Talk about being in a bubble, beyond the reach of what’s happening elsewhere.
But am I? Are you? Is anyone?
In the small northern Vermont town of Lowell a guy who had been in a meditation retreat in an isolated cabin since mid-March, no phone, no media, no human contact, emerged to a changed world. It blew his mind. (“Did I Miss Anything? A Man Emerges From a 75 Day Silent Retreat,” NYTIMES, June 3,2020)
It blows my mind, too. And I haven’t been hiding.
In the 1930’s when the notion of building a north-south highway that would mirror the then-new Skyline Drive in Virginia was proposed to the Vermont legislature the plan, after much debate, was defeated, but not so much because of environmental reasons (although there were plenty of those) but because it would encourage “outsiders” to come to the state. Outsiders in those days meant people from New York City, people who were thought to be, well, different. The Vermont Digger, an on-line Vermont news source, in a March 2015 story mentions that more than “a hint of anti-Semitism” wafted through the opposition. A 1995 write up by The Vermont Historical Society fails to make any such reference.
Outsiders have been seen as “different” for a very long time. But we already knew that.
In the 1960’s I was in an automobile accident at a ski area, probably Mt. Snow, during a snowstorm with my first husband and a college friend who was in the back seat. As we left the slopes the snow became heavy and our car skidded across the road. Then were hit by another car from behind. (It wasn’t serious, but I remember being in the hospital overnight.) We were driving a VW Beetle. The car that hit us was a Mercedes. The next day the Brattleboro Reformer wiped its hands of all of us in a news story, saying essentially: a “foreign vehicle was hit by another foreign vehicle, and both drivers were from out of state.” Move on folks, nothing to see here.
All three of us were white. Some difference.
One percent of Vermont’s population is black. We are basically a white state. Our prison population, however, does not reflect our actual population. Eleven per cent of our prison population is black. How did that happen? You can only imagine what it must be like, if you’re not white, driving around on our rural roads through small communities that haven’t changed much over time, with a skin color that is obviously different from most everyone else’s. Black among a landscape of white. You must have come from elsewhere, and the odds are it is an elsewhere that may not be as good as this place. Some lesser urban place, probably. So, what, then, are you here to do? What is your purpose? A few years ago a parent reported to the local police a suspicious person standing and watching a school soccer game, or maybe it was a baseball game, here in my little town. That suspicious person turned out to be a person from India, hired to work at the local technical company. He was different, you know, “different,” not black, but darker than us.
We can’t say that we no longer skirt racial issues. Saying you don’t see race don’t mean much, as it only tries to make race invisible, as if no one knows, as if race is not even noticed when it very much should be taken into account. A phrase in a recent column in the Addison Independent, our local liberal-minded county newspaper, jarred me. The column, usually philosophical ruminations about our history, is written by a former local professor and one-time town board member, and a liberal. A recent, and laudable, column was about historical racism in the era of eugenics. This time the subject was the many achievements of Woodrow Wilson, a president who had a notable impact on this country’s history, much of it positive. Wilson, about whom we have a heightened critical awareness these days, was also a southerner in both heritage and values, in word and in deed. White supremacy values, believing, for example, that segregation was good for blacks and should be total. (Details can be found in The Atlantic, November 27, 2015 issue.) While putting forward Wilson’s “high moral principles” and “great moral courage,” was it enough to preface this comment with “Notwithstanding his racial prejudice...” ? Doesn’t this avoid having to say that he had, most unfortunately, a fatal flaw? One that prevents his moral principles and moral courage from being “great”? Can one “not withstand,” his racial prejudices? Should we not condemn as strongly as we praise? Do his accomplishments completely override his sin?
As protests continue now in this country, must we continue to hear “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” with regard to police behavior? Is it necessary to flatter in order to condemn? We know that many police departments have acted righteously, and where they have been peaceful toward protesters the protesters in turn have been peaceful. This is proof of the possible. It requires a degree of humility. People (read: police) resent being told they are not behaving appropriately, that they are part of a group that has been shown to be in the wrong. And honestly, their view of society may well be shaped by the crap they often have to deal with. Given all this, it doesn’t take much to upset the balance when people are angry: a shove, an angry curse, an aggressive gesture. Worse yet, when police are togged out in riot gear with batons, pepper spray, “foam projectiles” and other quasi-military equipment, they are sending the message they are ready for battle. It’s almost like incitement; when you’re in battle dress the likelihood that there really will be a battle rises significantly. How ironic, then, that in protesting brutality you may meet brutality.
It’s not clear how this is going to end. If it’s going to end. Sure, the protests may stop, but the feelings that sparked those protests will not disappear. The sad thing about all this is that it’s hard to know what the outcome will be, since we are lacking the leadership it takes to respond in a major, positive way. Change may have to happen in many different places, bit by bit. The other “outsiders,” immigrants, are not named as part of this particular movement. They too, are victims of brutality, and not just from police.
Where do we end up? Does anyone imagine the Trump administration would unequivocally work toward racial equality, unity, and peace?