As I gingerly lowered myself to the gym mat, over 50 but needing to do at least 50 sit-ups, I heard a conversation taking place near the free weights. Two men in excellent shape having a not-so-great conversation about the Dallas shootings and Black Lives Matter.
What I could gather between their grunts and my contorted exertions sounded vaguely like George Wallace 1968 meets Donald Trump 2016. Don’t blame the carbs… blame the blacks.
I stopped in the middle of my 39th crunch… was I hearing things or just trying to stop the exercise madness? And why was I surprised?
Among the rhododendrons and roses, at charity events and at sidewalk sales, the uncultured commentary from the cultural elite can sound strangely familiar to cable news punditry. Them against us. The haves and the have-nots. Dividing lines in the subdivisions of home, sweet home.
Was there racism among the rhubarb?
Quasi-bigoted comments can fly through the suburban air like a summer swarm of ladybugs. Everyone has an opinion on color, race, income inequality and religion to express, running the gamut from feverish liberal apologies to clueless conservative condemnations. And sometimes amidst the fragrant flora and fauna of fieldstone living, that song from Avenue Q “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” lilts a little too close to home.
When my children were small, and the Jewish high holidays fell on school days rather than on a weekend, a mom standing next to me at school pick-up had no problem complaining about “them having one more holiday that we have to keep our kids home for.” Forget the fact that my family has been “off” for Christmas our entire lives… Yom Kippur and “the Jews” were upsetting her morning plans.
I have witnessed the subtle, questionable furrowing of Main Street brows when some people walking seem to clash with the town’s high-end store windows. Just enough discomfort to disarm them and hobble their cobblestone gait. But just call it out and they will deny, deny, deny. Didn’t they just drop off last year’s holiday gifts at Goodwill? Wasn’t that enough?
I used to have two friends from town who quoted repeatedly from NPR and ranted against bigotry and racism from cocktail to cocktail. But two more drinks and faint drips of “those people” poured from their lips like cheap Chablis. And if their Hispanic cleaning lady called in sick, there would be hell to pay.
When moral values align with property values, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and every other kind of phobia has space to sprout like weeds in a well-tended garden. Primrose paths may unclutter the overscheduled mind but they can also restrict us from seeing the bigger world – and larger issues – faced by other earthly garden inhabitants.
Suburban white kids blast Kanye and Drake from their newly acquired Jeeps, tossing the n-word around like a football. No relevance, no foul, no reason to take pause or become concerned.
Do these hip-hop chants erase the lines between black and white or rather do they affirm that no ethnic slur is off limits? When does that singular word suddenly transcend Spotify and transform itself into invective?
When I was nine, my second cousin came over to my house. His dad was black and his mom Jewish. As we walked to the local deli for sandwiches, I was enthralled. He was tall and handsome with a towering afro, funny and the coolest guy I had ever met.
But even at nine, I could see some of my 1970’s middle-class neighbors twinge uncomfortably as we walked by. Even the local deli guy seemed to rush us through our order. I was still a child but I immediately recognized instinctual bias baked into the rolls and roast beef.
Has anything changed? In a 2008 editorial in , Lawrence Levy said in an Opinion piece “It’s not that most suburbanites are racist, but rather that they tolerate more manifestations of racial bias than their urban and rural counterparts.” And maybe that’s my point. We may be willing to let the slings and arrows of racial profiling fall where they may as long as they don’t pierce the clapboard foundations of our lives.
We march for marriage equality but step gingerly when gay families arrive on the first day of nursery school. We rail against the building of border walls but spend our time constructing fences and alarming our homes. We cry out for the victims of Mother Emanuel Church but stay firmly rooted in the pews of our own houses of worship.
Everyone’s a little bit racist… is that a reasonable explanation for biased asides, innocuous innuendo and sideways glances? Do we get a free pass if we afflict no perceived cost on others? Do our significant property lines and charitable excess shield us from honest reproach?
And in pointing my fingers at some of my suburban neighbors, am I ignoring the white elephant in my living room? Aren’t I guilty of espousing tolerance and understanding behind a screen door of exclusivity?
All my life most of my friends have been white, and I grew up in urban communities in New York and Los Angeles. Almost all of my friends in my suburban town are white. Not black, Chinese, Hispanic or any other ethnic group. I may abhor racism but I seem to masterfully straddle the thin white line between talking the talk and actually walking the walk.
I believed by moving to a more liberal town, I could hold on to my liberal beliefs. And maybe I have. But are there enough Facebook declarations, clothing drives and charitable color runs to counteract the black-and-white, them vs. us differences in our minds?
We may paint our houses in perfectly matched hues and wallpaper over the cracks in our moral foundations. We may think money and securities will secure a better future for us, our children and our country.
But I leave you with this. One’s quest for a life cannot spackle over a house divided. Because only when our walls come down and we open our minds to confront our own biases will we truly be at home.
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General Election: Nov 3, 2020
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