As civil unrest continues to tear apart my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri in the aftermath of last Saturday’s shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer, I ran across a story I wrote, but never published, in 1996 back before personal blogs were around for just these kind of closely-held thoughts.
(Note: this is not a running related post, so you may bail out here with that information in hand)
Back in the mid-1990s the country was in the throes of the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson verdicts while trying to digest the meaning and value of the Million Man March. In the ensuing years many other challenges and difficulties, both domestic and international, have arisen. But through it all, and here again with the suddenness of a piercing bullet, the issue of race has erupted to remind us how it remains the central hurdle in America’s path toward the fulfillment of her founding charter.
Murmurs of jazz mingled in the warm redolence of fresh breads and flavored coffees as the Sunday brunch crowd relaxed at their favorite suburban eatery. Amidst this cultured ambiance two couples settled at their table where they began passing thick folds of the Sunday paper to peruse independently over idly crossed legs.
“Look,” remarked one of the women after orders had been taken and Bloody Marys delivered, “a mother in Detroit selling her son to pay off a drug debt.” She glanced up. “Is that unbelievable?”
“I think I did hear something about that,” said her friend to her left. “And I also read there was another woman and her two young children in Dallas who got killed by her own cousin over a set of hub caps. Gold wheels, actually, but supposedly it’s the latest status symbol of the drug culture, and kids all over the country have been getting killed over them. It’s just beyond comprehension the insanity.”
The first woman shook her head then folded her section of paper to her lap as if any more such information would put her off her appetite. The two women worked at the same investment firm in the large eastern city, one as a market analyst, the other a communications officer. Both traveled widely and had teenage children at home, each of whom attended private school.
Her husband, who sat to her right, had been the one insisting on private schools. She had always believed in public education. Maybe it didn’t offer the best facilities, but what it lacked in hardware it made up in growth and social awareness. But here in their favorite suburban restaurant in the comfort of chaste white linen, talk had turned to an area far removed from the lambent ease of its setting.
“You know, I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never even been to the inner city,” revealed the first lady’s husband. “I wish I knew a way to get involved. Honest. I mean, people call all the time looking for money from Boys and Girls Clubs, or Big Brothers, but I don’t want it to be just some donation. I’d like to get involved, but I don’t know how; there’s no context. I wouldn’t even know how to go into that part of town comfortably.”
These were no patrician autocrats jawing over eggs Benedict, no avatars of the Eastern Establishment, but rather middle class, state educated Baby Boomers who parlayed decent backgrounds and hard work into comfortable livings for themselves and their families. Yet in the midst of this personal fulfillment they carried a genuine, if clouded anxiety about the country’s bifurcated state, and held little understanding as how to address it, even with the wherewithal at hand.
“I’m not even sure what can be done,” said the second woman’s husband as he broke a soft roll in half. “The question is can we afford to do nothing but worry about whether a Democrat or Republican takes the next election, or if the market can sustain its run up the Dow? How much longer can we keep building these walled, suburban communities like that village, what do they call it, you know, that Disney utopia they erected down in Florida somewhere? Anyway, can we keep building those kind of places while leaving the inner cities to become post-apocalyptic visions of Mad Max? It’s just a matter of time before we re-visit another sixty’s legacy, fire in the cities.”
“You think so?” Sally feathered her hair with a rake of her fingers, “What would set it off?
“What difference would it make?” said hubby #1. “Look how easily South Central L.A. came apart after the Rodney King trial.”
“Just reading about these incidents makes you realize how uninvolved these people are,” agreed wife#2. “They are not part of the system in any contributing way.”
“I’ve been to Brazil on business,” replied hubby #2, “and I can see the same thing happening here. The gap between rich and poor growing wider by the minute, and forget the middle class. They’ll have a department of paleontology assigned to it at every major university soon the way it’s heading.”
As the spoke he buttered the second half of his roll then topped it with a knife’s tip of honey.
“What’s going to happen when we all get older and there are fewer and fewer able-earning tax payers coming up to maintain the services we’re going to require? That’s the real problem, not whether Israelis and Muslims can live together, or if O.J. can find Nicole and Ron’s real killer.”
“I heard something one time that really opened my eyes to the different worlds we inhabit,” added the other hubbby, “I was downtown, and overheard this black lady answering questions from some welfare worker. One question was, ‘where do you live?” And the lady says, ‘I stays with my aunt at such and such address.’ ‘So you live at such and such?’ says the woman behind the desk for confirmation.”
“Right,” said his wife searching for the point. “And…”
“And the lady,” he continued, “says, ‘No, I don’t live there. I just stays there.’ Like it was two different things completely, living and staying. Who do you know who differentiates between living and staying?”
“I saw something like that when Ted Koppel was interviewing a group of gang kids in LA after the Rodney King riots,” said the first wife. “He asked if they saw the futility of burning up what was, in fact, their own neighborhood in South Central LA. So in the end the only ones who really got hurt were themselves.
“These kids knew who Ted Koppel was, so they were on their best behavior. But this one kid looked at Koppel like he was from Neptune when he asked that question. ‘It ain’t my neighborhood,’ the kid told him. ‘Nothin` here’s mine.’ He said it straight at him, just like that. Not a hitch in his self-understanding whatsoever. They just had completely different points of origin, talking right past one another.”
In the long wake of the O.J. verdict and the Million Man March these two couples, and many more like them who share a dormant generational tradition of social activism, along with an awareness of the acute social separation in the land and the profound enigma of its seeming permanence, people whose lives are beginning to come free of the responsibility of parenting and the empty joys of acquisition, suggests that the climate which spawned the storm of the civil rights movement two generations ago may be on the verge of forming again. It may not be a mood prevalent throughout the electorate, but this kind of conversation, spoken in uniforms of silks and woolens and smiles sequestered from decay and want, may reflect the leading edge of comprehension that for a vital society to flourish in this common new world it cannot, as a practical economic matter, tolerate its most populace minority to be marginalized to the point of utter dependence and consequent despair.
And so begins another emergent regard to end the bitter reign of America’s most vexing and corrosive of social ills, the original sin which may never, in fact, ever be cleansed. And not because of what America is – because for all that may be wrong about her, America still represents the best that man has yet to become, at least in the form of its founding ideals.
No, the problem stems from what mankind, itself, is: groupings of isolated, fearful, covetous primates – high primates, yes, but primates nonetheless — dealing with the stresses of too few resources and too much competition. And yet when presented with yet another stark example of our chronic social condition, we still feel that on some level this invidious affliction may yet be tractable after all. That it could, at its root, be no more than a selfish act of self-extension to address its solution.
Perhaps those middle-class diners in their suburban eatery with their filaments of concern come to light should venture just once into the heart of an American city, with or without context in hand. And once there ask: why is it that though ostensibly free, the citizens there have been cast and maintained as nothing more than a drain on society with nowhere to go and nothing left to lose? In the end whose loss is that really?