Calling For a Change


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                                                                        –by Neal Lemery

            2021 is a year of change, of awareness, and a time to reconcile ourselves with our attitudes and prejudices.  At the core of this work is confronting our own racism and the racism of our culture. A re-examination of our history and our culture is revealing our prejudices, our privilege, and a compelling drive to change how we think and how we act.  

            The verdict this week in Minneapolis has hopefully gotten our attention to these issues, and has put a bright spotlight on the issues of racism, law enforcement, and cultural expectations.  It is an ugly sore to open up and drain. The infection is deep.  Our attitudes and opinions are facing the light of day, of public scrutiny, and of thoughtful self-examination. 

            Sadly, this tragedy isn’t the latest, and stories of similar injustices and responses continue to occupy the headlines.  Recent attention to our country’s history shows a long and deep saga of similar outrages and, at times, calls for reform and change. The lessons of history are still there, as opportunities to learn and to cause change. 

            Those of us who aspire to be people of faith and advancing a spirituality based on compassion and good deeds are wrestling with being engaged in a society that too often does not aspire to those values.  It is often too easy to do nothing, and instead to merely pontificate our aspirations to be good and kindly people.   Denial seems easy, and the least stony path. Change is hard. 

“Walking away from something that we’re used to, even if it’s unjust or inefficient or ineffective–it usually takes far too long. Fear, momentum and the status quo combine to keep us stuck.

“And so it builds up. The cruft [junk work product] calcifies and it gets in our way, making our world smaller, our interactions less human. What used to be normal is rejected and obsolete. It turns out that the status quo is the status quo because it’s good at sticking around.”

                                    –Seth Godin, Seth’s Blog 4/21/2021

            We all want to think that we come from good families, that we had a decent childhood, and that we have grown up to be good hearted, loving people, who are working to build a better society and to do noble and important work.  Yet if I want to change society, I also need to change myself, and to examine myself so that I can truly become an agent of my good values and my talents to do the Godly and charitable work that I aspire to advocate. 

            To not do that self-examination is to be hypocritical and untrue to my highest goals and aspirations as a “good person”.  My own spiritual challenge is to understand that me acting as an instrument of change is one of my purposes as a human being on this earth. A friend calls that being an instrument of God. 

            As Gandhi urged us, we need to be the change we want to see in the world.  And, that starts with self-examination.  It is ugly, often dirty work.  Each of us had a seat in that courtroom in Minneapolis.  Part of what was on trial was a criminal justice system and a culture of how law enforcement officers respond to an encounter with a man, situations where a person’s race and very presence on the street were factors in how a police officer acted.  Our culture of prejudice, discrimination, and bias (even unconscious) was deeply interwoven in that incident and how a cop, and everyone else who was present, responded. The scope of responsibility and accountability for George Floyd’s death casts a wide net.  

            My great uncle was a member of the Klan, and proudly rode his horse in Klan parades in our family’s hometown.  I heard stories of racial and ethnic prejudice from family and friends, and witnessed bigotry and prejudice, often subtle and minimalized. Like all of us, I witnessed bigotry and prejudice, and felt the social pressure to sustain those attitudes. 

We all learned the “code words”, the vocabulary for this thinking. The disease was labeled something else, throughout my life, ever-present yet often cleverly disguised, or covered up.  After all, racism was something that occurred in the South, or the big cities, somewhere else.  Not here, not in my town, my neighborhood, my family.  

            That denial is also part of the disease, the “stinking thinking” that nurtures racism.

            Those experiences are also present-day.  Perhaps they are more subtle, even disguised, conveniently wrapped in the camouflage of politics and “free speech”.  And, pretending that cultural and personal prejudice and intolerance isn’t here and now is simply being a cultural ostrich, naively hoping that these tough issues will simply go away.  They won’t, until we do our tough work, and change. 

            We need to tell our stories.  We need to air out the ugly anecdotes, and look at our own attitudes and beliefs, looking deep within ourselves to learn why we believe and think what we do.  We need to embrace education and deep conversations with family and friends, no matter how uncomfortable those conversations can be.  We can change, and we can grow. That is what good citizens and spiritually-minded people do. 

            Tomorrow can be different.  

4/22/2021

We Still Need To Dream


I’ve been wondering how I could commemorate Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, on the fiftieth anniversary this week of that watershed event in American society. I was ten years old, in 1963, and his words were part of that fire starting in my soul, the start of a passion for justice and possibility for every person. That fire burns in me still.

And, within an hour yesterday, I was immersed in an intensive, hands on, exploration of racism and prejudice in my community, and the experiences tested that fire inside of me, and got it to blazing into a righteous bonfire.

I’d gone into town for a haircut and a cup of coffee, maybe working out at the gym. My regular barber wasn’t working, so I slipped into the chair of another hair stylist at the salon, telling her the few things I wanted in the haircut.

Another customer came in, interrupting us, insistent on getting her hair styled. I felt my stylist tense up, her jaw tight.

“I’m not able to take you today,” my stylist said, a slight edge in her voice. “Someone else will be here in fifteen minutes. You can come back then.”

The customer left, and my stylist flew into an animated discussion with me and the other stylist in the shop, about how that customer had ranted and raved about the “wetbacks” and “lazy Mexicans” the last time she was here for an appointment.

“Look, I’m Mexican,” the stylist said, her arms flailing, her scissors nearly flying out of her hand. “My family works hard. My husband is working two jobs, jobs most Americans won’t do. We’re not on welfare, we don’t have food stamps. We work hard for everything we have here.
“How dare she say we should go back to where we came from. Her ancestors were immigrants, too. If we go ‘back’, then, she should, too,” she said, her rapid snips with her scissors shaping up my shaggy mane.

“I’m not going to cut her hair. I’m not putting up with people who are racists, people who judge people by the color of their skin, or where they came from. I just don’t understand people like that.”

She cooled off a bit, then, and we had a rich conversation about prejudice, and bigotry, and people who lump a big group into some category, and have opinions that ignore the facts, ignoring how people work hard, and struggle, so that their kids can have good, productive lives.

I left the salon with one of the quickest haircuts I’ve ever had, newly energized by her anger, and again saddened by the rudeness and bigotry that was still alive and thriving in my hometown. My stylist wasn’t afraid about speaking her mind. And, if she can speak up, maybe I can, too. Her power and her courage were at my back as I headed for my car.
Ten feet out the door, a young friend came up and spoke to me, inviting me to go have a cup of coffee. We’d spent a day not long ago looking at universities, exploring options for him to study for his bachelor’s degree. We’d both learned a lot that day, and it would be fun to debrief a little, and find out what he’d been thinking about, what he was planning for his future.

As I unlocked the car, my phone rang. One of the guys I’ve been mentoring, a young man I now consider to be a son, was calling.

“I need some advice,” he said. “People at work want to know about my past, but if I tell them everything, then I think they will judge me, they will just think I’m just a criminal, they won’t really look beyond that, and see me for who I really am.”

We had a rich conversation, about prejudice, and bigotry, and how we all need to not let bigots get close to us, and put us down, judging us without really knowing us. About how we don’t need to let others manipulate us, and put us in pigeon holes, so that we don’t have to play the role of being less than someone else. Each of us has value, we are children of God, we are beautiful people. We are more than our skin color, or where our ancestors came from, we are more than one thing we might have done in the past.

We talked about self care, and standing up for yourself, about living life with pride and direction, purpose. We talked about appreciating people by their character, by their ethics and morals, and not by some preconceived, uninformed stereotype.

I told him the story of my hair stylist, how she had drawn the line in the sand, refusing to work with a client who would stereotype her, and put her down, to degrade and prejudge her life and her family.

He took that all in, and figured out a strategy on coping with people who would prejudge him and gossip about him, people who would easily put him into a category of “others”, people who wouldn’t appreciate him for the beautiful, creative, and loving person that he is inside.

I drove down the road to the coffee shop, running a bit late after my deep conversation with my son. My buddy was already sipping his coffee, his nose deep in a thick textbook, one that absorbed his curious mind about the science of his new job.

We talked about what he’d been learning about all the colleges and programs he could apply for, and all the careers he could explore.

And, we also talked about the conversation I had with the hair stylist, and her bigoted customer.

“I’m a wetback, too,” he said, with a bit of pride. “I came here when I was eight, because my mom wanted me to get an education, and make something out of my life.”

He talked about his struggles to make it through high school, and then community college. He talked about not being able to get a driver’s license, about working under the table at a farm, so he could help his family and find a few bucks for school clothes and books, and gas.

He talked about the farmer he used to work for, and how the farmer would rant and rave about all the wetbacks and illegal immigration, and how the government was wasting a lot of welfare money on the “dirty Mexicans”. And, then the farmer would pay him under the table, and not take anything out of his pay for taxes and social security, and how the farmer didn’t see the disconnect in his thinking, and about how the farmer was breaking the law, and taking advantage of those “dirty Mexicans”, the “dirty Mexicans” he happily underpaid to milk his cows and shovel manure and do all the other hard work that he couldn’t find anyone else around this town to do.

He talked about how tough it was to go through all the hoops and finally get an immigration card that lets him be here legally, as long as he’s going to school, and how it is still another ten years before he might become a citizen. And, how his parents still drive to work without a valid license, and how they can never become citizens, even though they’ve lived here for the last twelve years, they have jobs, and they make sure their kids get to school, how they are good people, people this country should be proud to have as citizens.

People just like my ancestors, my people who came over on the boat, who took the awful, low paying jobs, so that their kids could go to school, and their grandkids could be doctors, lawyers, and engineers.

He talked about getting stopped by a cop late one night, just him and the cop on a lonely, dark country road; and how the cop yelled at him for breaking the law, for finding a way to get a driver’s license from another state, so my buddy could still get back and forth to work, and college, and take care of his family. He talked about how the cop called him a “wetback” and how “you people” should go back where you came from.

I know this cop. I’ve been a lawyer and a judge and I’ve had the cop in court many times. I’ve never heard that viewpoint from him, and it’s probably good for him that I didn’t. I have a dream, too, thanks in part to Martin Luther King’s work and beliefs that society can change, that we can accept others for who they are, and not to judge people by the color of their skin, but instead by the strength of their character.

If we really believe in the rule of law, if we really believe that each one of us is a child of God, that we are here to live lives of service, and compassion, and understanding, that every person is precious, and has endless possibilities to live a life of beauty and love and value.

That cop would hear that speech from me, again, and I think I’d be pretty impassioned about it, drawing on the passion my hair stylist had about dealing with racists and bigots.

I was pretty worked up by the time I got home, inspired to read Dr. King’s speech again, to dig a bit deep inside of me, to explore my prejudices and my biases. What I was wanting to say was on the stove, still warm, simmering, waiting for the muse to strike, to get my words down on the computer.

Then, last night, I’m taking a troll through Facebook. I see a young friend has posted a video. “Funny” he writes, so I take a look.

The video shows a white guy advertising a laundromat that only washes white clothes. It’s the “white’s only” laundry. The next scene is him again, saying that the first ad has riled up some people, so he’s changed the name to “no coloreds”, and offers Black people a side entrance to the laundry.

As my blood begins to boil, I struggle to keep watching, dreading what the next scene might be.
The white man comes on again, saying that the “no colored’s” name bothered some people, so he was going to change the name again to “Uncle Tom’s Laundry”, but that there would still be “no coloreds” washed and dried there.

I sat there, stunned, not really knowing how to react.

After all, it has been more than fifty years that Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus, it has been fifty years since the March on Selma, and Dr. King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

It’s been a shorter period of time since my home town repealed the “sundown law” that said Blacks had to leave town at the end of the day. It’s been a shorter period of time since some of the social clubs in town have allowed Blacks and women to sit in their bars and have a drink, and become members, even officers.

And, it’s been less than a day since a young friend posts a video about “no coloreds” for all the community to see, and maybe even guffaw about.

We have a black president, we have a black attorney general, we have black judges and members of Congress.

Yet, 2013 also has the Trayvon Martin shooting trial, and an agonizing, disjointed national discussion about what that was and what that means. We have the US Attorney General, on national TV, talking about how he feels he needs to tell his son, a black teenager, about the dangers and risks of being young and black on the streets of our national capital late at night, about how to be leery of cops, about being judged because of the color of his skin.

And, 2013, in my town, we have these conversations, and these racist, bigoted comments and attitudes, and videos posted in social media that are thought of as “funny”, but are as racist and bigoted as the cross burnings and Klan marches, and segregated busses and lunch counters and schools of the 1960s.

We aren’t there, yet, not by a long shot. But, I can still dream. And, I can still be angry, and intolerant of racism and prejudice, and putting people down because of where they came from, or the color of their skin, or the language they might speak.

We have a ways to go. We still need to dream.

Neal Lemery, 8/24/2013