A white woman friend was recently on the subway when a black man sat next to her with his mask lowered just below his nose. A senior citizen who takes every precaution to avoid infection from COVID-19, she stood and walked to an empty seat at the other end of the car. As she did, another black man called to her, “If you’re that scared, lady, go take a walk.”
For me, this incident merged concerns about racial discord and the pandemic in a single event. We all know the virus travels in moisture through air. We all know both mouth and nose must be covered if masks are to have any effect. People who either don’t wear masks or who only partially cover their mouths and noses are defying the guidelines. They’re being provocative. In this case, considering how COVID-19 has ravaged communities of color, projecting anger in this manner is just plain baffling.
This is how the essay I’ve been working on for a week begins. My concern has been that it might be construed as blaming the victims. How could I risk reinforcing that impression after all the events of the past year? I think of the efforts to suppress the black vote, such as by various states cutting back on polling stations in heavily Democratic minority areas in order to make it harder to travel to them and generate discouraging long lines. In fact, African-Americans fought through these obstacles and made the difference in the November general and January Georgia elections. And how could black people not be angry after the video of George Floyd’s death and the instances of other police abuse and malfeasance? But one unfortunate side-effect of all these hardships and injustices is that sympathetic people take any seemingly inconsistent views underground. We want nothing to do with right-wing extremists and white supremacists. Talk about anger. No group is angrier than embittered whites, as Wednesday’s storming of the Capitol demonstrated. But I believe the point I hope to make is worthwhile, if I can get it right. So I continue.
I was driven to start this essay on reading a recent New York Times opinion piece that contends there are two reasons why movements toward racial equality have failed in the past: one, white backlash; the other, the cyclical shift from communitarian to individualism, from “we” to “I.” No question, the civil rights momentum of the sixties gave way to white backlash and the notorious “Me generation” of the seventies. However, I believe the authors, Shaylyn Romney Garrett and Robert D. Putnam, overlook a third reason: how, back in the sixties and seventies, voices of anger drowned out voices of moderation. Martin Luther King, the man justly so revered that his name is given to a national holiday, had a nearly 75% disapproval rating by the end of his abbreviated life, according to polls in 1968. A lot of that hostility came from other African-Americans. I vividly remember him being vilified by black activists in the late sixties and early seventies. Malcolm X had earlier called him an “Uncle Tom,” and militant black leaders continued to denounce his advocacy of nonviolence.
The grounds for black frustration and anger haven’t gone away. African-Americans remain at a disadvantage when it comes to education and job opportunities. Prejudice and discrimination persist and have real effects. At a certain point, the only reaction left is anger. It has a place. It can act as a motivator and energizer. It can lead to the repeal of discriminatory laws and enactment of more constructive ones. At the same time, anger is an inevitable reaction when people can’t take control over their own destiny. Because whites are this country’s majority and have dominated for several hundred years, African-Americans are stuck waiting for us to get beyond cyclical patterns of addressing and then distancing ourselves from racial injustice.
All that said, rightly or wrongly, fairly or not, black anger can hurt the cause. It can turn irrational and self-destructive.
Living with disability has acquainted me with the anger that bubbles up from pent-up frustration. I’ll give an example. Fifteen years ago, as our foreign-airline plane waited for takeoff, a flight attendant ordered my now wife, Laura, and me to switch seats so that I would be next to the window and Laura at the aisle. From the window seat Laura could not only look outside, but also report what she saw. I demanded an explanation. The courteous flight attendant apologized, saying only that it was “regulations.” I had to infer an assumption that blind people not only can’t see, they also can’t move fast. Laura shares my annoyance at nonsensical rules directed at disabled people, but she, too, dislikes public scenes. I stood up, and we switched seats. The flight attendant then told me to buckle my seatbelt. How I responded didn’t require Laura’s participation, so I felt free to refuse and did so. The flight attendant got upset at my violation of another airline rule, this one not so nonsensical. Pointedly ignoring her entreaties, I turned to face the window and hummed tunelessly. True, childish. Not only would the flight attendant have been put off, but I assume other passengers were as well. Giving up on me as departure time approached, she left. Did I then buckle my seatbelt? I hope I had that much sense.
I feel embarrassment about that incident, but not regret. Embarrassment and regret usually go hand in hand. But in the face of absurdity, when some far-removed decision-makers unfairly interfere with my peace of mind, I’d rather protest than be a passive disabled guy who never rocks the boat and so doesn’t get what he needs or wants.
When it comes to black anger, I’ve been on the other side. As one example, a year ago January, when we still mixed in public places, I was waiting in a lab site for a blood test when the man in the armchair next to mine rested his elbow on my chair’s arm. I learned from his voice when he spoke to the receptionists that he was a young African-American. Feeling cramped for space, I edged my elbow to that chair arm, but his didn’t move. Later, my blood taken, I unfolded my white cane and got up to leave, only to discover he had extended his legs far out into the aisle, forcing me to walk around him.
I shouldn’t have had to go through the mental process of deciding whether asking him to move his elbow and then feet would initiate a confrontation. I write that even knowing that it risks being construed as racist, since it assumes that a man aggressive enough to invade my space would be anything less than receptive to a polite request.
For the record, the vast majority of my encounters with African-Americans have left me with good feelings. Once again, I’ll give just one recent example. A receptionist with a Caribbean accent at a local hospital that had me in the land of Catch-22 went out of her way to make sure I connected with a certain department. I told her I owed her. I felt awkward saying it, recognizing it might sound patronizing. She replied, “I’m only doing for you what I’d hope you’d do for me.”
I remember a black colleague at the office telling me about his own experience, familiar to too many black people, of being pulled over for no good reason by traffic police. When you care about someone, you feel it personally if they are treated shabbily, even cruelly, and then the events we hear about on the news come into sharp focus.
After the anger of the late sixties and early seventies, and then the navel-gazing the rest of that decade, we ran into political correctness. One way of seeing political correctness is as a white passive-aggressive response to black anger.
Once again, it’s a recent New York Times article that calls this phenomenon to mind. A black high school student circulated a copy of a three-second video in which a white girl had used the so-called “N-word.” The video was made in 2016, when the girl had been fifteen, but the classmate waited to upload his copy until the moment it could do her harm: after she’d been admitted to college last spring. The boy’s rationale was that administrators had apparently ignored casual racist comments in their majority-white high school and that the girl’s video was a rare instance of provable racism. The article suggests that the boy’s action at long last galvanized them into addressing it. Meanwhile, the uproar led the university to revoke its offer to the white girl.
Most readers will see both sides of this issue. Still, white readers are likely to feel a touch more sympathy for the girl, seeing her video as a single mistake made at a young age that should be forgiven and forgotten. Meanwhile, black readers might see one more privileged white girl (who, by the way, lives in a gated community) losing a small battle in the war that is life. White people like me aren’t subjected to this level of daily disparagement. On the other hand, that one white girl will pay a personal price for years to come.
This pattern has become all too familiar. Blacks provoke a reaction in order to shake white people into seeing their racism. Whites then retreat into political correctness, in this case by reversing that white girl’s college acceptance.
Setting aside all the emotional and historical baggage, two conclusions from that incident are clear: It’s crucial that schools be respectful environments for all students, and it’s wrong to pummel an eighteen-year-old for something she did three or four years earlier, an epoch in a teenager’s development. Why is this so hard to say?
Political correctness evolved from our legitimate desire to fight words and actions that needlessly hurt people but that were once acceptable. But it has morphed into damaging self-censorship. What black people say to each other and whites to each other is often more honest than what we say in public. Indeed, as social beings, we often can’t afford to be as direct as we might like. Even when tempted to speak openly, most of us don’t have the stamina for confrontation, never mind any desire to have our pictures, names and addresses splattered all over the Web as evidence either of our victimhood (African-Americans) or our racism (whites). Ironic for a country that put freedom of speech into its constitution.
But in our writing, an activity between just ourselves and our pen or monitor, we shouldn’t shy away from reasonable expression of the obvious. Reviewing Karl Ove Knausgaard’s current book of essays, Dwight Garner quotes the author: “’What happens to a society … when it stops addressing what it knows to exist and yet refuses to acknowledge?’” Knausgaard goes on to assert: “You never see a writer risk anything in public.”
Here’s the simple truth. Vaccines, fairer income distribution, accessible healthcare, anti-discrimination laws and other government-level measures are critical to solving our pandemic and race problems. However, in our daily interactions all of us—whites, blacks, people with disabilities—also need to approach each other civilly with a reasonable level of honesty. Really, it’s that simple. And also that complicated, since a society that is fair to all ultimately depends on each of us—the hundreds of millions of us—as individuals.