Sunday, September 23, 2007

Jena 6 & The American Attention

A confluence of anniversaries and a reminder of how some things resist change are on my mind. This is the 50th anniversary of the forced desegregation of Little Rock schools. It is also the 50th anniversary of the Broadway debut of 'West Side Story'. Growing up as a Sesame Street kid, going to Head Start, singing along with the multiracial Coke chorus, learning I was free to be me and having my nightly TV show people beyond the white wash of previous years--this all led me to believe that we had made great strides in racial relations in this country. I lived in the 'virtuous' north, the 'ignorant' south had seen the errors of its ways and we were moving forward as a country. This was what I believed and what I was told was right and just. The civil rights movement was taught as history and Martin Luther King was someone in a poster hung in my classrooms.

When I was 9, we moved to South Florida---and I saw that the southern poverty that I thought was history, still existed in pockets--I thought the shacks and other decrepit housing were relics. Racial tensions were high in the elementary schools, the middle schools (the extent of my knowledge) but that things were working themselves out into new orders--nerdy kids v. cool kids whatever the color. I realized that the lack of this tension in the northern town I lived in was probably because people weren't living together. No black children attended our elementary school, but the town over the railroad tracks (too literal, I know) seemed to be entirely black. But as I said, the schools in south Florida were facing the new challenge of integrating English speaking kids with the kids from homes where Spanish was spoken. Racial enmity wasn't gone--but it simply entered the mix of all the other elements in the school community.

When Ronald Reagan was running for and then after he won--I noticed a real change in how America viewed itself. The nation was facing some bruising and withering states of affairs. The economy, the wars, pollution. The Reagan revolution was about making America feel better about itself by redefining what America was. If being a true American didn't include poor people, then America was rich. If America meant being 'past race', then the police profiling of black America had to be a result of criminality not bigotry in the police force. If we denied being concerned about the people of puppet states created in our cold war maneuvering, then America was a virtuous nation. If America was Christian, then we could feel good about excluding the godless or heathen among us. The right attacked the 'liberal' media, accusing it of bias by only reporting the 'bad news' and not representing the 'true America.' Any media that insisted on reporting on how we were failing either our own or those abroad was scrutinized, accused and eventually marginalized.

Perhaps it is this fear, this fear of being unpopular with the happy folks, that has led both the media and the majority American people from seeing that the demons wished away by the 'Morning in America' still lurk and have never ceased. Racism exists. It needs to be confronted. We cannot assume that we can put things in our past if they haven't ever been faced in the daylight. Nooses are threatening and carry a message of menace from white America to black America. The Confederate flag is a symbol of racism and a very effective messenger of fear and the assertion of power by the majority. Anti-immigrant bias is not just about taxes and national security--it is also about not wanting to hear foreign languages or expand our sense of what god is, what food is, what family is. The Ku Klux Klan may not be a powerful national movement, but the whispering of its existence is meant to keep people in fear.

The kids in Jena, Louisiana were treated differently by the court because of their race. Some of the white citizens of Jena have raised racist children. People need to be brave to speak unpopular but necessary truths. The media is responsible to tell the whole story, even if it doesn't fit in 30 second segments.

Life is complicated. Race should be meaningless--but our history denies that. We can work through these things. We will be a stronger nation. Heterogenity is what makes America great, not what we should fear. E pluribus Unum.

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