about Nina Davuluri, the beautiful new Miss America,  or any other ill informed commentary or behavior that threatens to drag us all down with it.  Look for opportunities to turn bad episodes into learning moments like this man did … Become an “ambassador.”  Because if you’re not part of the solution …


What the ???

Jeers:  Following the Mayor’s veto of bill that would have required Wal-Mart to pay its employees a living wage, the D.C. City Council failed to override the veto.   It is absolutely true, that folks in the poor parts of the District need jobs.  But it’s also true that they need jobs that will enable them to support their families, that Wal-Mart can afford to pay their employees better, and that a disproportionate amount of the already existing Wal-Mart workforce also relies on SNAP, or food stamps.  At least for now … see the next entry.

Jeers:  The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill this week that would cut SNAP, the only decently functioning safety net for the working poor, by nearly $40 billion over ten years.  Never mind all the rhetoric about how able bodied people should support themselves, the reality is that SNAP is a program that disproportionately helps the working poor make ends meet.  Like the above-mentioned Wal-Mart employees who are rarely given enough hours to enable them to support themselves and their families. Also, if there’s a genuine concern about work for the able bodied, how about the House funding some additional job training programs?  Anyone?  Not so much, apparently.


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