Dec. 1, 2014 - Ferguson


I hope we all know the truth by now.  This nation was created for the enjoyment of the members of a Club.  Inside the Club, this is the most beautiful, the greatest nation on the planet.  Outside the Club, not so much, although we’ve repeated that “greatest nation” trope so often that many of us believe it despite ample evidence to the contrary.  

Over time, we’ve expanded the rules for who could be in the Club.  Women can be in the Club now, although they have to put up with constant reminders that we’ve let them in.  Sometimes they are told that to stay in, they have to put out, and they should be grateful for the opportunity.

Lots of people who couldn’t have joined the Club a hundred or more years ago have done so.  Italians, Irish people, southern Europeans - they’re all in.  Other people can join if they conform to stereotypes.  Asians can be in the Club so long as they’re excellent at whatever discipline they pursue.  Black and brown people, African Americans, people of color, the Club is not available to them.  They are The Other, Langston Hughes’ darker brother.  Many of these folks succeed in spite of being out of the Club, and some of them actually manage to get inside,  but they are exceptional, and they are the exceptions.  

America was made by the people who are not in the Club, but it was not made for them.  It was made for the Club members.  It was made for white people.  

I want to digress here for a moment and say that, in the middle of a Facebook debate about the Ferguson verdict this week, a Facebook friend of a Facebook friend piped up to complain about the term ‘African American.’  Come on, he said.  They’re black people.  It’s enough already.  We don’t mind being called white.  So here’s the thing about the names.  People have been trying for 120 years to find a term for America’s Other People that would endorse their inherent worth and dignity.  It never works, because they’re still the Others.  Their Otherness just drags every name down to the level of just those people who aren’t white.  The truth is that America was just not made for them, and it’s still not.  

Many of the people I see posting on Facebook say they’re sympathetic to the plight of black people in America’s cities and towns, but disgusted by the violence that arose in reaction to the Grand Jury verdict.  They say, “Please explain to me what’s to be gained by burning down your own community.”

There’s an old saying I only learned recently - “As a parent, you’re only as happy as your least happy child.”  If America is our parent, we have some terribly unhappy children - desperate, heartbroken, overworked and underestimated.  I’ve been thinking about America from the family systems perspective, about our dysfunction.  

Imagine you had five children in your care.  You were happy to acknowledge three of them as yours.  You fed them well, took them shopping, gave them laptops and quality educations.  They slept on good mattresses with comfortable linens.  You told them stories and spent quality time with them.  

The other, two, though, you just couldn’t warm up to.  You were convinced that they were inferior; maybe they were adopted, or stepchildren.  Maybe they just didn’t look enough like you, or maybe their temperaments were not a good fit in the culture of your family.  Whatever the reason, they slept on cots in a shared bedroom not much bigger than a closet.  You forbade them unlimited access to the food in the kitchen, telling them that they couldn’t be trusted to eat responsibly.  You outsourced the responsibility for their education, sent them to boarding school in high school.  The love they felt from you was a dim bulb compared to the outpouring of warmth their siblings received.  By the way, let me say that, as a social worker, I’ve seen families like this one.  And as a citizen, I live in a country like it.  

Now, say that whenever that child tried to express their pain and fear, you told them they were exaggerating, that it couldn’t really be as bad as that, because they’re not starving or homeless.  There is a clinical correlation between parents who deny their children’s emotional state and children who self-harm.  When you deny people’s truth, they sometimes hurt themselves.  

Over the years, I’ve watched black people trying to explain their experience to white people, many of whom vehemently deny the truth being expressed to them.  Since the concept of the Other is perpetuated by the Normal People, many individuals have real difficulty accepting what American black experience says about white people.  As a white person, I find this conversation exhausting, but I can choose not to think about it.    America’s Others have to think about it whenever they encounter white people, pretty much daily. 

I’m not suggesting that I think the black experience in America is a singular one, nor am I saying that I understand it in any real first-hand way.  What I am saying is that we continue to punish our darker brothers for not being white.  Family systems, systems of oppression - they’re all systems.  The first step in healing broken families is in understanding the dysfunction, and the best beginning for that is active listening to each other.  If America is to heal its divisions, we must all be listening.  It’s hard not to hear the members of the Club, but it’s difficult to clearly hear the people outside the Clubhouse.

Ultimately, if we want to be the greatest nation on Earth, we will have to remake this country so that everyone’s in.  To accomplish that, we might just have to remake ourselves.