I Have Seen

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I will be seventy two years old when my birthday rolls around in November. In my lifetime I have seen:

  • Black men and women forced to sit in the back of a bus in which I was able to move around freely.
  • Signs on water fountains and bathrooms designating “White” and “Colored.”
  • Areas of my city designated as the “black” part of town.
  • Little Black children being sent to separate and unequal schools.
  • Restaurants and lunch counters where Black citizens were not allowed to eat.
  • Poll taxes and tests that restricted Black adults from voting.
  • An unspoken rule that Black people needed to leave certain places after sundown.
  • The lynching of Black men.
  • Groups of Black people protesting peacefully to procure their rights.
  • Black children courageously undergoing anger and derision for daring to integrate schools.
  • Black leaders being jailed and assassinated.
  • Black families being ignored and derided for moving into formerly white neighborhoods.
  • Black people enduring insults while taking full advantage of the educational system once it was finally open.
  • A Black man inaugurated as the President of the United States, loved by most and reviled by some.
  • A Black woman becoming one of the wealthiest and most highly respected people in the world.
  • Black people living on my street in harmony with the “United Nations” of our cul de sac.
  • Black people being stopped for traffic violations on an avenue near my home where officers seem to look the other way when the same infractions are committed by whites.
  • Black people ending up dead when they are stopped or arrested for minor non violent infractions.
  • Black people being shot by rogue citizens taking the law into their own hands.
  • A renowned Black professor being arrested and harassed for entering his own home.
  • Innocent Black souls being shot while they worshipped at church.
  • Black athletes kneeling during the National Anthem to demonstrate that Black Lives Matter.
  • A Black man being shot while jogging through a neighborhood.
  • A Black man pleading for his life while a police officer kneeled on his neck.

Even as I write this incomplete list of the history that I have witnessed my chest contracts and my stomach clinches while I fight to hold back tears of both sorrow and anger. Somehow I feel complicit in the unfair treatment of our Black population because I have watched it unfolding but done so little to make it go away. Now I see that we all must do everything within our power to eradicate the virus of racism that continues to fester in our midst. We can no more ignore the devastating death and destruction of discrimination than the we can pretend that Covid 19 is a hoax.

We cannot change history but we can undo the foul stench of prejudice in our midst. We have to call it what it is and quit pretending that it no longer exists. There is nothing good about self appointed vigilantes who shoot Black teenagers or joggers simply because they appear to be up to mischief. There is nothing good about police officers who hold a Black man down with a knee on the neck for five minutes while the captive cries out that he is dying and can’t breathe. There is nothing good about demonstrations of white people carrying guns and Confederate flags who are left alone even though their behavior is threatening. Somehow a Black man attempting to sell loose cigarettes ends up dead from an arrest but white people carrying Tiki torches and shouting Nazi slogans walk free and are even described as “good people” by the president.

Surely we can see how wrong these things are and how they fester and grow when we ignore a racist comment or refuse to admit that a problem of discrimination is still alive and well. Surely we must understand how frightening it must be for a Black mother to send her Black son out into a world in which an encounter with the wrong person may lead to his death. Surely we can understand the frustrations that an entire group of people in our country are feeling because the evidence is clear that there are people among us who only see color, not a real person with feelings and accomplishments and a loving family. Surely it is becoming clearer to us that for some Black lives don’t seem to matter as much as white ones. Surely we must work as hard as our Black friends and neighbors to eradicate prejudice and to celebrate each individual with dignity and respect.

I watched the movie Glory Memorial Day. There is a single scene in that movie that seems to encapsulate the fear and degradation and anger of the Black experience. The character portrayed by Denzel Washington is being punished for an infraction by being whipped. As he bears the pain of the lashes the camera zooms in on his face. His lips twitch and his nostrils flare as he attempts to control his feelings and demonstrate his courage and his pride as a man. Then as though he cannot control the emotions that lie within his heart a single tear rolls down his face. His humiliation is complete.

This week as I watched the killing of George Floyd I was stunned. For five minutes the cruelty that was inflicted on him was almost too horrific to watch, but I made myself endure every single second. Mr. Floyd begged for his life. He could not breathe. His body hurt all over. He pleaded that he was dying. Finally he called out for his Mama. All the while the loathsome police office who was pinning him down had his hand in his pocket and at one point he even appeared to apply even more pressure on Mr. Floyd’s neck. The other officers did nothing. Nobody came to Mr. Floyd’s aide.

Now it is up to us. We must all demand justice for Mr. Floyd. We must end the hate and call it out wherever and whenever we see it. The disease that continues to fester in our nation must be eradicated wherever we find it.    

Doing It Because It Is Kind

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The battles between those who want to wear masks and practice social distancing versus those who demand their right to choose how they will or will not protect themselves from Covid-19 rage on daily. Sadly some of the commentaries have devolved into schoolyard insults and taunts reminiscent of my years as a middle school teacher. While I am willing to accept that people have differing points of view, I can’t quite wrap my head around the behavior of those who shove, spit and threaten anyone who is attempting to follow the recommended and sometimes imposed safety guidelines. What is even more concerning to me are the insinuations that the procedures have only been enacted in order to defame President Trump and lessen his chances of winning the election in November. The chorus of thoughtless chants urging those who are” scared” to just stay home has irked me beyond my ability to continue to ignore them. Instead I feel more and more compelled the issue.

Let us suppose that there is a woman who faithfully goes to work each day to support her family. She has children who have not been in school for some time that she leaves in the care of her husband who lost his job in late February. Sadly he worked in the oil and gas industry tanked just at the moment when the pandemic reached worldwide proportions. It is now up to the woman to keep food on the table and pay the bills. She is quietly stoic as the world appears to be crumbling around her. She doesn’t sleep well at night and conditions at work do little to lessen her anxieties. 

Unfortunately the woman has a number of underlying health issues that worry her, so she wears a mask to work and brings gloves to use when she comes in contact with things that others may have also touched. She keeps disinfectants in her desk for when she must use the office bathroom. She is exceedingly careful because she knows that if she gets sick with Covid-19 her family will be in impossibly dire straits. She does not have the luxury of taking risks.

The other people in her office have become convinced that the whole pandemic is a hoax cooked up by fake new and democrats. They gather together in groups without regard to social distancing, never wearing  masks or gloves. They often disregard the woman’s obvious attempts to limit contact with others by getting way too close when they come into her office or pass her in the hall. They bring members of their family with them to the work making the environment even more crowded than it should be. They  leave during the work day to eat lunch in restaurants or to run errands at the mall. They boast that when they can get away with it they toss their masks aside. They look at the woman wearing her mask as though she is a silly goose, a paranoid mindless sheep.

The woman knows how her fellow workers feel and sometimes wonders if she is indeed paranoid. Then she thinks about her situation and sticks with her determination to be safe. Not only does she have underlying health problems but so does her husband and one of her children. She is also caring for elderly parents. She knows that she has to be vigilant.

The woman wishes that her coworkers, her boss,  and the rest of the people around her were taking Covid-19 more seriously because she is genuinely worried and realizes that nobody who is boasting about being unafraid is going to help her if she does somehow get sick. She is on her own.

She hears the people in her office chattering about the push to extend unemployment benefits beyond July. They sound like parrots as they insist that doing such a thing will only encourage people to stay home rather than accept a job and go back to work. She wonders where all of these jobs that will be offered to people like her husband will come from. He has been spending many hours every single day for almost three months now searching for work. So far he has had only one interview for a position thousands of miles away. In a normal time people would be recruiting him. Now he struggles to find anything and knows that he is competing with thousands when he does find a match to his degree and his experience. 

The woman sits quietly in her office faithfully completing her work and feeling profoundly sad that there are people who have taken the liberty of misinterpreting the situations of countless Americans rather than attempting to understand them. She has no problems with the idea of opening up country but she would like to see it done in a way that does not cause her so much worry. If only they would wear masks when they are all gather together or when they went out in public. It is such a little thing to request, not all that inconvenient.

She feels so very alone as the office sounds as though it is the site of a party. She knows that the others think she is strange. She actually hopes that they are right that we will all be fine, but something tells her that they are wrong. She has to pray that God will protect her in spite of the risky behaviors of her colleagues. She is the last hope for her family and the July deadline of increased unemployment benefits for her husband is on its way. She cannot get sick!

I do not understand why people find conforming to the needs of the common good to be so contemptible. Why are there so many inaccurate and judgemental conclusions being drawn about those who want to be precautious? Why can’t we Americans come together in a sense of compassion and responsibility? Social distancing and mask wearing are not tyrannical attempts to deny us of our basic rights. They are an effort to protect one another. While they may be imperfect methods for making us safe, they are better than doing nothing at all.

As we go to work, walk through stores, go back to old routines we should bear in mind that there are many people like my hypothetical woman. They desperately need kindness and a sense that people care enough about them to make an effort to keep them safe. Honor them by cheerfully wearing a mask and staying six feet away at all times. Don’t make fun of their precautions. They know best what they need.  Sometimes we must look beyond our own horizons and take action not because it is defined or undefined in the Constitution, but because it is the kind thing to do. 

Mass Confusion

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When I was still a pup of a teacher I decided to construct an elaborate system for managing the behavior of the students in my class. I created a bulletin board sized list of rules with consequences for those who chose not to follow them. I spent days attempting to drill my demands into the minds of my pupils. I tried to stop immediately to apply the proper warnings or punishments for infractions. Before long I was spending so much time on classroom management records that I was struggling to keep up with the lessons I had designed. My only way out was to begin ignoring or changing my original ideas or risk drowning in management paperwork. The atmosphere in the class was strained and a kind of student led anarchy became the mode of operation. With great frustration I went to my principal for guidance. What I learned from her would prove to be effective for all of the days of my career as an educator

Her first bit of advice was that I keep things simple by listing only the rules that were essential and then applying them uniformly. She told me that once I allowed students to take over my classroom it would be extremely difficult to get back control of the situation, so she suggested that I think long and hard before putting anything in writing. She cautioned that wavering would mean that my students would just do whatever they wanted to do and not listen to me ever again. She also promised to back me up once my new and improved system was in place. 

I took her advice and limited my behavioral guidance to four basic rules. I went over them with my students explaining the reasons for each of them and allowing the kids to ask questions. Then I made certain that they were followed. Things settled down and before long my management system was on autopilot and we were all much happier.

I’ve thought about that with regard to the directives that we have received from both the federal government and the state and city administrations regarding how to proceed during the pandemic. Sadly the chain of guidance has broken down. One day we are told that masks are worthless and the next the instructions tell us to wear them. Certain businesses have been closed but when someone protests by opening up despite the decrees the powers that be who initiated the closures don’t enforce their own regulations. The federal government outlines a remarkably sensible procedure for opening states and cities but when those guidelines are ignored the president almost seems delighted. Our country feels like the wild west with maskless groups protesting with guns, Confederate flags and disgusting signs in defiance of the edicts. Little wonder that there are actually people who believe that the danger is over and that probably it was never there to begin with. The government has created a state of citizen anarchy much like the one that developed in my classroom when I kept changing and overlooking rules.

Even I was beginning to question the safety measures that I have been dutifully following. When I go out wearing my mask I am lucky to encounter anyone else who is buying into the idea of using protective gear. At least for now most stores are still requiring such things but I wonder how long they will be able to hold their customers to their demands when the government pronouncements are literally ignored from one day to the next.

I was beginning to feel as though somebody was gaslighting me and I honestly could not decide who it might be. I questioned my own thinking so I finally contacted some doctors that I implicitly trust to see what kind of advice they had. It was like asking for counsel from my principal of long ago and I was ultimately comforted by what they told me.

According to my doctors, who are highly regarded professionals in their specialties, the numbers of cases in my area continue to rise and they are concerned by the numbers of  people who are refusing to adhere to the guidelines of wearing masks and avoiding close contact with others. For that reason they have advised me to continue to mostly shelter in place until further notice. They believe that the number of cases and deaths that we are seeing are being fueled by people who ignore the guidelines and leaders who look the other way when they see that happening. Local governments where numbers are still higher than they should be are being left holding the bag. The buck is being passed from one person to the next with nobody wanting to get caught with it when the music stops. The coordinated efforts and supports from federal to state to local government are lacking and it is causing massive confusion, especially when guidelines are continually being tossed aside only days after they have been enacted.

Add to that, there is a growing ugliness surrounding the massive confusion that has become far too prevalent. People are being ridiculed and insulted for doing what they think is right or need to do. I’ve been told that I should leave Texas and take my ideas to California or Washington State just because I mentioned that I wear a mask when I go outside of my home and make contact with others. I see women holding signs that suggest that wearing a mask is like a muzzle that should only be worn by slaves and dogs and I am horrified. I truly worry for my country when there is no leader willing to be the adult and rein in the disgusting demonstrations by calling them what they are rather than giving them a thumbs up by noting that such folks are good people. 

The doctors tell me that there will be more illness and death to come. We may have to deal with it while also attempting to repair our ailing economy. People need to pick up the pieces of their lives while staying relatively safe at the same time. This can be done in tandem if our leaders model the behaviors that they want us to follow. They must create a plan, stick with it and encourage unity not just among the citizens but in the halls of leadership as well. Our future may depend on how well or how badly they manage to do that.

Hoping For the Best

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When I was a teen there was a song that advocated living for today. The whole idea was to set aside worries and enjoy the moment. It was a kind of rebellious chant against the work ethic that seemed to be driving our country into a state of anxiety and materialism. Many young people, myself included, began to question the way things had always been done and wonder if there were possibilities that might create a more equitable and prosperous life for everyone, not just the power elites.

Of course there was nothing really new about youthful indulgence into utopian thinking. It’s something that has characterized teens and twenty somethings for centuries. Some of the most revolutionary and profound ideas in history came from young people who had grown weary of the status quo. So too did I envision a world free of prejudice, poverty and artificial hierarchies. I was more than ready to rebel against the lack of freedoms and opportunities for minorities, women and the poor. In some ways my generation lit the fires that evoked change for the better but as so often happens we became distracted and burdened by the responsibilities of life. Soon enough we were the people over thirty whom we had distrusted. Like so many before us we settled into the rat race and focused on our families and our occupations. We had little time for philosophizing or inventing new ways of doing things.

Now my generation is old and only tenuously maintaining a hold on the power to influence. Yes, our president is from my age group and so is his presumed opponent for the job, but it is apparent that a younger group will soon enough be taking over the reins. In the meantime most of the folks my age have retired from work and are spending much deserved moments enjoying however many years they may have left on this earth. With more time to consider such topics we sometimes ponder our accomplishments and worry that perhaps we might have done more to leave a kinder more promising legacy to our children and grandchildren. After all, what is really the purpose of our day to day existence if not to make a difference?

The last twenty years have been plagued by terror, wars, economic turmoil, extremes of climate and the emergence of hate groups that had been long festering underground. We are as divided as a nation as we were in the sixties and seventies of my youth. Perhaps we are even beginning to understand how life was for our great grandparents who found themselves engaged in a civil war. It has been challenging to watch the deterioration of our relationships that is often fueled by the very people who should be bringing us together. It is particularly sad for those of us who invested so much energy into the idea of making our country an inviting place for everyone regardless of who they might be. Now without warning we are dealing with what may well be the most damaging moment of our history.

Covid-19 has further accented our rifts and made it more clear than ever that we have issues that are still to be resolved. As I sit inside my home at the age of seventy one I grieve for the world, but most implicitly for my nation. I can see that we are not united at all and that our differences seem to be widening rather than mending. We are too much guided by fear and basic needs to work for a self actualized version of our nation. Because we want quick fixes we appear to be placing bandaids on our wounds rather than attempting to understand and heal the root causes of our problems.

When we only react rather than create rational plans we are bound to overlook the pitfalls of our decisions. I feel certain that the vast majority of people want what is best for everyone but in our hour of uncertainty we appear to be allowing those who are the loudest and most aggressive to determine our fates. Instead of putting the best medical and business minds together we are pitting them with one another as though we can’t be safe from the ravages of Covid-19 while also keeping our economy moving as robustly as possible. It has become a them against us free for all in which we witness people hoarding and scrambling for crumbs, all while taunting and insulting anyone who disagrees with whatever they happen to believe.

I have seen this kind of behavior before. It was very much a sign of the times during my youth. Then it was called the generation gap. It meant choosing sides between those who served in Vietnam and those who were against the war. It involved a pretense of fairness when certain races were segregated from the freedoms that the rest of us enjoyed. It kept women from thriving in engineering schools or colleges of architecture. Anyone who disagreed with the status quo of the country was told to “love it, or leave it.” It was not the romanticized era to which so many want to return.

We made some progress for many people but we became weary of the fight. We let down our guard and became self satisfied while new difficulties emerged. Our children and grandchildren kept warning us that there was till much work to be done but we only laughed at their intensity and reminded them that we all feel that way for a time and then get over it. Now I see that getting over it can be a dangerous thing. It leaves us unready and vulnerable when we do not work together to build and repair the foundations of our nation. We revert to partisan thinking and the hateful ways engendered by fear.

I am worried but not so much for me anymore. I am fearful of what my children and grandchildren will have to endure because we appear to be so incapable of setting aside our differences in a time of need. I am worried because so many are unwilling to sacrifice to get us all through of our difficulties. I worry when I see protestors threatening with guns. I worry when I hear insulting and racist comments fall so easily from people’s tongues. I worry because I see fear and ignorance and politics guiding decisions.

I have always been both fascinated and inspired by a story about the great depression in my city of Houston. Unlike other places the banks here never closed. As the tale goes the movers and shakers of the city met with Jesse Jones in the Rice Hotel and they agreed that instead of working in competition with one another they would join forces to make certain that nobody would have to go out of business. While times were nonetheless tough they indeed managed to keep most of the commerce working if only in a lesser form of itself. It was the understanding that saving as many people as possible was better than attempting to emerge as a single victor that kept the Houston economy working better than in most locales.

My daily prayer is that we will find a way to emulate cooperation and send a loud message to those who would have us fight among ourselves. We can emerge with cuts and scrapes or we can risk being mortally wounded. The difference will be determined by how willing we are to work together. I hope we find a way to make that happen.

We Can’t Keep Looking Away

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I have a grandson who is a runner. Seeing him gracefully striding around a track is a thing of beauty, the ultimate vision of human endurance and grace. He has a particular racing style that reminds me of a gazelle and I never tire of watching him in action.

This would have been a record breaking year for him but sadly after only a few track meets the season ended when schools were closed due to the virus. He has continued to run each day nonetheless. Those moments when he is able to feel the wind on his face and achieve a feeling of being totally in sync with the world have been good for him. They allow him to forget about the troubles we are facing if only for a few minutes each day.

I thought of my grandson when I first heard of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia by two men claiming to have taken him down under suspicion of being a thief on the run. When I eventually saw the video of Ahmaud in his last moments I was stunned. I saw his jogger’s stride before he encountered his attackers. This was not the furtive motion of someone evading capture. It was most certainly the pace of a seasoned runner who was pursuing a most innocent pastime. He must have been terrified as he realized what was happening and he struggled unsuccessfully to get away from the danger. Watching the film is exceedingly difficult and heart wrenching but we cannot look away from it because it holds a truth that we must face.

Of course there is a difference between my grandson and Ahmaud that is striking. Ahmaud was a black man while my grandson has blonde hair and blue eyes. Ahmaud had a lovely smile that lit up his face, but those vigilantes who became judge, jury and executioner without even a consideration of evidence would never have seen his sweetness. The color of his skin and the fact that he was running was all they needed to know.

Sadly they got away with their crime for a time. Law enforcement accepted their story and seemingly decided the case was closed. Ahmaud might have been just another casualty of racism, the victim of a lynching, had not his mother continued to question the circumstances surrounding her son’s death. Eventually videos of the scene that had been filmed by passersby emerged providing an unavoidable clarity for determining what had actually happened. Over seventy days later the two men were arrested.

My daughter says that she does not worry when my grandson runs in the neighborhood. He is a good boy and almost everyone knows him, but she understands that if she and he were black she would be terrified each time that he set out from home with his track shoes. We still have far too many in our country who seem to believe that color, not character defines people. They are suspicious of anyone who does not fit the stereotypes of their minds and sadly too many among us excuse their flawed thinking. It is easier to look away when people spew their hate and sometimes even our leaders attempt to cover the ugliness of such actions by insisting that those who spread their foul beliefs are really just good people who are frustrated or feeling left out.

As humans we often feel so uncomfortable confronting truth. When athletes kneel during the National Anthem to shed light on the racism that still exists we tend to ignore or insult them. On the whole we are unwilling to admit that there is a double standard that lurks beneath the veneer of our society. Groups among us will become enraged when a white hairdresser is jailed for flaunting restrictions during our pandemic, but they can’t see the reasoning behind the Black Lives Matter movement. If groups of minorities protest it is often called a riot but if gun toting white men scream in the faces of state troopers because they do not want to be restricted by pandemic rules even our president applauds them for fighting against tyranny. Then those same folds scratch their heads in wonder when any minority feels beset upon.

I’ve been having a difficult time maintaining my usual optimism for the past couple of weeks. I am witnessing a level of anger and ugliness that I have not seen since my high school and college days when we were engaged in a struggle to end segregation and a war in Vietnam that had gone so very wrong. It was a frightening time during which the curtain that had been hiding the rot that festered in our nation was drawn wide open. A schism rocked the country and we all found ourselves either choosing sides or averting our glances and joining the silent majority. When the dust finally settled we were eager to just go back to a more normal state, but far too much had simply been swept under the rug where it has been sitting ever since becoming foul. Somehow our nation’s biggest mistakes have never been properly faced and rectified. We are still too afraid to admit that while we have freed the people whose ancestors were wrongfully enslaved and even given them the rights that we take for granted they are still struggling to be free from judgement and persecution. We have yet to adequately call out the racism that exists in corners of our society and because of that it only tends to grow.

I realize that we will never be able to eradicate hatred. It is been a part of the human experience since Cain killed Abel. All across the globe one group fights with another. What we can do is call out those who flaunt their racism in the public square. We must insist that our leaders deride any person or group who discriminates and foments violence against a particular group. We have to quit categorizing individuals based on the characteristics of color or ethnicity or sexual preference or religion and we need to voice our disdain for those who do.

Our future in the coming weeks and months is uncertain but while we are rebuilding our economy we would do well to consider insisting that our leaders understand that we have grown weary of accepting a status quo that still allows stereotyping. We need to finally speak up. Looking away is no longer an option.