“If You’re White, You’re Alright!:
Out of nowhere, the words of a rhyme from my childhood popped into my head this morning:
“If you’re black, get back;
“If you’re brown, get out of town;
“If you’re white, you’re alright!”
I was about four years old when I first learned what “If you’re black, get back” meant. My mother had taken me “to town” so we could meet my father at work. He worked at a small department store as a stock clerk. I remember waiting out on the sidewalk at the side of the building for my father to come out. “Colored” employees weren’t allowed to enter or exit the building through the front doors of the store. When my father came out to greet us, we walked away from downtown toward the black section of town where we lived. The department store where my father worked had an ice cream fountain, but we weren’t allowed to sit at the counter. So we headed to the Tastee Freeze closer to our neighborhood to get ice cream.
As we walked down the sidewalk, a white man came toward us. He was several yards away when I felt a slight tug of my hand. It was my father pulling me off the curb with him to join my mother in the street. At that moment, my four year old brain registered the fact that we had to step into the gutter so a white man could walk on the sidewalk. My father and mother led me back onto the sidewalk after the white man was a safe distance away from where we stood. This is one of my earliest memories of what it to be black and to have no rights a white person was bound to respect.
I grew up in the South. Born during the height of Jim Crow segregation and came of age in the “progressive” North during the tumultuous 60’s. I attended segregated grade school, sipped from “colored” fountains and was actually quite comfortable sitting on the back of the Greyhound bus (we could spread out and play in the aisles as we traveled north to visit relatives). It’s odd that this memory would surface but then again, it feels like we’re going back in time. The Department of Justice, under the segregationist Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, is hell-bent on turning back the clock to a time when that hateful rhyme was our truth. In fact, it is the blueprint for the ruthless agenda of a president, his Party and conservative donors.
Our country is under siege. Democracy is under attack. We have a common enemy fueled by hate. What makes us great and strong as a nation is being used to weaken us. I wake up most mornings wondering what crisis happened while I slept (or tried to sleep). I often wake up in the middle of the night anxious, fearful and angry. My mind immediately shifts not to any personal situation going on in my life, but to what is going on in our world. It’s hard to appreciate all that is good, full and wonderful in my own life when other human beings are suffering. And people are suffering in our communities, cities, and towns. People are suffering from fear, thirst, despair, hunger, and hopelessness. Joblessness, inequality, neglect, and abuse are festering like ulcers in our communities. American citizens are being attacked, threatened, maligned and even killed. After the initial furious tweets, the protests, and the outrage, the band plays on.
It is challenging going through the day when you can feel the norms of society breaking down. I struggle with the depth of the dysfunction to which our government has succumbed. Checks and balances we’ve relied on to maintain our democracy are being decimated. Basic civil rights won through the spilling of blood and the loss of lives are being erased. Civil liberties we’ve taken for granted are being weakened, while unprecedented crisis and chaos keep us looking the other way. Political and societal norms are being transmogrified and the “new normal” continues to get more abnormal every day. A complex network of foreign AND domestic propaganda agents and provocateurs spread misinformation while fomenting racial division, mistrust, lies, and fear, using code words, dog whistles and creative new terms for old ideas. Their mission is clear and dangerous: destroy us from within.
And it’s working. We are becoming numb, paralyzed by disbelief, doubt, mistrust, and confusion. Our own faith in the democratic system has become the enemy’s WMD. The national conversation is no longer, “that only happens in other countries”. The American people have shifted to asking themselves the question, “it CAN’T happen here, can it?”. While struggling to come to terms with the reality that it IS happening here! It is happening right now! We are in the early stages of the rise of an authoritarian regime. This is our current reality.
Our young democracy is being tested like never before. It’s in our DNA as a country to resist, fight, agitate and work for justice and equality. It is what makes us great and continues to be who we are. We haven’t always been successful, but we have been consistent in trying to live up to those ideals. We have fought these battles before and we’re battle weary. But it is time to dust off our shields, find those old swords and sharpen them for battle again. The right of access to the ballot, the right to education; the right to equal protection under the law; the right to clean air, water and protection of our natural resources; the right to equal opportunity and freedom of expression.
Prepare yourselves for battle, warriors! This is not going to be an easy fight. Pick your weapon of choice:
1. Teach the young ones the importance of civic engagement (and show them by example).
2. Register people to vote or help others register to vote.
3. Contribute money to a candidate somewhere in this country who can help turn this thing around (hell, run for office yourself!).
4. Donate tangible goods or funds to a legitimate organization set up to help those suffering the after-effects of the recent natural disasters that have hit the country.
5. Build community. Identify an organization in your community that could use your skill, knowledge and expertise and volunteer.
6. Talk to folks! Log off social media talk to people! One on one communication is one of the most effective tools in building community.
7. Circulate truth. Don’t circulate fake news! Be diligent in vetting sources and stories before sharing them.
8. Spread love. The spread of hate stops at your doorstep. You know the saying: “When they go low, we go high.”
9. Serve humankind. Become someone that people in your community can count on.
10. Create peace. Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you want peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” Learn to use words of peace and understanding instead of division and discord.
I never thought we’d be still fighting these battles in the 21st century, but here we are. These are old battles on a new battleground. The war is still not won. We’ve got more work to do.