Saturday, July 14, 2018

Play the Hand Dealt

I found this editorial in the New York Times from three years ago and the irony cannot be lost.  I like my coffee like my men, hot and black.  Well toss that expression in the trash heap as it is now offensive and politically incorrect or insensitive.  Well never been good at card games.

Stop Playing the ‘Race Card’ Card

So, Starbucks’ chief executive, Howard Schultz, wants us to serve the country coffee and a race dialogue.

This week Schultz announced that the chain’s baristas would have the option to write the words “race together” on cups of coffee and engage customers in a racial dialogue.

The suspicion and ridicule of this idea has been swift and broad. It has been mocked as impractical, hypocritical and even opportunistic.

Kate Taylor wrote in Entrepreneur Magazine:

“Tone-deaf and self-aggrandizing aspects of Race Together haven’t helped in establishing a strong base for employees to build on. Starbucks’ press photos for the event appear to feature only white employees. The press release on Race Together bizarrely leads with the subheading ‘It began with one voice,’ painting Howard Schultz as a visionary progressive for daring to discuss race — something others, especially people of color, haven’t exactly been silent on in recent months or the last couple centuries.”

And yet, I would like to assume that the motive is noble even if something about it feels a shade off. Wanting to do something — even this — has to have a greater moral currency than resigning oneself to doing nothing.

So, in that spirit, let me start this portion of the conversation with this: Let’s all agree to strike the phrase “playing the race card” from all future conversation.

I was reminded of how toxic this term is in an interview, published this week, that former Vice President Dick Cheney did with Playboy magazine.

The interviewer asked:

“At different points, President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have suggested that racism is a factor in criticism of them. Is there any truth in that?”
Cheney responded:

“I think they’re playing the race card, in my view. Certainly we haven’t given up — nor should we give up — the right to criticize an administration and public officials. To say that we criticize, or that I criticize, Barack Obama or Eric Holder because of race, I just think it’s obviously not true. My view of it is the criticism is merited because of performance — or lack of performance, because of incompetence. It hasn’t got anything to do with race.”

Before we dissect the use of “playing the race card here,” let’s deal with the questioner and the answer more broadly. They both trade in racial absolutes, which is a mistake and diverts from honest dialogue.

“There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President.” But he continued, “Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.”

Furthermore, he explained:

“You can be somebody who, for very legitimate reasons, worries about the power of the federal government — that it’s distant, that it’s bureaucratic, that it’s not accountable — and as a consequence you think that more power should reside in the hands of state governments. But what’s also true, obviously, is that philosophy is wrapped up in the history of states’ rights in the context of the civil-rights movement and the Civil War and Calhoun. There’s a pretty long history there. And so I think it’s important for progressives not to dismiss out of hand arguments against my Presidency or the Democratic Party or Bill Clinton or anybody just because there’s some overlap between those criticisms and the criticisms that traditionally were directed against those who were trying to bring about greater equality for African-Americans.”

Attorney General Holder for his part told ABC News in July:

“You know, people talking about taking their country back. … There’s a certain racial component to this for some people. I don’t think this is the thing that is a main driver.”
Neither man was dealing in absolutes, but in nuance. The deliberate use of “some” people in both cases blunts the kind of retort that Cheney delivers. And there is empirical evidence that “some” people is correct here. In a New York Times/CBS News poll taken in 2008 when Obama was running for office, 19 percent of respondents said they didn’t think most people they knew would vote for a black presidential candidate and 6 percent said that they wouldn’t vote for one themselves.

Cheney’s attempt at blanket absolution from what was not a blanket accusation holds no weight.

But now, back to that detestable phrase, “playing the race card.”

I have a particular revulsion for this phrase because of all that it implies: that people often invoke race as a cynical ploy to curry favor, or sympathy, and to cast aspersions on the character of others.

Maybe there are some people who do this, but I have never known a single person to admit to it or be proven to have done it.

Sure, living in a society still replete with racial bias can make one hypersensitive, to the point of seeing it even when it isn’t there. But this to me isn’t evidence of malicious intent, but rather the manifestation of chronic injury.

Furthermore, there are surely still people like the ones Booker T. Washington described:
“There is another class of coloured people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs — partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs.”

But those who can realize a profit pale in comparison to the vast majorities of regular people trying to get by. To confuse the two is a deliberate deception.

It is one thing to debate the presence of racial motive in a circumstance, but it is quite another to suggest that people who suspect a racial component are exploiting some mythological, vaunted position and prerogative of aggrieved groups or exerting the exclusionary authority of the dominant group.

And furthermore, what other forms of discrimination are so routinely diminished and delegitimized in this way — cast as a game, a tactic or a stratagem?

The truth is that the people who accuse others — without a shred of evidence — of “playing the race card,” claiming that the accusations of racism are so exaggerated as to dull the meaning of the term, are themselves playing a card. It is a privileged attempt at dismissal.

They seek to do the very thing they condemn: shut down the debate with a scalding-hot charge.

Now, about that coffee…

I cannot stress enough that Key and Peele were the arbiters of looking at race through a prism and we  clearly need that today.  Starbucks has come a long way since that and a Barista has since made fun of a person with a speech impediment so that bias training clearly worked as it neglected all the other biases we carry.  Or this may be just Philadelphia.  Love your cream cheese though!

I am well aware since relocating to Nashville I have found myself in quandary struggling with my own biases and issues surrounding race and class and the inventory checklist made me look at the years in the Seattle schools compared to Nashville and I had many incidents and issues that easily are similar to Nashville but the level and depth and consistency no.  Here poverty is such a damaging factor to the psyches of children it is much akin to a Soldier returning from war it is that bad.

I recall one school in Seattle reading an editorial about education among minorities and how few make it to college to a group of 8th graders and a Student called his Grandmother to inform her that I was reading racist propaganda.  The Principal was immediately called, he came to the room to ask me what I was reading, I handed him the New York Times Editorial page and pointed to the column and more importantly the Author's picture, Bob Herbert, which he promptly snatched from my hand and left the portable I was in.   Nothing more was said or mentioned.

Now the back story:  The day I took the job at Pathfinder an alternative school, I was taken into the same Principals office to be warned about the same problems in that class. The Teacher was on leave, the current Substitute also taking a leave so they were looking for someone for the last few weeks of school.  There had been problems with the Students having sexual encounters in the Portable bathroom and in turn the main building ones as well and that the Eighth Grade end of year field trip was coming up so they were on a tight leash.  No one was to use the portables rest room and they were to be escorted to the rest room with the appropriate adult, so boys will be taken by a male Teacher or Administrator and girls by myself with again someone else watching the room while this observation/supervision takes place.  Now let me talk about this for a minute and warn anyone who takes this on that in what is already a highly charged sexual situation to put an adult who is a stranger and unfamiliar to the staff and students  to stand in a rest room to "watch" girls or boys using the facilities can be a situation in the making.  I stood in the hall and called "time" and when asked what I was doing by another kid the girl told her that they are in trouble and left it at that.  I said to the kids and later the Principal that they would have one scheduled bathroom break for all before and after lunch as it took only that one time to stop that bullshit.  They do this in Nashville and for good reason I now realize with the endless sexual assaults and violence here by kids it is easier to simply have a rest room schedule and do it en mass.   I get it now as I look back at this and realize how poverty and race are the twins in American education but how you respond is the difference. 

The hand wringing and pearl clutching as a response to this was almost always an issue at the alternative schools in Seattle as they were flexible with discipline and in turn often fraught with a lack of structure that children from poverty need.  I went back to Pathfinder a year before I left Seattle at their new location being curious if they had changed.  They  had taken over an elementary school, Cooper, that was closed in an acrimonious fight as at that time the district was under an equally divisive Superintendent as is here and she was cutting a wide swath with closing underperforming schools.  What I found when I went to Cooper was a well  structured school and on the day I was there was there Field Day which the school was taking as final moment to share both happiness and grief.   The class I was in with Special Needs were visiting Pathfinder that day to meet the fellow students who now would be joining them.  I went along with concern and the Principal seemed to recognize me and I played dumb and warned the Teacher if she elected to remain there to realize her children would be possibly at risk joining kids who did not have the structure and order in which she was used to.   I left it at that as I knew she would leave as Pathfinder had a rep that I need not clarify   I was not shocked as when I returned that last year and saw the state of the former Cooper I knew I was right.   The Principal was the same man who was now over 300 pounds and the class was a nightmare.   I was there for a half day and did little to exchange or communicate with the students (a situation I now do but consciously and deliberately)  but called the Administration several times to maintain discipline.  I learned there at that moment what would become the precursor to Nashville Public Schools.

And yesterday I was chatting with one of my many bus drivers I know from my travels across the city and he is a transplant from Memphis, he is black and a native Tennessean, so it was interesting to hear his observations about Nashville in comparison to Memphis which has a way larger poverty rate than Nashville and even more troubled schools as they are run by the State (which Nashville was at risk four years ago and clearly it not any better but hey).  The Driver shared with me the problems he sees with the kids, the lack of discipline and the seemingly disinterested ways that anyone has in managing their personal behavior and accepting criticism about said behavior.  My personal favorite it the bizarre queues that sort of snake along with wide gaps at a coffee shop which is utterly confusing as to who is waiting to order versus getting one.   They have a real issue with personal space here and the need to avoid any appearance of being too close to I assume black people so they just do it everywhere and therefore avoid the whole race thing.  Or they are just idiots.  Tough call.  But all of it centers on the issues regarding challenging behavior and expectations as it will deal with the issue of race.  The odd networking of hiring which reeks of both nepotism and cronyism and you see that all over the city in varying positions which further frustrates those who come from outside.  An incident is that the schools have done that here and he shared with me that he has a Manager that has never driven a bus, worked in transit and came from Walmart.  Nuff said.  And this coupled with   the lack of a Union that enables stronger affirmative action hiring and promotion practices, better job security and wages enable this to go unfettered.  With the few jobs that require higher education those are well secured and the philosophy that "like hires like" as an HR policy.

Aside from the lack of intellect, the lack of humor is another quality that dominates the discussion and my driver and I laughed at how pretentious and unfriendly they are even in the most basic civility.  He drives a special bus (yes this was in bigger and better however) during the week that is to the outlying boroughs that are largely Government clerks and Vanderbilt workers who we laughed make well under 50K a year, have little to no education (the better to keep wages stagnant) and yet act as if they are highly competent capable professionals who don't need to even scan their employee issued bus cards upon entering.   As he said, "They have their noses so high in the air I am surprised they can see the bus token machine."  Again this has long been my presumed version of what defines the Nashville Way  but there is some satisfaction in having one recognize and confirm your observations as not solely one of personal bias affected by race, age and gender.  Now my Driver is black and almost all the Drivers I do speak to are black and I don't even think of it but they are the ones to whom I speak most often. and we have a fairly open dialog about race and class the dominant issues here in Nashville.  They cross genders  and ages but  the ones I am most acquainted with are men who have been in the field for years and are aware of the transit issues and the problems that could be addressed if in fact they listened to the community they serve and work to address them instead of coming up with insane schemes to throw out to voters where they give the "appearance" of listening.  Yes this is what  is the public hearings that fill daily schedules here and no one, no one, listens or even gives a shit.   The deal was long made in the backrooms and whatever appearances are made are to make sure no cards are tossed and accusations made about race.   We fear that card like we fear the Joker, the Batman kind not the card one.

Our current Director of Schools is not afraid, nor those members of the School Board who share the same color to allege that other members are Racist and that much of the questions asked are mired in that issue.  Funny they are Public Servants serving the public and requesting an audit of public expenses regarding taxpayer money is their duty and responsibility but hey in Nashville we don't do that.  And here is where North and South differ as in Seattle when this happened and we had a Black Woman as Super she was audited and immediately found to have inappropriate contract agreements that were over 1M dollars and she was terminated.  No cards tossed none needed.

But all this time I have never thought about Race in the way I do here.  I am hyper aware in ways that bother me, noting on class lists the kids who were issues and what color they were.  And why?  Because I recall my conversation with the Teacher when I asked if I should be concerned about a dialogue I was hearing and his first question was:  "What color are they?" Then this later was  brought to head with my joking sarcastically about "the good ole days" and the kids hysterical response I was a racist resulting in my walking out.  That Principal who was there only a year is now gone and a new replacement in his stead and I am sure that another year of order and structure will be lost and these children less intellectually capable than before.  This is what poses as education.  And yes  these are problems that  affect education everywhere but none greater than here.   The Teacher at East Magnet High who quit for a tone deaf racially charged post on social media quit but then again so did her Principal later this year and in turn promoted. Really? Did that issue ever really get resolved?     One wonders what is behind most of these turnovers and I suspect race is a large factor and it stymies everyone in what and how to resolve the escalating discipline and violence issues that dominate the schools.   And yet it is less about color and more about behavior and while the schools are largely black in population the reality is this crosses the race lines but when you hear repeatedly, "Go to Hume Fogg" that is less about education and more about race.  Hume Fogg is just a high school and one largely white  in composition with some faces of color who have families committed to at least getting their kids some education but the school  is not special nor great, in Seattle it would be just a high school.  Oh wait it is - Garfield.  Yes for years that was the special school that was as segregated as it was integrated, that is what defines education today.

I find self examination a double edged sword and it is a sword.  The reality is that with Schools starting next month I chose to go to Iceland.  I want nothing to do with the start of this until they have had a month to calm down and there is a need for calming.  The District is in an uproar over the budget, the demands for an audit and in turn the varying campaigns across the city to paint this black as in the card and not of professional obligations.   The children here are incredibly violent with over 4 shootings in 3 days, culminating in a major shootout and car jacking on day 4, a store in Antioch being raided with the entire stock being taken forcing the woman to close her business. The theft was caught on camera and the robbers were all black and some were women. Watching it was distressing to say the least and this is not the first nor last story of this kind.    The endless stories are almost always about young black people and the endless thefts, robberies and violence.  One woman showed her video about porch pirates running amok over her packages and it culminated with a child taking a rock to threaten her on a walk home and taking her purse later that same day. Another woman sharing how a child with a gun took her purse and car outside her home after following her from the mall.  I suspect we have crew following UPS and Fed Ex drivers as within an hour of my package delivered it was gone.  One hour?  This is living in Nashville.  It has affected deeply how I see race and I see it as one filled with rage and poverty and in turn endlessly dangerous to me and others.  This is not bias this is fact when there is little to contradict otherwise.  Does it excuse or justify any attitudes I may have as a result?  I cannot say I can only do so I keep my mind and eyes open. Its all I can do until I leave. That and require signature required for deliveries and in turn picking stuff up at Amazon lockers, UPS, FedEx or USPS offices.  This is what we do, we change our behaviors and our attitudes when we cannot change anything else. 

And that includes a move to the dark side and with that of late I have found myself again questioning race and wondering why so many white people feel compelled to call Police when they see a Black person doing anything that in any other circumstance would be not worth noting.   But the oddness is that it is often in cities and places where one presumes racial attitudes are more progressive, such as Yale campus, Philadelphia, etc.    Yet if we were to call the Police in Nashville for the same the phone would be on perpetual busy signal and here is where there is real crime and largely done by black people.  So go figure as I doubt anyone calls anyone they are really self obsessed and lazy here.  And if that makes me a Racist for speaking the truth I take the card and will play my hand.  But the white people are as well.   And yet I finding once again a plant taken from my front porch, the third in as many weeks, a package taken in midday when I was around the corner and other vandalism that my video camera proves time and time again it is a black face doing this.  Do I know this person and is the same person?  I cannot tell, but as of late the oddness and frequency of this makes me wonder if I am being watched and targeted for reasons unclear.  Again I have never felt compelled to call the Cops anywhere about a black person or any person of color going about their business and yet in Nashville I have seen first hand a group of young black girls grab a cake from Publix and run out the door being chased by the clerk, seen a group of young black men circle the block looking at cars and later seeing one walking by checking doors so much for being a racist or a good citizen.  Truly no one helps me so quid pro quo and all that.  But I see why suddenly the see something say something mentality has been suddenly turned on full stream with the current political climate a permissive one that has enabled this to go unchecked.  

I truly don't care about Nashville, the people or the bullshit that transpires as Christianity, Hospitality or any other label they bestow upon themselves to enable themselves to take the moral high ground.  The reality is that this City is not a city and it has no clue on what it wants but it wants money and for the privileged few that is all they know and care about.   And I could care less as well.  17 months and counting.  I suspect I will play a few more hands before I go. 

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