I never thought of him as a bigot. For as long as I can remember he’s been an opinionated old man. Half the time, I didn’t really get the specific issue he was ranting about. He was just my neighbor, “Mr. C”. It was not until years later that I was old enough to recognize the fear and uncompromising distain that tinged his political diatribes.
He never seemed concerned that I heard him swear or cast aspersions on a particular ethnic group or politician. If it was happening on his property, he behaved like he had a sovereign’s immunity from consequence. We’re both older now — he well into eighties and me in college. I still go over and talk with him. I tend to cut older people slack and excuse any outburst as a symptom of mental deterioration — a circle of life where an adult once again passes through adolescence on his way to an increasing dependence on others. It’s got to suck, you know — getting older.
I fundamentally don’t agree with his views or the way he plants them like posts that support a barbed wire fence. We all make choices and should not be given a free pass to say whatever comes into our head without regard for others feelings or facts. People sometimes hide behind physical or emotional limitations and use them as an excuse to be exempted from social consequences. We too often give old people a get out of jail free card if they express hyper-orthodox views on sex, religion and politics.
Octogenarians don’t seem to care what they say. Hell, some older people don’t even zip up their pants or wipe their butts. I suppose I’d be cranky too if my body was failing me and the society I grew up in was moving away from the values that had served me as such a reassuring set of guideposts. I guess I’d feel everything was going to hell and I’d look to blame someone for the decline of the world, as I once knew it.
Mr. C was brought up by depression era immigrant parents – a silent generation where everyone feared everything and for good reason. There was high unemployment, poverty, diseases and other immigrants taking jobs. Every town had some kind of social hierarchy based on economics. Your goal was simple: stand on other people’s shoulders and use your God given talents to meet or exceed your parents’ standard of living. If that situation persisted today, it would weigh heavily on me. I’m used to the instantaneous resolution of a pill or a computer app. Today’s average person does not abide by lack of resolution and persistent uncertainty.
It seems his generation had to muscle through difficult times and accept uncertainty as a constant companion. In those days, a guy had to run over fear or be paralyzed by it. Mr C. clearly spent his life running shit over. He went into the Army to finance his college. He hated the Army but honored his commitment. No one ever gave him anything. He had to work for everything. As a result, he has little empathy for people who blame society for letting them down.
“A ‘victim’ is someone who is dead. Any one else is a survivor and must dust themselves off and get on with life. The world is not fair. There’s no such thing as society letting you down. Only you can let down society. The more we make it about ‘me’ and less about ‘we’, the closer we are to the moral decay of ancient Rome.”
I liked listening to him talk to nobody particular. Mom hated that I hung out at Mr. C’s but he paid me $4.00 an hour to weed his yard.
“Listen, charity is important part of any society but helping one’s fellow man is a personal decision and should be driven by those who feel the need to serve. Legislated charity is a slippery slope. It starts with the best intentions as a critical safety net for the less fortunate but when we introduce government into the mix, it quickly becomes a hammock. Beware of those with good intentions. It’s human nature to stop working hard if you can get things for free.”
The condition of dependence and rationalized victimization seem to my Mr. C to be most prevalent among American blacks. He points to Asians and Latinos as more cohesive communities that are anchored by a strong work, family and religious ethic. Bolstered by stronger values, they do not suffer disproportionate incarceration, poverty and mortality rates.
“I don’t know what happened to the black community. They can’t seem to elevate themselves above their circumstances and don’t realize that liberal politicians have kept them in perpetual bondage by validating their misguided sense of being victims. Give them welfare and buy a vote. Jesus, slavery ended 200 years ago. When are we going to stop allowing them to use Jim Crow as an excuse and take responsibility for their inability to win their own futures? ”
Nowadays, Mr. C’s political diatribes are prompted by an email forwarded to him by one of his retired friends or the Fox Channel that blares in his house every day like a loud speaker in some Pol Pot political reeducation camp.
He seems to fit all the traditional definitions of being prejudiced. He clearly has a problem with blacks as he feels they represent the most broken part of our society. He is quick to point out that blacks have much higher rates of incarceration, single parent homes and kids being born out of wedlock. The high school drop out rates are staggering and college graduation rates are sickeningly low. The mortality rate for urban African American men under the age of 25 is as high as Marines in Iraq.
I wonder why. Did we do this to them or did they do this to themselves? Who is responsible? Is it someone’s legacy? When does the current generation own their circumstances? Is that fair? How do you break the cycle of poverty and prejudice?
For someone who shows me so much unconditional love, my neighbor has no empathy for people he feels won’t help themselves. It’s a strange paradox to be loved by someone who is not family and at the same time, has so much disregard for and sectarian fear of others. I see so many things in him that I admire and I also see this great stain on his heart.
I guess it’s natural to see contradiction in people, as you become an adult. It’s that way with your own nation too. As a child, you idolize your parents. They are the center of your universe and they can do no wrong. Their views are your views.
Eventually, you develop your own opinions and values formed out of experiences. These nascent interpretations come in conflict with the dogma you so easily accepted as a child. You question and occasionally challenge adult’s simplistic views to complex issues. Some of these views are insensitive to the realities of now. One day, you come to the realization that you still love your parents but now see them for what they are — human beings with contradictions and biases influenced by their own lives.
It can be the same way with America. You love your country but as you mature and become more well read about alternative forms of government and the diversity of the world, you don’t fully buy into American actions with unequivocal support. You begin to question things and at times, disagree with Monroe Doctrine manifest destiny and the claim that we permanently occupy moral high ground because we are a free market democracy.
Yet, that’s the beauty of freedom. You aren’t required to be black or white, right or wrong. Much of life is indeed a color bar of shades of gray. The only sure way to raise your intelligence around racial, social, moral or political issues is through experience and informed debate. You must seek to understand people before being understood. I suppose bigotry is at its core, the refusal to engage in any other point of view.
I don’t know what’s happened in the seventy years that separates my Mr. C and I. I know that the 1960’s were a time of great social upheaval. A new generation tore away the fabric of nuclear family, white picket fence suburbia that had defined their generation’s goals and held them together during WWII and the Korean War. Mr. C deeply resented this disregard for American ideals and felt threatened by those that actively questioned the institutions that he felt made this country great. They had yet to pay the dues necessary to earn the right to bite the hand that fed them.
The further from crisis a society grows, the wider the generation gap between those that lived it and those who are raised on its distant mythology. Mr. C and I clearly use a different yardstick to measure success and progress in life. My generation wants to be happy and is not hung up on social conformity or political solidarity as a basis for belonging. We have been brought up to celebrate diversity and to cut other people slack for being different instead of challenging them to conform to a moral and social two-party system that does not adequately represent today’s diverse society composed of so many different voices and views. I don’t care if you’re gay, straight or transgender. You have a right to choose and to not die broke paying off a healthcare bill. It’s your life. Be happy.
I can see his eyes narrow and react to my occasional Rachel Maddow bleeding heart commentary. He calls me a “commie” even though Communism has passed the scimitar to Islamic fundamentalism as the greatest threat to the West. It’s clear to him that I’m not buying in to his generation’s notion that the best societies are Darwinist meritocracies where people must have the discipline to succeed or reinvent themselves to better compete. Yet, many who fail don’t reinvent themselves. They become wards of the criminal justice or welfare systems.
Prisons are supposed to rehabilitate men as they pay back society for their crimes. Welfare is intended to be a stopgap hand up until one becomes self-sufficient. The linchpin to his system working is personal transformation — private change with as little help from government as possible to ensure public debt does not grow and personal and corporate taxes stay low to enable to strong economy. “Jobs do more for self-esteem than a welfare check.”
It all sounds great but this change does not seem to be happening as more wealth gets concentrated in fewer hands and jobs get shipped overseas. The trickle down economics of Ronald Reagan seems to be drying up for the majority of the U.S. middle class.
I encourage my surrogate grandfather to read Jill Leovy’s book, Ghettoside, a non fiction detective story which helps deconstruct and frame the tragedy of unsolved murder rates of young black men in South Central LA. It provides an explanation for the rage in the black community as it deals with institutional urban neglect and the effects of uneven policing. Sometimes the problem is not aggressive policing but the lack of resolution investigating and prosecuting the murderers of young black men. When the community feels nothing will be done and that crimes will go unpunished, the community takes the law into its own hands and lawlessness reigns.
He listens to my statistics and my facts regarding the cycle of poverty and the stacked deck of social and economic barriers that make it hard for young black men to rise above their own circumstances. He can’t hide his racism. It’s subtle, the way a white man unconsciously pats his back pocket for his wallet when he sees a young black man walking towards him and then argues that there is no such thing as racism. “We have a black President, don’t we?” Dude, your bigotry is deep and its still in there. When you deny it, you just make it that much more real.
Ironically, blacks don’t help one another as much as they could. I read in sociology class that when many blacks beat the odds and succeed, many leave their communities and never look back. They believe they are worthy role models by the simple virtue of the fact that they overcame overwhelming odds. When they leave, they don’t rush back to their community. They depart for good — leaving others behind without a rope to climb out or an experienced hand to help. The class shared the story of an affluent black couple that tried to patronize black only business for one year. In the year of this noble experiment, the couple found there was one black owned grocery chain in the entire state of Illinois. Prior to the passage of Civil Rights Act, there were thousands of black owned businesses patronized exclusively by blacks. Ironically, when given the opportunity to eat and shop at white establishments, many blacks abandoned their own businesses to patronize white establishments. The forbidden fruit was now in their reach and in buying white, a generation inadvertently condemned another to decline and economic struggle. Ironically, the law that was passed to level the playing field, tilted it further in the wrong direction.
Harper Lee once wrote that bigotry and faith are disturbingly similar in that they both begin at the same place — where reason ends. I’ll always care for Mr. C like a grandfather but I realize that we have chosen different paths to interpret a world that often ceases to make sense.
I choose faith – faith in the better nature of people and optimism that I can find a new tribe that works toward an inclusive solution governed by a colorblind justice and economic system. My old friend’s fear blinds him to any solution other than tougher laws, longer sentences and punitive consequences for the bad choices that young men make each day in these communities. Self-centered fear seems to be the trigger for many of the unattractive aspects of the human condition. It’s clear that while fear and faith start at the same place, they can’t occupy it at the same time.
It’s time to leave Mr. C. I throw a few weeds in his green garbage bag. We hug and I can see he is proud of my independence – the son he never had. Unconsciously, he betrays his belief that eventually I’ll convert to his cynical ideology. If he’s right, I will find myself one day at war with a government that wants to tax me and redistribute my money to those who won’t work. “Welfare is a trap to ensure the poor’s continued dependence on politicians and social re-engineers.” It’s a cynical way to see the world but he’s been walking the earth seventy years longer than I have. I can’t dismiss him as a heretic without first accumulating my own experiences as data points to refute him.
Somewhere between his rigid conservative ethos and my altruistic belief that change is possible, the truth stirs and struggles to the light. Victor Hugo said that the truth will always find the light and the deeper you tried to hide it the more explosive it is when it’s finally revealed. Truth rests in the shadows and along the black and white edges of reality. It’s ironic that when it comes to black and white, the issues and solutions always seem to be gray. It takes courage to define them and to not allow ideologues to hijack the truth to pander to those who are afraid.
I do not doubt for a moment the pride he feels as he as he lives my life vicariously. He is now watching me leave and enter the world of men. We are so different. Sometimes, I wonder if I am as strong as him. Am I a more evolved version of my neighbor or a naive changeling that will eventually come to see the world on his rigid terms
To have the capacity to love someone who has such a different point of view strangely reassures me. It validates my belief that love is a stronger force than hate. We are all humans on a spiritual journey and in my case, I’m taking my first steps in search of meaning and purpose. It begins with my trying to navigate and understand the black and white landscape of Mr. C’s America.