Friday, July 8, 2016

To Kill a Mockingbird

I have started this post many times.

I started it when Trayvon Martin was murdered, and then again when there was no conviction in his case.

I started it when Dontre Hamilton died right here in Milwaukee, shot 14 times by the ice rink across the street from where my orchestra plays free concerts for kids.

I started it when Eric Garner was choked to death on video, saying he couldn't breathe, and everyone watched, and no one did anything.

I was too numb to start it when John Crawford was killed in a Walmart in Ohio for holding a BB gun for sale in the store. 

But I was moved to start it again when Michael Brown was killed and left in the street for hours and hours, and again when Ferguson erupted in response.

I tried several times to write this post after Tamir Rice was shot while playing alone in a park in Cleveland.  And again when no charges were brought against anyone.

I didn't know what to say about Tony Robinson being killed in Madison.

Or about Walter Scott, who was shot in the back while running away, no immediate threat to anyone, his death caught on a video that played over and over in a way that began to feel frighteningly casual. 

I started this post again for Freddie Gray.  I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the idea that his death was ruled a homicide, but somehow nobody is responsible.

When Sandra Bland died in police custody I didn't even know how to begin explaining that to my kids.  I couldn't find words to explain it to myself, let alone sort the horror of it out into a blog post.

This week the country watched the senseless deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.  It's too much.

Then police officers were targeted in apparent retaliation.  From what I understand those attacks were particularly undeserved as the Dallas Police Department has taken a progressive approach to address problems before they arise, and were there to protect a peaceful protest, not antagonize their citizens.  This violence is not only tragic but a setback for the cause that fueled it, because more murder of innocents is not the solution, it just adds to the unnecessary pain and gives people already in denial an excuse to remain unmoved.

I'm afraid to check social media as I write at this moment for fear I am already behind with current events and more tragedy is unfolding that will push the latest chapter in this crisis by the wayside.

It's probably obvious why I kept starting this post.  But why did I never finish it before now?

Partially because I want so much to get it right.  Talking about race in this country is fraught with complications, where good people who are trying but on some level oblivious don't want to risk further offense.  I want to add to the discussion in useful ways, not clumsily contribute to the noise about something so important.

However, the time it takes to craft words well, to find a way to say what I want to say, bumps up against a relentless news cycle that is always presenting us with yet another tragedy.  By the time I found any words for Trayvon Martin they were out of date, and we were on to the next story of police abuse and pointless death.  I would start this post again, only to have to revise it again to include the next tragedy, and the next, and the next.

So why am I finishing this post today?  Because I have to.  Even if it's not as good as I can make it, I must finally say something, imperfect as my words may be.  There is no breathing room to write and revise, so I am simply making myself write straight to the end and adding whatever this becomes to the discussion before the day is up.

Silence is unacceptable anymore, regardless of the excuse.

Our country is racist.  Our country has always been racist.  We need to acknowledge this on a fundamental level where people with privilege stop getting defensive about the circumstances we were born into as if we are entitled to them but not responsible for them.  I understand that I didn't do anything in the past, that slavery was before my time, that I have never lynched anyone and I do not have to feel guilt about having consciously made decisions to oppress anyone.

But I benefit directly from centuries of policies and constructs that give me advantages I can't even see most of the time.  Advantages that often we mistake for common courtesy and respect.  When privilege feels normal we lose perspective.  Because life is struggle, and everything is relative, and no one wants to feel accused of causing harm to innocent people when all we are doing is trying to get by day to day with whatever our own hardships are to overcome and we never asked for privilege to begin with.  It's hard to understand how much harder life is when you add an undercurrent of fear, stress, and distrust to the mix.

Too many people are ignorant of the true horrors of slavery and the stain it is on our nation's soul and the lasting effects of it we still live with today.  Too many people don't understand that modern segregation was by design, that discrimination is a pervasive problem, and that we don't all get to navigate the world the same way.

I do not know what it is like not to be able to trust the police.  I have never had anything but good encounters with them.  My grandfather taught me to wave at them as they patrolled our neighborhood, because he said they had a hard job.  I can tell my own children with confidence that if they are ever in trouble to call the police, or find an officer if they are lost or scared.  The police will keep them safe.  I believe that.

How terrifying it would be to not feel that way.  To hesitate before asking for help because the risk that the encounter could go terribly wrong might be too high.  I can't imagine it.  But that is reality for many in our society.  In our own neighborhood.  For friends of ours and people we love.

Part of the problem for many white people is simple fear of not wanting to relinquish belief in the system that works for them.  Social media is filled with people who refuse to acknowledge that black people experience a different set of rules in this country, and they keep repeating the idea that if you merely "do as the cops say" then everything will be fine.  If another black person is mistreated or dies, then they must have done something wrong, because otherwise it doesn't make any sense, and that's terrifying.  A world where someone can be shot for trivial reasons by those who are supposed to protect us is too frightening, so it is easier to blame the victim.

Everyone should feel entitled to respect and safety.  Demanding that for all in our society does not take anything away from the rest of us.  Raising others up to that level does not diminish anyone but the most insecure among us, and they should not be catered to at the expense of anyone.

I'd like to believe that more people's eyes have been opened in recent years.  I know mine have.  I have listened to parents of black children describe how they must prepare them for encountering police.  That my worries about my children learning to drive one day are all focused on their being safe and responsible, not being pulled over and harassed.  I don't fear for my son's life if he wants to literally run to the park.  I don't ever think if my husband should get pulled over for a broken taillight that he could end up shot over it in front of our children and die bleeding in my arms while no one tries to help.

This past weekend my family traveled to Washington D.C.  We got to watch fireworks on the 4th of July near the Washington Monument and in view of the White House--a national home built by slaves and now occupied by an accomplished black family.  I read beautiful words written by Jefferson on the walls of his memorial, about equality and liberty, and I struggled with the incongruity of those words alongside the disgrace that his status as a slave owner poses for us today.  I read aloud to my children the words of the Gettysburg Address as we stood inside the Lincoln Memorial, and then stood by the "I Have a Dream" marker on the front steps.  We admired the interesting architecture of the soon-to-open Museum of African-American History and I wondered how something so central to our history is only now coming to be.  Everything is about race, and yet somehow there is no reasonable way to discuss it.  As a nation we manage to talk about nothing but race while avoiding any meaningful discussion on it at the same time.

The drive from Milwaukee to D.C. is long.  Long enough that on this particular trip I managed to read all of To Kill a Mockingbird to my kids.  It's a book I loved when I read it on my own back in high school, and one I thought my children should hear.  Ian and I were both startled by how much of it we'd forgotten.  It remains a great book.  But I was unprepared for certain elements of it.

I wasn't prepared for how often I had to read the n-word.  I cringed every time.  I began to wonder if books like this one, and other classics like Huckleberry Finn which use it, are really appropriate anymore in classrooms for younger children.  I understand full well the historical context and the need to grasp the times and that the larger message of such works condemn the use of such terms and attitudes, but I don't know if it's fair to subject African-American children to the n-word as part of a class discussion where for them it is potentially painful and not relegated to history at all.  I told my kids as I was reading that I was going to keep using the word because it was part of the setting of the book and an easy way to assess the attitudes of certain characters, but that they should know it was vile.  I don't care about swearing, but I care about cruelty.  The n-word is off limits because it goes beyond swearing.  My kids understand that.

The thing about To Kill a Mockingbird that I was most unprepared for was how little has actually changed.  We are still segregated.  We still suffer a legacy of white supremacy.  We still value black lives less than even the discomfort of questioning the integrity of police officers and the system they work under.  

I was struck this week while watching African-Americans react to yet more tragedy in their community at how measured with their reactions they are required to be.  In the book, in the South in the 1930s, the black characters must behave in certain subdued ways in order to survive.  I thought of them as I watched the woman in Philando Castile's car being forced to remain calm as someone she loved lay dying in her lap because she needed to protect herself and her child, and any dramatic display of emotion on her part could provoke unpredictable results.  I thought about the character of Tom Robinson never having a chance in a white man's court despite his innocence, and being gunned down in custody.  I thought about how quickly everyone was expected to move on despite the underlying problems being unresolved, thus laying the groundwork for such tragedies to repeat themselves.

I'd forgotten any discussion of Hitler in To Kill a Mockingbird.  His rise in Germany and his persecution of the Jews is juxtaposed with the our society's own oppressive ways, and highlights how we only see what we are willing to see.  But the part that I have been pondering at length since I reread it was Atticus's unwillingness to hate Hitler.  He tells his daughter when she asks that no, if we can't hate anyone then that includes Hitler.  It's shocking, because if there is anyone the average person can feel safe in hating, it's Hitler.  I spent time in the Holocaust Museum in D.C. this weekend.  I am not an evolved enough person to find a level of non-hatred for Hitler yet.

But it's humbling to realize I am just as susceptible to needing to feel superior to someone as anyone else.  I believe my attitudes are superior to those of racists and bigots, but does that make me superior to them as people?  Intellectually I realize no, but it takes effort to feel otherwise.  One of the recurring themes in To Kill a Mockingbird is not only that bad things can happen to good people, but that good people can do bad things and still somehow be good people.  Atticus extends a form of forgiveness to everyone in the book, no matter how wretched, and to remain consistent with his beliefs that must include even Hitler.  Atticus is a better person than many of us can hope to be.  He's also fiction.  But then, Jefferson's words about equality are a kind of fiction as well.  That doesn't make them less of something to aspire to.

I want the killing to stop.

I want all my neighbors to feel safe.

I want the world to be as indifferent to skin color and ethnicity in assessing someone's worth as my children have managed to be.  Until I had to teach them about racism, which pained me.  The world they thought they lived in, where none of that matters, is fiction.  But I believe it's a fiction worth aspiring to.


  1. Your words were moving - beyond words - and the ideas you put forth should resound in all of us. Thank you for your inspiration.

  2. I agree so much with this. As a privledged white person who doesn't whitness much overt racism in my daily life, I'm just trying to
    listen, and be more aware, of what life is really like for minorities. Because I don't think I really have a clue.

  3. I can't put to words how meaningful your column is. If only the world could take these words to heart and apply them. Thank you!