THE BLACK AND WHITE OF US
The police in South Florida who used the mugshots of black teens, taken years ago when the teens were arrested, didn’t see any problem in using the photos for target practice. They never considered that those boys are now men living lives they are proud of. They never considered that the bullet-ridden mugshots would be found by the sister of one of those men. Their response was that it’s common practice for police to use photos of real people for target practice (it isn’t.) One of them also said they should have destroyed the mugshots after they shot them up, as if that was their only mistake. It would have been bad if white men’s photos were also used, but the fact that it was only black men is worse.
Racism doesn’t always show itself with fiery explosions of hatred and rage. Sometimes it strolls in with utter indifference. That can be even more frightening, because if you feel absolutely nothing for another human being, you can do anything to them and never give it a second thought. That individual is as meaningless as dust to you, and conscience is just an unheard echo.
In the 80’s, when my father was president, I was supporting myself with (mostly small) acting roles. In the summers I would try and get jobs doing “Summer Stock”” — theater productions that lasted for a few weeks but paid well. One summer I got a play in Birmingham, Alabama. Obviously, I was not just an actress — I was the First Daughter, and the older white patrons of the theater where I was performing had an agenda for me.
“Please tell people,” a white-haired woman said, “that in the 60’s with all those riots, the “Neegras” were paid to go out there and demonstrate. We treated our Neegras well, they had no complaints until the agitators came and offered them money…”
This went on sporadically for the 3 weeks that I was there and, miraculously, I held my tongue each and every time. Until the final night, after the last performance, when the cast was invited to a dinner at the plantation home of the white-haired lady and her husband. As a slender black woman in a starched uniform who was probably in her seventies served us dinner, her employer began again, but this time used her as part of her argument. “Why, Ella has been with us for years and years, she is part of the family. Those agitators came and paid her people five dollars each to go out there and make trouble…” I looked at Ella’s face — the lines of time etched on her skin, her careful eyes brimming with history and unspoken words, and I decided to finally respond. I asked the woman of the house if she took Ella to her Country Club, since she said she was like a family member. I asked if the black demonstrators got paid extra to have their heads bashed in, or be pummeled with fire hoses. I said no one risks their life for five bucks. My co-star kicked me under the table, took away my wine glass, and hissed, “Stop it, or they’ll shoot us on the tarmac tomorrow. I’d like to get home in one piece.”
The point of telling this story is, I don’t think that Southern woman and her husband were cruel people.I doubt they mistreated Ella or anyone else. But they also didn’t recognize them as human beings, worthy of the same respect and dignity that they demanded in their own lives. You don’t have to burn a cross on someone’s lawn to be considered a racist; you just have to close off your heart until it’s narrow as a blade. You just have to marginalize an entire race of people as easily as you turn the page of a newspaper.
On this, Martin Luther King’s birthday, it’s a good idea to remember his wisdom. “Morality cannot be legislated,” he said. “But behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart but they can restrain the heartless.” These are, by any standards, heartless times. There is a dividing line between black and white — a wound across this country that never healed. There is also a dividing line between the heartless and the open-hearted. It’s the same line.