How Do We Talk About Race in America? An Unfortunate Update…

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In these highly partisan and polarized times, there’s been a fair amount of talk denigrating what’s referred to as identity politics. Why should we be talking about the needs of individual groups when we really should be finding ways to unite us as a country?

Many well-meaning people stake out this position, and as my blog is devoted to finding common ground, I understand that sentiment—and feel we must pursue both goals simultaneously. I long for the time when we are all so comfortable with one another that we embrace our differences, while those differences recede in importance in the ways we respond to each other. But we sure aren’t there yet.

In Part 2 of my exploration, “How Do We Talk About Race in America?,” I spoke with Doug Glanville, a friend of my daughter’s whom I’ve known since they were children. After graduating as an engineering student from the University of Pennsylvania, Glanville has gone on to do great things in his life: his rich and varied career, which included nine years of playing major league baseball (twice with the Chicago Cubs), now involves being a sports commentator, writer, podcast co-star, and lecturer at Yale University, teaching a course titled “Athletes, Activism, Public Policy, and the Media.” He is a uniter and optimist by nature—confronting racial injustice when needed but always trying to put it into perspective and not overreact.

In my previous post, we discussed his being profiled by a police officer from a neighboring town while shoveling the snow off the driveway of his Connecticut home. His response was to work toward what eventually led to a change in state law governing police jurisdictions. He received an apology from the governor, who appointed him to the Connecticut Police Officers Standards and Training Council.

Somehow, due to his largeness of spirit, he retained no animus toward the police officer who confronted him, viewing the episode instead as an opportunity to work with the police to improve their procedures. He told me when we spoke that he likes to “take lemons and make lemonade.”

Well, life just handed him another big lemon, which he described in The New York Times Sunday Review. (He’s also a contributing opinion writer for the Times.) I hope everyone will read his entire Op-Ed: it’s a powerful, nuanced, sophisticated view from a very thoughtful person about issues we should all be aware of and thinking about. Here’s the beginning:

“Ambiguity has always been a friend to racism.

On May 7, during a television broadcast of a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field, I was on camera doing in-game commentary for NBC Sports Chicago when, unbeknown to me, a fan behind me wearing a Cubs sweatshirt made an upside-down ‘O.K.’ sign with his hand.
The meaning of this hand gesture can be ambiguous. It has long been used to simply say, ‘O.K.’ Some people also use it to play the ‘circle game,’ where you hold your hand below your waist and try to get others to look at it. And most recently it has been co-opted to express support for white supremacy. The man accused of committing the New Zealand mosque massacres flashed this sign during his first court appearance.

Because I am a person of color, the fan’s gesture suggested its sinister meaning.”

He wasn’t aware of what had happened until after the game, when he noticed his Twitter feed “overrun by strange avatars, unrecognizable handles, aggressive trolls and a heated debate about racist imagery.” There was considerable discussion about whether the man’s actions were or were not sinister.

And that ambiguity is precisely the point, Glanville writes.

“According to the Anti-Defamation League, users of the online message board 4chan originally introduced the idea that the ‘O.K.’ sign was a white supremacist prank to get the media to overreact to innocuous gestures—but the sign soon morphed into a genuine expression of white supremacy as well.”

In other words, we are all being gaslighted by the most racially extreme elements among us. But for people of color, including those like Glanville who still manage to be optimistic about race in America, this gaslighting is particularly odious and exhausting—the degree of fatigue varying with the extent of racism they’ve experienced in their lives.

Glanville seeks to explain what it’s like by depicting a coordinate graph in which people of color might plot the various episodes that could be racist that have either happened to them or they’ve heard about.

“The x-axis represents the passage of time and the y-axis represents the degree of racism of an episode—from someone’s assumption that you’re a valet when you’re parking your own car to the burning of a cross on your lawn. For each experience, you mark a dot.”

The pattern that emerges when those dots are connected, Glanville says “allows you to notice correlations, to make predictions. You are learning from evidence, in part for your self-preservation.”

Then comes the tricky part, when someone who has learned from such evidence meets with an individual who hasn’t had similar exposure.

“He sees evidence of racism only from time to time, and when he does, it tends to be stark and unambiguous—the use of racial slurs, an explicit avowal of hate.”

To this person, “racism seems to be a rarity, maybe even invented.”

Glanville, who teaches courses focused on communication, wonders how he can convince such a person of the pattern he sees, when the listener is inclined, based on his own experiences, to depict subtle racism as an “isolated incident” and even accuse Glanville of “playing the race card.”

How often have we heard that phrase in our political rhetoric?

Equally troubling, the person may say all this talk about racism is just making things worse.

Glanville stresses that he, and most people of color, continually look for the innocuous explanation, trying not to think the worst of people. He recognizes that despite the overwhelming evidence from the data he’s experienced, he can be wrong in a particular instance.

“An ‘O.K.’ sign means nothing on its own. But racism thrives in ambiguity, in shadows. In this form, it is cowardly with double meanings.”

Despite his instincts, he didn’t immediately condemn the Cubs fan who made the gesture. He waited until the facts were in. Indeed, the Cubs quickly did an investigation, found that the fan’s intent was malicious, and banned him from Wrigley Field.

The Washington Post (May 8) quoted the Cubs’ president, Theo Epstein: “We’ve made clear how egregious and unacceptable that behavior is, and there’s no place for it in our society, in baseball, and certainly no place in Wrigley Field.”

Said Tim Elfrink, the Post writer:

“The case marks the latest high-profile emergence of the hand symbol and suggests yet again how thoroughly troubling language and memes pushed by the alt-right and adopted by hate groups have infiltrated American culture. But such gestures, which can run the gamut from ironic jokes to long-running games to outright symbols of intolerance, are also notoriously difficult to interpret.”

It bears repeating that ambiguity is precisely the point. The Post quotes Salon writer Amanda Marcotte, who observed that the O.K. sign was to serve as both white supremacist symbol “and also one that is just ordinary enough looking that when liberals expressed outrage, the white supremacist could play the victim of liberal hysteria.”

And as Glanville points out, the impact of ambiguity on people of color can be profound, making them feel…

“That their sanity hinges on a single verdict. If the Cubs fan was flashing a white nationalist sign, we are in danger; if he was not, we are ‘politicizing’ things or ‘race-baiting.’ This is an incapacitating position to find yourself in, especially when you are just an innocent bystander. You are thrust into the public eye and forced to relitigate the existence of racism. Before you know what has happened, you find yourself on the defensive.”

And Glanville draws the very straight line from such soul-bashing episodes of racism as symbol to racism as system:

“…institutional power that can crush neighborhoods, generations of children, stripping people of validation, self-worth and opportunity. Those who have been on the losing end of this power are never certain that they will be O.K.”

Still, he holds out hope that we as a society will “choose the path of empathy and hope.” pointing out that baseball “is played by teams of people from all walks of life, following universal rules, competing on a level playing field.” Acknowledging that this image may be part mythology, he still sees it as an “aspirational ideal, a goal for us as a society.”Doug Glanville 56ff1f7494371.image

But only if we are willing to acknowledge

“that racism operates not only with fire hoses and police dogs but also in whispers, in fine print, in invisible ink, in coded language. Until we are fully against it, we are letting it fester, and while we try to sort out the ambiguities, people are suffering.”

His closing sentence: “They will still suffer once we have our answers, no matter what we find out.”

Though that is more hard truth than optimistic conclusion, I know Doug Glanville will continue his work of building bridges, teaching and writing about social justice, guiding his own children to focus on the good around them and rise above the rest.

Of course we’ve made progress since the Jim Crow era, but with the current trends, including deliberate attempts to deny or make it nearly impossible for people of color to vote, and the far too numerous killings of unarmed black people by police officers—many of whom are not held accountable—how can we possibly expect people of color to ignore racial slights or “put them in perspective” when, regardless of their accomplishments, they know how close they are to the next indignity—or worse?

How does it feel to hear TV commentators focus on how important it is for Democratic candidates to appeal to the white voters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, etc., when the water situation in Flint, Michigan, has still not been fully resolved five years later, and we don’t even know how many other predominantly black cities are similarly affected? What will it take for us to care—as if they are our own—about the children being poorly educated and poisoned by environmental pollutants that are getting worse as the EPA standards are lessened or removed?

And why does the shocking data that African-American women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women—regardless of their income and education levels—not cry out for national attention?

With so many hate crimes and “anti-isms” against various groups on the rise in this country, some may be tempted to belittle the kind of assault Doug Glanville recently experienced. After all, he wasn’t physically injured.

I don’t use the word “assault” lightly: when someone so accomplished—a good-hearted, caring individual with a long history of trying to ease tensions among groups—lets us in on how devastating the accretion of these insults can become, we dare not ignore his words.

Yes, we must strive to overcome our differences and reduce the terrible polarization that threatens us now. We must always seek those things that unite us, rather than divide us.

But we’ll never do so until we realize that the original sin of slavery still hovers over us, and in 2019, we have much more work to do. I am grateful to Doug Glanville for so eloquently sharing his pain with us. He’s still ready to do the hard work to make our country better for us all. Are those of us whose lives aren’t disrupted by the types of incidents Glanville and so many others continually experience ready to do the same?

I welcome your thoughts, opinions, and stories.

Annie

NOTE: You can hear an audio interview in which Glanville describes the episode and its aftermath on WBUR’s Here and Now (May 29).  Notice that he ends with a positive observation, as he always tries to do.

 

16 thoughts on “How Do We Talk About Race in America? An Unfortunate Update…

  1. As someone who recently completed a 2-day Undo Racism class related to my volunteer work with the foster care system, I read your posts and Glanville’s column with interest. Good for you to be addressing this. The points you make are glaring. I’ve come to see just how deeply and systemically ingrained racism and white privilege are in this country. The denial of voting rights—still, or again—and the injury and death of black people at the hands of cops particularly gall me. All a cop has to say is that he feared for his life to go free.
    I’m currently involved with an undoing racism group at a Unitarian congregation here in Montclair in hopes of finding ways to help dismantle systemic racism. Which you are doing simply by tackling the issue here. Write on!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi, Helen—Thank you for your words of support, and it’s great to hear about the Undo Racism efforts you’re involved in. We seem to move forward on this deeply complicated issue—and then backwards. I was astonished when the Supreme Court concluded that states no longer needed supervision to ensure their adherence to the Voting Rights Act—and yet…

      I’m so pleased that you’ve added your informed and thoughtful views to our dialogue. I hope we’ll hear from you often.

      Annie

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  2. From Annie:

    This is another response from Anonymous, whom I have previously identified as friend and former coworker and a woman I am deeply fond of and greatly respect. She chooses to remain anonymous due to her work situation. In addition to her specific experiences and observations, I found her remembrance about the “O.K.” symbol a notable addition to our dialogue. Here’s her comment:

    The first time I was called the “N” word was when I was in kindergarten. It shouldn’t have been that surprising in hindsight. I was one of 3 blacks in a small midwestern town with a population of barely 7,000. It was also in the early 70s at a time when Jim Crow laws were still on the books in some states. As a biracial kid who was adopted by Caucasian parents, I certainly wasn’t shielded from racism.

    I’ve been “praised” (if you can call it that) for not being too black (code for “I could almost forget that you are black”). I’ve been told in job interviews that I “speak so well” (code for “I’m surprised that you don’t speak street slang”).
    I have faced every racial slur, micro agression, and just plain in-your-face agression, like when white colleagues have touched and examined my hair as though I were some slave on an auction block. My experiences are sadly all too common.

    The first time I had ever seen the upside down “OK” sign referenced was in the late 1980s movie, “Mississippi Burning.” Gene Hackman’s character pointed out the town’s law enforcement officers held their thumb and index finger (the “O”) inside their front pants pocket with the other 3 fingers pointing down and outside the pocket. Those 3 fingers stood for KKK. It’s not a new reference and make no mistake, it’s not some ambiguous gesture. Stay woke, folks.

    If there is anything positive to take away from the increasing hostilities toward people of color it is that more of us aren’t afraid to speak truth to power. We are filming injustice as it happens – from Sandra Bland to Eric Garner and countless incidents of being harassed as we are “living while black.” There are those who seek to invalidate and negate the racism we continue to experience. The best defense is to keep up the offense – even when our assertiveness makes others uncomfortable. For we are no longer here to ensure their comfort at the sake of our own survival.

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  3. Interesting commentary Annie. I personally think that the use of expressions like People of Colour (POC) and White privilege increase the likelihood of polarization. Aren’t we all POC, black, brown, white and all shades in between. The use of these expressions automatically divides people into different groups based on the colour of their skin. Their are hateful people of all skin colours who select a target to hate to justify their reasoning for hate.

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    1. Len,
      Yes, we are all actually shades in between, and race is an artificial construct. I have hope that the next generation will truly be able to make these distinctions unnecessary because they seem more accepting of people regardless of race, gender, and all other categories.

      But at this point, there’s no way around it, from what I see and hear: people of color are constantly being given overt and covert signals that they are inferior simply because of the color of their skin. Just think of the situations being described and try to imagine what it would be like to be on the receiving end all the time.

      And sure there are hateful people of all kinds, but it’s been documented in the United States that the vast majority of hate crimes are committed by white men—not immigrants, not Muslims, but home-grown terrorists.

      So while I would love to talk solely about how much we humans have in common—and I do that—I feel compelled to try to show how far we have to go to reach a true “color-blind” country and world.

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  4. Annie,
    The audio interview to which you referred makes what he writes feel more personal. When we can hear his voice, inflections, and tone I felt this was a good addition to the written Op ed.
    Don

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you took the time to listen; that was my feeling as well. And I so admire his ending on a positive note. It’s just so sad and maddening to think that he and so many others must continually be confronted by these soul-sapping encounters. The good news is that he will certainly continue making lemonade.

      Thanks for letting me know.
      Annie

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  5. Thank you for this wise, nuanced exploration of racism. So much to consider. I am very impressed at your friend’s optimism and patience, as well as at the workings of his fine mind. I don’t think I would have had the same patience in waiting for the ballpark investigation to play out before I commented, especially if I had experience on the receiving end of racist remarks or gestures in the past, as was certainly the case. I really appreciated the ambiguity thread, too — so much to think about. Around here, I see more and more educational efforts to raise awareness and change behavior — retreats, forums, symposia. These discussions tend to center on the concept of “equity” — the buzzword, it seems, for unequal and unjust behaviors based on race. Hope? At least people are talking. That’s certainly a start. Thanks for the piece, Annie. So well done, as always.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Denise—

      Yes, I emphatically agree that Doug has demonstrated incredible patience and wisdom. Frankly, this story and his Op Ed broke my heart—and then when you think that people have to experience these indignities so often…

      Glad to hear about efforts to raise awareness and change behavior. That’s hopeful. Sadly, we seem to have to relearn and reawaken all the time. But if Doug can remain optimistic, I certainly will follow his lead.

      As always, thanks to you for your thoughtful comments.
      Annie

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  6. It sounds like Doug Glanville is diligently working towards a society where Dr. Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream and Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams (played by people from all walks of life following universal rules on a level playing field) become one and is there for all people to behold.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I am late getting to this thoughtful post. The big thing I struggle with is why. Why does skin color correlate with “quality”, whether in a positive or a negative way?

    I am a white guy of just about 60. In my grandparents’ era, even the nicest, most educated white people sincerely believed that people of African descent were an inherently inferior subset of humanity. Today I certainly don’t believe this and fewer “decent people” do each year. Talk to most any Millennial and find me someone with the old-style racial Animus.

    Yet we still have racism. I suspect that we (all of us) suffer from a series of reactions that keep the old ideas reverberating.

    I cannot begin to imagine how it would affect me to grow up being told that lots of people hate me. But it would have an effect. How welcome would I feel when these same people tell me they don’t hate me now?

    I think the one thing that keeps getting left out of the discussion is real world experience. Cops profile with race. But then crime victimization in heavily black communities is higher than in heavily white communities.

    I was once asked to help a (black) college kid by reading and giving feedback on a paper he was going to turn in. It was truly the most poorly written thing I had ever read. Literally third grade work. But here he was in college. What should I have done? Should I have looked him in the eye and said “you are never going to pass”? I couldn’t do that to him, he was a nice kid and though I didn’t really know him I liked him, so I honed in on two or three things that might take the paper to maybe a fifth grade level. But how was he supposed to react when he got the inevitable bad grade? He had graduated high school, hadn’t he? And been admitted to college? Could he be blamed for wondering if the teacher harbored some racism? I didn’t believe him incapable, but do believe that his school system (and family?) failed him.

    The good news here is that the “victim” of this racist incident in your storyis a wealthy, successful guy on camera while the perpetrator is a chucklehead who has now been banned from the ballpark. This tells me that the war has largely been won, though we are still fighting the last skirmishes. It remains out there, but I’m convinced that there is a lot more variation and complexity there than most acknowledge.

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    1. And thank you for your thoughtful response. I do agree with you about the Millennials: despite all the bad press they receive, they seem to be totally indifferent to distinctions arising from race, ethnicity, gender, and the like. I’ve often written that they give me hope. I wish we could learn from them in the interim.

      But I don’t believe the war has largely been won. Yes, there have been major improvements, but for the reasons I cite in the post–deliberate attempts to prevent people of color from voting, substantial differences in maternal death rates that defy explanation related to previous health, income, or educational level, resegregation of schools, etc.–I think we make progress and then fall back. Can you imagine any place in white suburbia where dangerous drinking water would still be a problem five years after the initial discovery of the problem?

      What you view as the good news in Doug Glanville’s story is the part that broke my heart. No matter how accomplished, successful, caring, optimistic, and patriotic an African-American person can be, he/she is still viewed through that awful prism. Doug is not a whiner or complainer: he really is someone who, as he’s said, takes lemons and makes lemonade. Thus, his willingness to share his pain with us–particularly the part about questioning one’s sanity in these ambiguous situations–shows us how deep and destructive the strains of racism remain.

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      1. One thing I think we have to be careful about is politics. African Americans make for one of the most monolithic voting blocks of the Democratic party and many “activists” are strongly aligned there as well. I think this makes too many issues that are political take on racial overtones. Voter ID laws aren’t supported because they keep black voters from the polls. They are supported because they keep Democratic voters away from the polls (fraudulent ones of the kind long endemic to big city political machines).

        I guess my main point (and why I see things in the mop-up phase) is that idiots like the guy at the ballpark do not represent the broad middle of “white society” (a term I don’t really like). The broad middle think he’s a jerk who deserves what he gets. There are loud voices at both ends of the “activism spectrum” who depend on discord to make themselves more important. Our job (and I mean all of us) is to ignore those voices and treat each other with kindness and respect whenever possible.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. In my interview with Doug Glanville (Part 2 of “How Do We Talk About Race in America?”), he makes clear his disdain for the divisive phrases Conservative and Liberal, saying “nobody gets a pass here “ and I’ve heard many black people say the Democrats must not take their votes for granted.

    Voter ID laws have been shown—study after study—to reveal the most minimal voter fraud. I can provide you with data if you like. The only clear issue occurred with the Republicans in NC, which is why there’s another election. And the ID laws are but one of many ways to keep black peoples from the polls; not allowing Sunday voting when that’s the most popular day, shortening hours and closing polling places in predominantly black areas, etc. The days when Kennedy worked with Mayor Daley were shameful, but that’s not at all what’s happening today.

    I emphatically agree with your conclusion that it’s up to all of us to treat one another with kindness and respect.

    Like

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