ON THE AVENUES: Structural racism, white fragility, and my old school.


In my previous life as a thoughtful and periodically fashionable essayist, one forever attuned to local foibles and frivolity, there’d be so very much to write about, right about … now.

Alas, those days are gone.

For example, I might be considering the ham-fisted, forced resettlement of the kulaks – wait, wrong word; I meant “residents” of Riverview Tower as part of a yet-to-be-revealed master plan for the structure’s implosion, annexation, luxurious playpen refurbishment for the enrichment of our design and engineering caste, or all three, quite spectacularly.

But I can’t comment.

Conversely, taking cues from my old, discredited ways, I could be considering the ongoing, benumbed silence of the city’s leading element, this glaring absence of our local Democratic Party’s ruling elite from virtually all major questions of the day during the past six months, from pandemic disarray through racial and social justice protests, not to omit the indie business segment’s increasing problems, rampant vehicular mayhem on city streets, and the Tree Board’s leading role in rampant deforestation.

Seeing as none of them have uttered a peep, I’ll happily follow suit. My lips? Think of them as seals.

It’s just water under the justice’s I-64 bridge, and in spite of all that’s going down – and I mean WAAAAAY DOWN given the GOP death cult’s cocaine-fueled subterranean spiral – in this failed city, tucked inside a failed nation-state, located on a rapidly failing planet where Mother Nature is belching rather viciously in our general direction, traffic on the bridge in question stands to be disrupted for years to come, and of course if we’d bothered setting up the city to accommodate multi-modal transportation options, these disruptions might not be so damaging, but we haven’t, and they will be.

As yet our “leaders” are not unlike clams, and accordingly, you won’t hear a word from me.

After all, I’m retired. It’s someone else’s job to try locating a pulse. Many of you, at least the minority capable of rational thought, are wearing pandemic masks. I’ve chosen to double insulate, augmenting my contagion-containing fabric with a free-expression-free, anchor-logo chain mail muzzle, and it’s quite cozy.

There’s a void in the coverage area, but maybe the News and Tribune will fill this gap in truth-telling, because as we all know, laughter really is the best medicine, especially when reading Pastor May’s weekly old white guy theocracy sermon.

So much for the preamble. Last week’s writing therapy session was long even by the standards of this admittedly wordy weekly column.

ON THE AVENUES: When love and hate collide – or, my father and the governor.

It’s very strange what you remember, and what you don’t. At times, it can be downright debilitating. The ghosts wobble, but they don’t fall down.

And yet it was short in the sense that undertaking to distill one’s formative youthful experiences into words, whether 3 or 3,300, is at best a challenge, and probably impossible. Those weeks and years of external stimuli, so very long ago, burrowed artfully into a still developing brain. A handful of episodes stand out in the memory, but detailed contact tracing is almost impossible.

Hence my fascination, five decades later, at what it meant to be propagandized with blatant racism as a youth during George Wallace’s presidential campaigns, although it must be noted that by the time of my father’s enthused espousal of the Alabama governor’s cause in 1968, I’d already been exposed to the contagion of racism for the entirety of my eight years of life.

It matters not one bit whether the exposure was overt, because that’s what structural racism is all about. It’s pervasive. Here’s one definition of many, courtesy of the Urban Institute.

Throughout this country’s history, the hallmarks of American democracy – opportunity, freedom, and prosperity – have been largely reserved for white people through the intentional exclusion and oppression of people of color. The deep racial and ethnic inequities that exist today are a direct result of structural racism: the historical and contemporary policies, practices, and norms that create and maintain white supremacy.

At the Urban Institute, we examine how structural racism continues to disproportionately segregate communities of color from access to opportunity and upward mobility by making it more difficult for people of color to secure quality education, jobs, housing, healthcare, and equal treatment in the criminal justice system.

I can’t argue. Structural racism is irrefutable, and the inescapable corollary is this: “White people need to accept that they’re racist. All white people.” Here’s Kelli Maria Korducki with more at Medium:

Very few people would call themselves racist, and getting called out on racist behavior tends to elicit defensiveness. This reflex is so culturally ingrained that its scripts are practically punchlines: “I don’t see color.” “Some of my very best friends are Black” …

… In her bestselling 2018 book, White Fragility, the author and academic Robin DiAngelo argues that one of the functions of White privilege is to advance the myth that racism is an individual sin, as opposed to a collective indoctrination. “[T]he way we are taught to define racism makes it virtually impossible for White people to understand it,” she writes. “Given our racial insulation, coupled with misinformation, any suggestion that we are complicit in racism is a kind of unwelcome and insulting shock to the system.”

By framing racism as the scourge of an ignorant few, White people skirt the uncomfortable work of interrogating the perks of their own Whiteness and confronting the structures that uphold those perks. White privilege allows White people to believe that because they grew up poor, or have Black friends, or are descended from European immigrants who were once viewed as non-White, they themselves are exempt from White privilege — and, by extension, innocents in the perpetuation of racism.

DiAngelo proposes that we instead think of racism as a worldview that’s inevitably formed, and reinforced, by a racist society whose institutions deem Whiteness as a neutral standard. Instead of imagining themselves on either side of a bad/good binary of racist or not racist, she suggests that all White people reimagine themselves as occupying a movable position on a continuum of racism.

It probably isn’t possible to totally escape that continuum, she says; racism is so deeply embedded in society that it informs every facet of our experience and perspective. But by moving away from the binary framework, DiAngelo writes, White people can free themselves from the question of whether or not they are racist and instead ask themselves whether they are actively challenging racism as they go about their lives.

I’m quoting others today only because my own words haven’t yet come to me fully formed. Listening and learning is like being back in school, or stumbling through a new language. I’ll get there eventually. Until I do, I’ll turn to those who are better than me at making the case.

Did you know that 110 years ago, the youthful Marx Brothers had a vaudeville routine called “Fun in Hi Skule”?

As an observer notes, it might have been called “Fun with Ethnic Stereotypes,” with the brothers and other actors portraying Germans, Italians, Jews, and the Irish. Jokes also were directed at gays.

At least no one wore blackface.

My most recent high school reunion was the 40th, which took place in 2018. I’ve attended at least a portion of most previous get-togethers, but two years ago I didn’t. My interest waned in the run-up, and that’s unusual for me as someone with an interest in history and a strong desire to record it.

I plead extenuating circumstances as they pertain to the lesser of two reasons for being a no-show, and that’s because I was uncharacteristically busy.

Pints&union was in the run-up to launching, and there were things that needed to be done. The pub’s prospective opening made me nervous, even if I wasn’t the owner. You’ll recall that I’d been entirely out of the food and drink game for three years, and getting back into the swing of things at my advanced age took effort, albeit more mental than physical.

Another factor was lingering annoyance with my 35-year reunion in 2013, when I hosted a segment of the gathering at Bank Street Brewhouse. It transpired that an actual friend, with whom I’d spent much quality time during school daze (both high school and university), arrived at BSB loaded, whether literally or figuratively, and went out of his way to embarrass himself and me in front of my staff members, one of whom proposed to clean my friend’s clock.

I was tempted to give him permission.

To be sure, everyone has bad nights. What’s more, his ingratitude shouldn’t have mattered. In point of fact, he always was something of an asshole, which goes a long way toward explaining our friendship, given that I was (and remain) an asshole.

However, by 2016, it had become abundantly clear that my friend was in fact a born-again Trumpian bile spewer, filled to the brim with MAGA, outspoken and abrasive on the typically anti-social media platform of Facebook.

That ghost of George Wallace, yet again flatulent.

And this became a problem for me in 2018 as the class reunion approached. Facebook made crystal clear which of my former classmates were in sync with my values in socio-political terms, and which had spent the intervening decades gulping the toxic Kool-Aid.

The accounting kept coming back to me. I was not looking back in anger. It wasn’t about malice. None of it made me mad. We’re all individuals, and while I found myself in disagreement with many of them (not all, of course), I tried to bear in mind that it was just a disagreement. This helped.

However, it was harder to escape the sadness.

Granted, the high school experience is ridiculously romanticized and vastly overrated. It was more pain than pleasure for me, and really, you’d have to be applying several coats of rose-colored revisionism to celebrate those often maddening, frustrating years.

And yet, in spite of it, I look back on people and phases with satisfaction and even affection, hence the morose melancholy gripping me in 2018. In the end I didn’t attend the reunion, precisely because I’d prefer to remember these folks the way they were, not grapple internally with what they had become.

It’s as simple as that.

In high school most of the kids were apolitical, ignorant, and many times politically incorrect. On the whole, we shared the same goals, trying to make sense of adolescence and impending adulthood, figuring out what would come next, out there in the real world – as I understand it now, a world filled with racism, intolerance, greed and naked ambition.

I’d rather remember them the way they – we – were.

Recent columns:

August 20: ON THE AVENUES: When love and hate collide – or, my father and the governor.

August 13: ON THE AVENUES: In My Merry Oldsmobile.

August 6: ON THE AVENUES: Surrender.

July 30: ON THE AVENUES: Guys.