Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Elizabeth and Hazel and the Challenge of Racial Reconciliation

I recently completed David Margolick’s fascinating book, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, which caused me again to reflect on the difficulty and challenge of authentic racial reconciliation in our country. Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan Massery were frozen in time by a picture taken in 1957 during the court-ordered integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Elizabeth was one of nine African American students who voluntarily chose to fulfill a court order to desegregate the all white Central High School. On the day they approached the school, the “Little Rock Nine” as they came to be called, were met with a vitriolic and hateful crowd of whites who berated them, spit on them and blocked their entrance to the school, as well as National Guardsmen ordered by Arkansas’s governor to prohibit them from entering. On that day for some reason Elizabeth was separated from the other eight African American students and had to face the mob on her own. In a famous picture that came to symbolize the white racism and hatred of the 1950’s South, Elizabeth walks in the foreground with the mob all around her. In the background, there is one white girl, Hazel Bryan, whose screaming face is filled with racist hate. Elizabeth and Hazel tells the story of that day and the chaotic first year at Central, and then chronicles the lives of these two women in the following decades up to the present.

Ironically, neither Elizabeth or Hazel actually graduated from Central High School (both were 15 years old at the time of the picture). Elizabeth spent a year at the school every day being harassed to the point of tears, hit over the head with books, and spit upon. While the acts of hate were performed by a small group of white students, the vast majority of whites simply looked away, and decades later have yet to own up to their collective responsibility for the emotional turmoil Elizabeth went through. The next year she transferred back to the all black high school, and eventually joined the Army before finishing college as an adult. She never married but gave birth to two sons, and continued to live in Little Rock. Hazel on the other hand, was withdrawn from the school by her parents (in part because of the efforts at integration) and went to a small rural high school, but never graduated as she got married while still an adolescent. She became a mother and a housewife, very active in her church, and generally avoided the turmoil just a few miles away in Little Rock.

However, the image of Elizabeth walking into a hostile crowd with Hazel screaming in the background was sent around the world and became the image of America’s inability to deal with racism. About eight years after the event when both women were in their twenties, Hazel called Elizabeth and offered a brief apology for what she had done that day. The conversation was brief, the apology accepted and little else was particularly memorable. Elizabeth, who had been a bright student with hopes of becoming a doctor or a lawyer, struggled with what much later was diagnosed as post-traumatic stress. She struggled with depression and went from job to job trying to recover. Then in the early 1990’s Hazel and Elizabeth began talking and meeting. Hazel reached out to Elizabeth and offered her both financial and emotional support that Elizabeth found empowering. Eventually they became “friends” and went around to schools and other public venues talking about the experience in Little Rock and the need for racial reconciliation. Their friendship became so memorable that in 1997 President Clinton gave them a special award on the 40th anniversary of the original event.

However, there was always tension between the two women. Through Hazel’s support and help, Elizabeth began to heal and come out of her depression, but as she did she became aware that Hazel seemed to gloss over the events 40 years earlier and had conveniently forgeotten some of things she said and did in those days when Elizabeth was being harassed. For her part Hazel felt Elizabeth was always bringing up the past and caught in negativity. Hazel also was publicly  criticized and questioned about her sincerity; was she simply trying to rehabilitate her public image or had she really changed? Like many whites of her generation and even today, Hazel wanted to “put the past behind her” and move on without coming to grips with personal and historical responsibility for the suffering and pain that was caused by their hateful actions or their willful apathy. Hazel thought Elizabeth was stuck in the past, while Elizabeth thought Hazel only thought of the future to ignore what she had done. As a result the friendship eventually was strained to the point where neither woman spoke to each other. Margolick ends his book on that note, saying if the women every get back together it will have to be on their own private terms.

As I read the book, I was particularly troubled by the actions and attitude of Hazel. She seemed to minimize the impact of her actions or even the social milieu in which the events of Little Rock occurred. While she was directly involved in a way that many whites were not, her attitude reflects a general attitude among many, if not most, whites today who say that slavery, Jim Crow and the struggle for Civil Rights is past history, and that we don’t have to own up to it. Whites feel that they don’t have to recognize the tangible material and physical benefits that years of black oppression has afforded those of us who are white. Moreover, Hazel reflected to me the often shallow understanding of the pain and suffering still experienced by people of color in our society every day. We who are white don’t see that experience and so don’t acknowledge that it still exists.

I often thought that somehow we need a Truth and Reconciliation commission in the United States, much like was conducted after the end of Apartheid in South Africa. Too often we who are white want reconciliation without truth. Every fall I teach a course on Race and Ethnic Relations in which students read two books on the history of racism and ethnic oppression (Racism: A Short Historyby Geroge Fredrickson; A Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki) in the United States. What strikes me is how little my students (both white and students of color) know of this history, and how shocked they are that in their schooling they were only ever give the sanitized, superficial version. When they realize the central role that racism has played in their history and development of this nation politically, economically and culturally, it is hard to ignore the reality of personal and institutional racism still at work today. We will never get to reconciliation without first acknowledging the truth of our history and our corporate responsibility to  build a society not only on freedom and equality, but also on justice for all.

The fact that Elizabeth and Hazel ends unresolved is not only the story of two women of Little Rock, but also the story of a nation which was built on the back of slavery, committed virtual genocide against its indigenous residents, used Asians and Hispanics for economic gain, and continues to vilify Muslims and exclude immigrants in ways that reflect the worst of our history. Elizabeth and Hazel reminds us we can’t have reconciliation without truth, and that until that happens we as a people will be a racially fragmented and divided people.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

A Letter to My Doctor

A couple weeks ago I wrote the letter below to my primary care doctor, Dr. Jason Chen, thanking him for taking an approach that was much more humane and personable than most doctors I have known. Ironically, I read this article while waiting for over four hours for a small operation. In that setting I was treated a number on an assembly line – the exact opposite sort of treatment for which I thank Dr. Chen. After receiving the letter and thanking me, Dr. Chen asked that I publish the letter to get the word out about the need for reform in the medical profession. Here follows my letter with some minor amendments. I also encourage you to read the article for which a link is provided.

Dr. Chen,

I was reading an article in UTNE Reader the other day on the controversy around so-called alternative medicine, and thought of you. While the efficacy of particular alternative treatments can be questioned, the same could be said about traditional remedies. What stuck out to me in the article was the importance of talking to one’s patients and taking a preventive, proactive approach to healthcare, rather the approach of waiting for symptoms and then prescribing medication – all approaches I have experienced with you since our first meeting last fall.

I thought of you because in our first meeting, as the article describes, you took over an hour to get to know me and my health history, as well as my perceptions, feelings and hopes regarding health care.  In my case this approach, along with your ongoing concern, has yielded dramatic results: 30 pounds lost weight, lowered cholesterol and blood pressure, a return to a more active lifestyle and general overall healthier outlook on life. There have been some medicines and treatments along the way to my health recovery, but I don’t think any of that would have had the same effect without your holistic concern for me as a person. 

This letter and article is my way of saying “THANK YOU” for your concern. At our last appointment, you seemed rushed and even said something about “working for the man” which suggested to me that you were feeling the pressures of our current health care system. As mentioned by one physician in the article: “The current system makes it nearly impossible for most doctors to be the nurturing caregivers who take the time to listen to us, bond with us, and guide us toward healthier lifestyles and lower levels of stress.” I hope you can fight that pressure and live in the tension between what you are sometimes required to do as part of the health system, and what you know and have shown to be most effective – at least in my case.


Drick Boyd

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Moses Walker Jr. and the Fallacy of Self-Defense

The recent shooting of off-duty Philadelphia Police officer Moses Walker, Jr.  proves the point that possessing a gun and knowing how to use it does not prepare one to defend oneself when you are surprised at gun point. On the early morning of August 18 Officer Walker was heading  home from his precinct when he was robbed at gun point by two men. While the details of what happened next are still being sorted out, Walker, who was armed, apparently tried to draw his gun but was shot and killed before he could get a shot off. Later his two assailants were caught and are currently being processed through the courts systems. Moses Walker Jr. was one of over 230 gun violence victims in Philadelphia this year, and one of over 32,000 nationwide.

Gun rights defenders – those who claim that having a gun protects you from would be offenders – should take pause. Moses Walker was a trained police officer, who as protocol requires, regularly practiced with his gun. Yet, even he was not able to defend himself.

Now some might say that such an incident means we have to have more guns in the hands of citizens and train people to defend themselves, but logic and the data suggests otherwise. While the National Rifle Association likes to regularly tell stories of gun owners defending themselves, the reality is that more often than not the opposite occurs. Insight into why this is so was made clear to me through a study done a few years ago with Muhlenberg College students who were put through the Pennsylvania State Police Firearms training. Some of the students were experienced gun users, others had no previous training or experience, but all passed the course. Then they were put in a situation where it appeared a gunman entered a classroom where they were in class; each of the students had their guns on them but none of them were able to get off a shot before they were “gunned down” with a paint ball. In analyzing the reasons for their ineffectiveness, the trainers pointed out that when accosted unexpectedly, our bodies go into a “fight or flight” mode, adrenaline kicks up and our heart pumps blood like mad to the extremities. The excess rush of blood hampered the trainees’ dexterity, and they were in some cases not even able to get the gun out of their holster. The trainers explained that it is only through regular sustained practice that trained officers are able to control their reaction enough to be effective in a high stakes situation.

The other reality is that pulling a gun on someone who pulls a gun on you, raises the stakes and creates a condition where injury is more likely to occur. Had Officer Walker not drawn his gun, he might have lived – minus his wallet. As a storeowner quoted by James Atwood (American and its Guns) said – "I don’t have a gun behind the counter so that I can live to the next robbery." Unfortunately, our “wild west” mentality is do deeply engrained and re-enforced by the media, it’s hard for us to see the simple logic of lowering the threshold to prevent unnecessary death

While there are not simple answers to the factors contributing to gun violence, reducing the flow of illegal guns to the street would be a major step. The city of Philadelphia and other PA communities have been blocked by the state legislature from enacting laws such as limiting the sale of handguns to one per month; requiring guns lost or stolen to reported to police; and putting a ban on assault style weapons. As a recent Philadelphia Inquirer editorial (August 23, 2012) pointed out “lawmakers in Harrisburg ….have steadfastly refused to pass legislation making it tougher to buy guns”, “have refused to clamp down on straw purchasers”, "have failed to close the 'Florida loophole’ which allows a person to carry a concealed gun in Pennsylvania even if his only permit is from another state.” Then it reports that Pennsylvania is in direct violation of the law when it says: “And despite a 2007 federal requirement, Pennsylvania has yet to give the National Instant Criminal Background Check System the records of 5000,000 people with mental illnesses who are barred from buying a handgun.”

The recent high profile shootings in Colorado, Wisconsin, and New York City coupled with the daily less-publicized violence that occurs in local communities must compel us to pressure our leaders and raise our voices against this madness. Polls show that most Americans agree with the sentiments expressed in this blog, but the concern has not risen to the level of acting and voting on those convictions. Until that happens and we get moving, the madness will continue.

(While this incident is several weeks old, I did not post this blog until now out of respect for Officer Walker's memory. By all accounts he was deeply loved and caring man, with a strong Christian faith. His "homegoing service" was a tribute to the character of a man who loved his community and lived his values every day.)