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.

 

How Do We Talk About Race in America? A Serendipitous Part 3

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Greetings, welcome back, and best wishes to everyone for a very happy and healthy New Year.

I hadn’t planned this additional post on race, but I came across what I feel is a wonderful piece of Op-Art on the topic in The New York Times. Some of you may recall it, but even if you do, I hope you’ll use the link above to revisit it. It’s worth several readings, I believe.

And it’s followed by another serendipitous example that I find enriches the topic.

Writer and illustrator Henry James Garrett has created a wise and amusing morality tail/tale that’s titled “The Kernel of Human (or Rodent) Kindness.” I’m pretty sure the fair use police will prevent me from reprinting the piece in its entirety, as I would love to do, so I’m including a few screen shots (if they work–I’m getting better at this technical stuff, but each new challenge is fraught with the fear of mishap).

Please keep in mind that this is just a sampling, probably unfair to the creator because it doesn’t capture the richness of the artwork and messaging in its entirety. But here we go…

 

 

 

 

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Please do click on the green New York Times link above to see Garrett’s entire work. It will just take you a minute, and I really think you’ll enjoy it.


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Before we leave the topic of race for now, I’d like to add the second serendipitous piece. One of a number of special friends I’ve reconnected with as a result of this blog is a Master Gardener. I was unfamiliar with this term, but I’ve learned that Master Gardeners are volunteers who have undertaken considerable training in the science and art of gardening. They, in turn, share their expertise by educating the public on gardening and horticulture.

My friend had the additional responsibilities involved in serving on the Board of Directors of the Master Gardeners organization in the area in which he lived. He had a lot of experience in organizational work as well, having had a long and successful career as a Manufacturing Manager for a major US corporation, where his responsibilities included diversity training.

But my friend, who is African-American, grew tired of his fellow board members’ failure to listen to his ideas (as well as impatient with their lack of organization).

He was comfortable with what he had to offer but felt his presence on the board was that of a “token”: he was there for show, but not for substance. So he resigned his position–and received a very gracious letter from one of the few board members who clearly recognized that his absence would be felt.

In an email explaining to me what had happened, he wrote of the other board members: “I really don’t think they know the difference between Affirmative Action and Diversity. Gardeners generally practice diversity every time they plant a flower, but they probably wouldn’t make the connection. There are a number of reasons we plant a diverse garden.”

I found his words both poetic and a fine metaphor for why our society is strengthened by our growing diversity.

So from rodents to gardens, I feel we’re surrounded by lessons about how much we have to gain by being empathetic toward one another and celebrating both our differences and our commonality as human beings.

I hope to hear from you about whether my serendipitous finds resonate. As always, I depend upon your thoughts, experiences, and stories…For those of you who are new to this blog, you must go way down the page to find the comment box in which I hope you’ll enter your response. Thank you!

Annie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Do We Talk About Race in America? Meet Doug Glanville (Part 2 of 2)

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As soon as I determined to address this topic in my blog, I knew the person I should turn to for guidance. Doug Glanville, who’s been a friend of my daughter’s since childhood, is one of those all-around amazing people. It was evident when he was young:  academically gifted, terrifically athletic, warm, funny, and friendly, he was clearly destined to make his mark in the world.

And so he has. After graduating as an engineering student from the University of Pennsylvania, he had an illustrious nine-year career as a major league baseball player—a center fielder for the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies. From there he became a commentator for ESPN. He wrote a book, The Game From Where I Stand, contributes frequently to The New York Times, and has written for The Atlantic.

Recently, he’s added “college professor” to his personal biography. Returning to Penn, he researched, developed, and taught a course on Communication, Sports, and Social Justice. He’s now refining the course to teach it at Yale in a combined political science and African American Studies effort that may also involve Women’s Studies and Yale Law School.

And yet…and yet. In the winter of 2014, shoveling the walk of his home in Hartford, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife Tiffany, an attorney and Hartford Board of Education member, and their four children, Glanville was stunned to be approached by a police officer from the next town. 

A woman had complained that a man who had shoveled her walk had been menacing her for money, and Glanville fit the description: a black man in his 40s with a shovel, wearing a brown coat (though his coat was black). The officer approached Glanville with the words: “So, you trying to make a few extra bucks, shoveling people’s driveways around here?”

Glanville has written about the experience in The Atlantic, (“I Was Racially Profiled in My Own Driveway”), and it’s well worth reading the entire article. Here’s a bit of it: 

Instead of providing the officer with his impressive personal and family background,

“I tried to take his question at face value, explaining that the Old Tudor house behind me was my own. The more I talked, the more senseless it seemed that I was even answering the question…After a few minutes, he headed back to his vehicle. He offered no apology, just an empty encouragement to enjoy my shoveling. And then he was gone.”

That episode eventually led to the passage of a new Connecticut law that prevents local police from crossing into another jurisdiction to pursue what they believe are violations of local ordinances. (A good description of the law’s broad impact appears in The Huffington Post.) At the signing ceremony, the Governor issued Glanville an apology.

Glanville explains his motivation for shepherding the legislation through to passage:

If I hadn’t been careful and deferential—if I’d expressed any kind of justifiable outrage—I couldn’t have been sure of the officer’s next question, or his next move. But the problem went even deeper than that. I found myself thinking of the many times I had hired a man who looked like me to shovel my driveway. Would the officer have been any more justified in questioning that man without offering an explanation? I also couldn’t help projecting into the future and imagining my son as a teenager, shoveling our driveway in my place. How could I be sure he would have responded to the officer in the same conciliatory way?

He has since been appointed by the Governor to the Connecticut Police Officers Standards and Training Council, where they deal with accreditation issues, certify and decertify police officers, and develop and adopt “a comprehensive standards program for local law enforcement units.” Glanville says: “I am proud to serve on the curriculum committee.”

And although he never received an apology from the police officer, rather than demonizing him, he saw him as presenting an opportunity—to help build bridges between communities of color and law enforcement through open engagement about the pitfalls of bias in community policing.

“We all have bias,” Glanville says, “but the stakes are exceptionally high in law enforcement. It is critical that we all invest in managing bias in our policing.” 

He attributes his ability to work with police—and his broad social vision—to his upbringing in Teaneck, New Jersey, the first community in the United States to voluntarily integrate its schools. “It was such a validating experience to live in a community where people from all walks of life saw each other in a united camp.” He went to plenty of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, he recalls. “In Teaneck, you had real embedded experiences.”

A white police officer, with whom he became close, was his summer league baseball coach, and his father, a psychiatrist who was well-loved in the community, often treated police in various places for the stresses of their jobs. When his father died, “They paid their respects to him as if he was one of them.”

 A large contingent of police, in uniform, did a walkthrough at his funeral to greet his family, waiting in line to pay their respects. Three police cars accompanied the hearse to the cemetery, where they stopped traffic to allow the procession to enter.

Those experiences enabled Glanville to be “caring and collaborative” in working with the police in Connecticut to formulate the legislation.

As a result of those formative years, as well as his close relationships with his fellow baseball players, he says, “As a black man, I see the power in the “#Me Too” movement,” for example. “We all want to be validated, treated fairly, given opportunities, have our pain recognized—to overcome generation after generation in the land of opportunity.”

But achieving social justice takes effort. “It’s easy to want to take your ball and go home,” he acknowledges. “That’s concerning: how can we grow when we’re in our own echo chambers? We need to be brave and step across the aisle and realize we have common work to do.”

In getting the Connecticut legislation through, “I took lemons and made lemonade. But that requires patience, and where is patience? It goes hand in hand with the way we digest information. There’s not a lot of patience to digest the long form. It’s more like: ‘If I didn’t see it, it isn’t real.’”

He has criticisms of social media for creating more doubt and manipulation, and he wishes there were greater balance in the television commentary programs. Bias is profitable, he notes.

“Where is the show with people who have different suggestions talking with one another? I do think at times the media business is not helpful; it just reinforces opinions.”

Referring to the current political divide, he observes: “For starters, I’m not a fan of the blanket political labels, conservative/liberal. We all can be better.

“In the realm of social justice, conservatives get wholly painted as intolerant, just as we tend to overlook the arrogance in people who consider themselves liberal and believe they are completely right. Guess what? No one gets a hall pass here. Holier than thou is not effective in this climate. When the only counter-argument is ‘I’m right,’ we get nowhere.”

When he teaches his course, he stresses the importance of communication. “How you say things and present things matters. You have to have a message and tell stories to engage the listeners.”

For example, he discusses the impact of newspaper racial bias, citing a Huffington Post article that underscored how “white suspects and killers often get positive media spins, while black victims get more negative spins. Words truly matter,” he emphasizes. He also brings in both conservative and liberal views because he feels we all need more measured perspectives.

Is it ever helpful to call someone a racist? “Probably not,” he says. “Some people may be beyond repair. But there are ways to approach others.” When he hailed a cab in Washington, DC, to go to the Washington Nationals Stadium and the driver said, “I don’t know where that is,” he responded: “It’s 2018; you have a GPS.” But, he acknowledges, you have to assess the threat. “I do dive into things that aren’t comfortable—when I’m in a safe space.“

Glanville speaks of the different types of energy required to make the societal changes we need: marching, organizing, people working on policy—all of which he calls “slow work.”

We need both community development and social action, he stresses—“to understand how the game is played, how the system works, at the same time that we challenge the systemic issues needing bold change.”

And then, “It starts at the ballot box,” finding leadership that help us heal as a people and address hate, “but not with armed guards.” He underscores the importance of legislatively backing up the words on those pieces of paper with action.

Acknowledging the abuses in our history concerning the vote—the disenfranchisement, marginalization, and lack of follow-through in behalf of people of color—he points hopefully to the newly elected class of Congress: “There is something to be said about having people more representative of our country. It matters to get into the room, to be engaged in the process to make the system more fair and representative.”

If there’s one thing Americans agree on, it’s that we’re in challenging times. To Glanville, the challenges provide everyone with “the opportunity to be their better self for the collective good. We must think about the positive things and organize around them. We must find ways to be constructive.”

Please let me know your response to Doug Glanville’s challenging ideas and hopeful message. Can you relate to them? Do they encourage you to act? Do they generate stories or ideas from your own life? I am eager to hear from you.

Annie

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