When Hope Devolves into Despair

Hello from my yard,

Completing my seminary education in St. Paul, and living in the Twin Cities for 5 years, and then only an hours commute for another 6, I feel I am pretty acquainted with the metropolitan area. Likewise growing up in NW Iowa in what was considered a pretty large town at the time, I am well aware of the “whiteness” as a general demographic of the upper Midwest. Watching the news and listening to the responses of both mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul as well as Governor Walz, my heart aches for those affected as the consequences of what seems to be yet another case of an overzealous officer treating a black man as someone unworthy of humane treatment regardless the situation leading to an arrest. I know I was not there, but how many have taken the time to watch the video more than once, appalled by a technique that numerous law enforcement people have regarded as unnecessarily brutal? How many listened to the clerk who called the police to begin with? How many of us, who are not black, brown, or Asian, have really attempted to understand how they might feel, how often they fear for their lives as a general daily practice, or to what extreme we as white people really consider that we are too afraid to admit our colonialisms in our own country? What do I mean by that you might ask? It is simple to state, but incredibly hard to accept. As a white person I am afforded privilege simply because I am white. I am allowed access to things that people of color must work harder at if they are to have that same access. The concept of separate, but equal was deemed discriminatory by the SCOTUS in a landmark decision, but in practice it still exists at all levels of this nation. As a white male I too have struggled at times, arguing I am a victim of reverse discrimination, if you will, but when I think about it more critically, I realize the insignificant things I want to claim as unfair pale in comparison to what my fellow citizens (and I use that word intentionally) of color must overcome 24/7.

In her amazing book titled White Fragility, Robin Diangelo, a professor of multicultural education as well as a consultant and trainer of racial and social justice issues, addresses so many things that we do unconsciously that contribute to the idea of racial inequality. Consider this for a moment if you will: when you see a black, brown, mulatto, or person who is not white, do you recognize and first see them as whatever that color is? When you see another white person, do you first recognize them for their whiteness? As I noted above there were times I felt what I called reverse discrimination. More likely, I have heard about it or wondered about it, but have I ever felt it? Studies show that while “55% of white people” believe there is discrimination (and this sort of understanding is based on things like Affirmative Action), to a great percentage, when pushed a much smaller percentage say they have actually experienced this (Diangelo, 107-108). Much more often, when most white people are pushed we fall back on our stereotypic response. I have black friends ~ I work with black people ~ I try to support black/brown/other people. Everyone of these responses is racist. What Diangelo notes is white fragility is about recognizing and admitting white privilege. She, who is, btw, white herself, asserts being aware of our privilege, if we can even admit that is not enough. Too often we attempt to be more inclusive, but the very idea that we believe we need to reach out to be kinder, more accepting, or focused on equality, we actually further the white fragility and racial underpinnings that cause us too often to see someone who is not white as the other. When I was part of a faculty reading group who worked with this text this past semester, it was stunning to see how we struggled to figure out what we might do. There were non-white people in the group and it was beyond eye-opening to hear their perspective. I do not believe there was a bad person in the reading group, but I can say with some incredible certainty that we all walked out that group after 4 or 5 weeks with a very different perspective on what our whiteness signifies to others. Too often, we see racism as an individual act versus a systemic problem. Too often, we believe the things we see or hear we would never do, but each time we look out at the situation, we are missing the point. As a white person, I am privileged and our society is structured to maintain that privilege. I know what some are thinking and what some are saying. For some, it is I do not believe this. For some, it is what am I supposed to do? I know that is in part true because it was a question the reading group asked among ourselves.

When the killing of a black man in the streets of Minneapolis or of a black woman is killed in her bedroom in Louisville, many of us are aghast, but what does that change? I think many thought when we elected President Obama, racism was over. What a naïve thought. I think many of us one to believe that racism is a Southern thing or an inner-city thing. Racism is because we are afraid to admit our privilege. I know of black students, those attending Bloomsburg where I teach, who have a saying that it is not safe beyond the fountain. I know where then the monster truck show is in town at the fairgrounds, our students of color are warned to not go out by themselves. What does that say? Be honest with yourself for even a minute. While I am fortunate to live where I do, I can say that I am continually amazed by the number of Stars and Bars flags I see in this state, ironically when it was in this state (Gettysburg) that Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was stopped and that turned the Civil War. I have a colleague whose parent was born in the Pittsburgh area, but has spent significant time in the South, and as such refers to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression. All of this is really a precursor to what I believe we are facing as we move into the summer of 2020.

I do not remember such a simmering, smoldering, tinderbox in our cultural fabric since I was about 13 years old. That was the summer of 1968 and the April assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and an assassination of a second Kennedy brother had our country reeling. That along with the Têt Offensive, which did as much to push the United States into the realization that the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were willing and able to fight a war of attrition was a turning point in how the American public viewed what was happening in Southeast Asia. The previous summer of 1967 saw rioting across the country and it was particularly deadly in Newark and Detroit. Paradoxically, Dr. King spoke to a large crowd of mostly white people on March 31st of 1968 at the Washington National Cathedral (there were more than 4,000 people in attendance). He noted, “I don’t like to predict violence . . . but if nothing is done between now and June to raise ghetto hope,” King continued, “I feel this summer will not only be as bad but worse than last year” (Wills, 01Apr2008). He would be assassinated four days later. The four days following his assassination would rock our country again, and the political fallout would be witnessed at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago later that summer. President Lyndon Johnson, who is argued to be the Civil Rights President, would choose to not run for office again, which would push Bobby Kennedy to seek the Democrat’s party nomination, only to be assassinated himself. It seems the parallels of the Covid situation and now of incredible unrest, which I believe the unrest is appropriate (I am not saying I agree with looting, firebombing, and other violence.) as the number of times a black male has been killed by police seems to continue unabated. One of my former students posted what they would do if their child was to be killed by police. They did not mince words, and I know how serious they are. This is not a time for vitriol or foolishness. It is a time to step back and be honest with what we are dealing with.

It is now Sunday morning and I graduated from high school 47 years ago today. It is still incredible that I have been blessed to see that much life beyond those public school years. It was a different time. Some of what I noted above was happening then. Vietnam was supposedly wrapping up, but I would end up there two years later as a 19 year old to help with our evacuation. Iowa Beef Processors had quite a strike my senior year in high school over union wages, workers, and what should happen. And while the violence is nothing like we see happening now, I remember the anger my father had of people crossing picket lines to work. As a journeyman electrician, I grew up believing that the union was one of the few things available to protect the blue-collar, tradesperson. I have never lost that understanding, though it has perhaps been tempered. In the spirit of transparency, I am a member of our professor and coaches union, and I am proud to be such. I was a whole 28 days away from leaving for MCRD San Diego at that point. I had little idea about the larger world I was going into, but I believed it to be a good place. I believed that what I would do would help set me on a path that would provide yet unseen opportunity. To put it simply: I had a hopeful attitude and inquisitive mind. I knew, at least tangentially, there were difficulties, but the service did more than help me grow (I grew three inches and gained 25 pounds in bootcamp alone). It taught me how, as our drill instructor put it, there was only one color in the Marine Corp. It was olive drab. While we certainly had clicks: there were the cowboys; there were the brothers as they referred to themselves; there were Hispanics; and yes, there were those of us who were just there, hoping to get somewhere afterwards. To this day, I learned more about humanity and myself at that point. It was a bit coarse and matter of fact. If you have never watched the beginning of Full Metal Jacket, while many will find the language a bit offensive, it was how we were treated and the dialog is spot on. I still remember the first time I saw it and the person I was sitting with questioned if it was the first time I saw the movie. Indeed, it was the first time for the movie, but I had lived it a few times.

What I know 47 years later is much of the idealist fervor I had as that 17 year old is gone, but I refuse to despair. Are there serious issues for us all? That is an understatement. It seems everywhere I look, there is more than a slight reason for concern. When I grew up, serving in the Congress, imagining becoming the President, or now again, after yesterday, an astronaut was something to aspire to. Of the three, I think the astronaut would be still there. What is happening in Washington on a daily basis, on either side of the aisle is abhorrent. The lack of decorum and civility, the comments and what seems, unfortunately, to be necessary about labeling someone’s writing as suspect creates all sorts of problems: yes, from protected speech to the power of the words and why it seems we need to be warned. That is a topic for an entirely separate blog in and of itself. It is that I am wiser and see the connections and the complexity of what is happening? I wish it were that easy. I do see the connections and I certainly realize the complexity, but it seems we are content to live with the inherent inequity that permeates our country unless it affects us personally. The problem is it does affect us, even when we do not see the immediate consequence. When there is no hope, the future is tenuous at best. Then there is despair because you cannot protect the people you love, anger soon follows. Fear and anger are all encompassing, particularly when it seems there is no way to change things. We are facing another summer of questions, but these questions are not new. After I wrote about my student last night, I called them and told them how sorry I was that they had to worry about this for their black son in the world we live. They noted how they would have to educate them to protect themselves in this world. What a profound statement. All of us try to teach our sons and daughters, our children who identify in whatever way they believe to be safe and protect themselves, but what does it mean that parents have to teach some to learn how to respond when they are mistreated, discriminated, or abused by the very society they live in? No wonder there is despair, anger, and struggle. It seems we need to be honest about the change we need to make; it is a profound and all encompassing change. It is an incredibly different change, but if we can do it, we can move toward hope once again. When I was ordained, I had this song sung at my ordination, It seems appropriate to remember the words of St. Francis once again.

Thanks as always for reading.

Michael

Published by thewritingprofessor55

I am a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and the director of and Professional and Technical Writing minor, a 24 credit certificate for non-degree seeking people, and now a concentration in Professional Writing and Digital Rhetoric. We work closely to move students into a 4+1 Masters Program with Instructional Technology. I love my work and I am content with what life has handed me. I merely try to make a difference for others by what I share, write, or ponder through my words.

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