Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Devil You Know

York, England Signpost
Leonard Pitts of The Miami Herald wrote an article called Fifty years after Little Rock. It is the story of how the US Army had to escort nine American children to school, in order to protect them "from a mob of American adults screaming blood and murder at their attempt to attend an American school. Because the adults had pale skin and the children's skin was dark."

The article continued:

"From the vantage point of half a century, it seems an absurd drama. You shake your head at the fatuity of the adults in the old news footage, their mouths twisted, fists clenched, eyes alight, and you marvel that they were driven to such a fury, such a madness, by so innocuous an event. You wonder what in the world they could have been thinking....

"We always expect evil to look different, obvious. We are always anticipating the pointed ears and the pitchfork, the black stovepipe hat and the Snidely Whiplash mustache. The truth, however, is that evil is rather banal. You might pass it five times a day and never recognize it for what it is.

"The pale men and women who took to the streets of Little Rock, Ark., in 1957 would have been, in the overwhelming majority, Christian people. They paid their taxes. They helped the poor. They visited the sick. They held hands over hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance. They were decent folks, yet they had this evil belief that people with dark skin were of a savage, yet simultaneously childlike, lower order...

"If you had suggested to them that this was wrong, they would have looked at you askance, maybe even laughed, and wondered what was wrong with 'you.' Because they knew they were right, they knew it in their bones, knew it in their Bibles, knew it with certitude, knew it beyond all question...

"Five decades later there is...the self-deluding conceit of a generation that is pleased to think of itself as enlightened beyond history, pleased to look back on past events and tsk-tsk the behavior of the poor, benighted souls who lived through them."

In 1960 my parents put our house up for sale. An American couple, of Japanese descent, made an offer. Our very decent and religious neighborhood passed around a petition and presented it to my folks, with dozens of signatures protesting the sale of the house to this family of a different race. The same situation was happening all around our city at the time. The couple withdrew their offer and moved somewhere else. The familiar devil was making an appearance.

Prejudice because of race is old news, now. It's the devil we recognize. In his red suit and pointy ears, he's too obvious, and we're learning not to let him in, or at least we know to be quiet about it. However there are a lot of sneaky little devils running around without their pitchforks, wearing jeans and t-shirts, or suits and ties. They appear normal, and they advocate a more politically-correct kind of prejudice. Something on our level. As a result, our associations with people are much more polite, but just as judgmental. The certainty of "we're better than them" is still front and center on the evil agenda.

I don't have answers here. My conscience was pricked by the article and I recognized myself as part the generation who thinks we've learned the lessons that will prevent massive social revolt over prejudice in the future. I think it would do me some good to analyze my feelings towards people who are different than I am, forget the rumors and misconceptions, and find out for myself.

We all belong to groups: Ethnic, age, family, religion, gender, business, neighborhoods. Some are inherited, some are chosen, and some are both. Society comes to conclusions about those groups that aren't accurate, but we must brush off the criticism and move on with the praiseworthy.

In a very small way I have felt judged unfairly because of society's ignorance and prejudice against some of my own groups. It makes me want to stand on a mountain top and scream about how stupid people are and how unjustified it is. "I'm not an idiot!" I'd bellow idiotically. Then I realize that would only feed the perception. So I quietly go back to regular life and hope to set a decent example, and try to contribute something worthwhile.

Those sneaky little devils can get back together with the devil I know and go right back where they came from. I only hope I'm wise enough not to follow them! (I'm really prejudiced against prejudice.)


Bev said...

Unfortunately, if you look at what's happening in Jena, LA, that old ugly evil is still alive and flourishing in the South....it makes me sad

and yes, there is the "politically correctness" of not letting "THEM" (whoever they might be, depending on the group we're speaking of) have any say, be accepted, have equality, etc., etc.

seems we have yet to learn anything from our own past

Anonymous said...

Watching The War on PBS reminded me of some institutional prejudice when the President's executive order put Americans with Japanese, German and Italian descent in "concentration camps". A lot was going on in those years, but how could so many smart people be so wrong about something so important?

meanderings said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
meanderings said...

Sorry - the link didn't paste.

This was an interesting article in the NYT this weekend.



Travelin'Oma said...

This is a good article about Louis Armstrong. Thanks, Colleen!

The book Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals, who was one of the Little Rock nine, is a great story about this episode in US history.

kenju said...

Excellent post!! It is too bad that the people currently practicing this horror will not read your post - or understand it if they did!

Anonymous said...

Way to go mom! At least you are concerned and aware. My goal is to try and be sensitive to everyone. Sometimes a person can feel like they are exactly like you, but then you realize they're looking through their own eyes, creating a whole different outlook on things. It's good - it's what makes relationships so fun and interesting.

Rebecca said...

Seems to me that the racism devil is alive and well. He practices his art more subtly in urban areas like NYC, as to be overt would be frowned upon at best, acted upon at worst. In those areas, he simply raises the bar of credit worthiness or employs predatory mortgage practices to either discourage or make the undesirable segment pay dearly for its incursion.

There is the age old bias of gender, the newer bias of sexuality. There are pockets of acceptance where like color, speaking, and minded groups cluster for relative equality and safety, while the rest of us decry their insular behavior.

Such a shame. Dr. King's dream applies to all who would suffer the slings and arrows of such hate, and yet remains largely just a dream. But baby steps...My husband, second generation American (by way of Sparta) was taught by his father to judge a man by what you see in his eyes, not his skin or any other superficial trait. It is what is passed to our son, even as he tries on the biases he sees his peers beginning to adopt.