The NCAA and Lifting of Sanctions

Lion.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Lion. Photo by Callen Harty.

Two years ago the NCAA handed down harsh sanctions against Penn State for its handling of the Jerry Sandusky case. Some fans of Penn State and of college football complained that it was too harsh, that it penalized players for the actions of a disturbed coach and those who protected both him and their football program. The NCAA stood firm, disallowing the school from post-season play for four years and also limiting scholarships. Two days ago they lifted the worst of their sanctions half way through the penalty period.

I have mixed emotions about this. I understand that the current players and coaches had nothing to do with it. Those who did have faced the consequences. Sandusky is in prison for up to sixty years and will likely die there. Head coach Joe Paterno was fired after decades of running one of the most successful football programs in the country and died a short time later. The President, Vice-President, and Athletic Director of the school have all been charged with covering up Sandusky’s sex abuse crimes. They are awaiting trial. So all of the bad guys in this have faced the authorities in some way. Should the remaining bystanders be punished for the sins of others? Maybe the penalties were too harsh in the first place and maybe the NCAA should have just let the justice system take care of the issue.

Along with the sanctions noted above the NCAA also demanded Penn State educate its staff and students about sexual abuse and the school has done very well at that. The NCAA vacated wins. It fined the school. It placed the school on probation for five years. None of those penalties have changed.

Here is where I have a problem. As a survivor what this sudden decision says to me is that the NCAA felt that enough time had passed that it is no longer a big issue. The media is long gone from Happy Valley and the story is no longer of interest to the general public. It says that college football and the money it brings in is far more important than the lost lives of the ten young men who were abused by one man and whose actions were covered up by several other men. It says to other schools that if something similar happens there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth at the outset, but that once the dust has settled and the story is gone from the headlines all will be forgiven and forgotten and life will return to normal.

Life will not return to normal for those ten young men, though, at least not that quickly. They are struggling to heal from their emotional wounds and it is likely that the NCAA lifting sanctions says something to them about how little import their lives have to those whose lives revolve around winning and losing games. Surviving sex abuse is not a game. It can be a lifelong process of recovery. Two years ago the NCAA indicated that they understood that and they supported that recovery by laying down the law and making an example of Penn State. Now that example has lost much of its meaning as Penn State is eligible to play in the post-season again this year and next year will have all of its scholarships back. How would we react if this were the Catholic Church and not Penn State, or an elementary school where the administration allowed abuse to happen without doing anything? We need to think about that and where our priorities lie as a nation–are college football games really that much more important than the loss of innocence that Sandusky’s victims suffered? I sincerely hope not.

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Open Letter to the Wisconsin Attorney General

Wisconsin Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen (center) posing with a couple young Wisconsin activists.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Wisconsin Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen (center) posing with a couple young Wisconsin activists. Photo by Callen Harty.

Dear Attorney General Van Hollen,

Please tell me that after Tuesday’s judicial schooling of your Assistant Attorney General Timothy Samuelson that you will finally consider dropping your defense of Wisconsin’s clearly unconstitutional ban on marriage equality. While the 7th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel may not release their decision for a few months yet it should be clear, even to a casual observer, that it is likely to be a unanimous decision to uphold Judge Barbara Crabb’s ruling that the state’s marriage amendment is unconstitutional. The judges could not have been more clear about the absurdity of the state’s arguments.

I wish that it had been you in the courtroom rather than your subordinate, Mr. Samuelson. As the top law enforcement officer in the state it seems to me that you should have been the one defending the state’s position in this case. Both you and Governor Walker have insisted that it is your duty to uphold the Constitution by defending the amendment with all your might. What greater case for the Attorney General to personally handle than one that regards the constitutions of both the state of Wisconsin and the United States? Instead you sent someone in your stead and avoided the embarrassment of having to defend an amendment that is indefensible.

Did you instruct Mr. Samuelson to insist upon tradition as the basis of the state’s argument or did he stumble upon that awkward defense himself? As Judge Posner pointed out a tradition of bigotry and hatred does not justify the continuation of the behavior.

Face it, Attorney General, there is not one single solid argument against marriage equality that can withstand judicial scrutiny. Really there are no arguments against it that can withstand a middle school student’s scrutiny. Marriage is solely for procreation? Then those who cannot conceive should no longer be allowed to marry. Opposite sex marriage is better for the children? There is not one legitimate study that shows this. In fact, many studies show the opposite is true. Same-sex marriage will lead to a devaluation of marriage? The divorce rate was already over 50% before Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex marriage, and that law has not prevented opposite sex couples from marrying or staying married. Legalizing same-sex marriage will force churches to perform weddings that are against their religion? No, it will mean that same-sex partners will be able to legally marry. Period. Civil marriage and religious ceremonies are two separate things. Some churches will welcome it. Others will not. None will be forced. Marriage has always been between one man and one woman? Well, not always. There have been polygamous societies and research has shown that the early Christian Church likely performed weddings for same-sex couples. The concept of marriage, even in our short American history, has evolved. You hate queer people and think they’re sinners and that is why you want to outlaw same-sex marriage? While that may be the real reason opponents are fighting it that is not cause enough to violate the United States Constitution. In fact, the Constitution was designed in part to protect minorities against that kind of hatred.

Please explain what you have to gain by continuing the fight. There is no doubt the 7th Circuit is going to rule against you. You can appeal to the Supreme Court but every indication is that the U. S. Supreme Court will take all of the various states’ cases into consideration and rule that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. They cannot rule any other way unless they rule from religious/political bias or from emotions rather than jurisprudence. Even the Supreme Court justices understand the need to be on the right side of history. Even those justices who might personally despise the idea of same-sex marriage can see through the flimsy arguments brought forth by those who support such a ban. The probability is that they will overturn the bans sometime in 2015, opening the way for nationwide same-sex marriage, just as Loving vs. Virginia opened the way for those of different races to marry back in 1967. Unless you have been living under a rock it is clear that decision is coming.

So what do you gain by continuing the losing battle to valiantly defend Wisconsin’s ban on same-sex marriage? Perhaps you gain points with the conservative right who will appreciate your tenacity even in a losing cause. Perhaps you have moral objections yourself to same-sex marriage and do not want to drop the case because that would allow Wisconsin’s queer citizens to start marrying now. I can understand and appreciate that on one level. On the other you are an elected representative of the people and the people of Wisconsin are now of the majority opinion that marriage equality is a legitimate right. In addition you need to keep in mind that there is no state religion. Your personal morals cannot be foisted upon the rest of us.

Perhaps it really is the reason you have given before, that as the Attorney General it is your job–your duty–to defend the Wisconsin Constitution, even if you may disagree with it (or even if you don’t). If that is the case then you will push forward despite the wishes of the people, despite the waste of taxpayer money, despite the inevitable failure of the crusade. You will wait until the 7th Circuit hands down their decision and then you will either appeal to have the full ten-member panel hear the case or appeal it to the United States Supreme Court. Either one will simply delay the inevitable end and paint a little less pleasant picture of your tenure as our Attorney General.

As a citizen I ask again that you do not continue to waste time and resources on this issue. Do us a favor and withdraw your defense of the amendment now.

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As Michael Brown is Laid to Rest . . .

Hands Up! Don't Shoot! At a Michael Brown vigil in Madison, Wisconsin.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Hands Up! Don’t Shoot! At a Michael Brown vigil in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Callen Harty.

As Michael Brown is laid to rest the unrest stops for a moment. It appears that people are honoring his father’s plea for a day of silence and peace.

As Michael Brown is laid to rest my mind does not. It cannot. I fear that with his burial his story will soon be buried and as a nation we will move on to the next big story. This is what we do. We have a national attention deficit disorder and always move on to the next big story, the next big fad, before we have finished dealing with the issue in front of us. Think of how Trayvon Martin’s death raised our consciousness and dominated the news cycles, but as far as one can tell nothing much has changed since then. We were going to revisit castle doctrines and “make my day” laws, we were going to do our best to institute some kind of sane gun control laws, we were going to look deeply at the racism in our country. Instead we moved on to the next story, whatever that was. We excitedly awaited the winner of American Idol. We forgot our promises. We are a well-meaning people, but our follow-through needs some work.

As Michael Brown is laid to rest I ponder how his death has once again pricked our collective conscience and raised again our collective consciousness, but I wonder more than that what will change. Something has to change. We cannot bear more young men dying in vain. But will it? What might there be this time to distract us from the work that needs to be done?

As Michael Brown is laid to rest I weep, not just for his young life, but for the life of my country. We are as broken as his body and we need to fix our brokenness. We simply cannot move on once again. We cannot care more about the petty lives of reality T. V. stars than we care about real-life flesh and blood neighbors and fellow citizens. We must fix what is wrong. We must at least start to do that if we ever hope to finish it. We must engage in real conversation about race, about violence, about poverty and homelessness, and that talk must lead to action and that action must lead to change. Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent outpouring of grief and anger on the streets of Ferguson must have meaning. It cannot become a passing headline that is remembered on New Year’s Eve as one of the top stories of 2014. Instead, it needs to be the story in our history books a hundred years from now, the one that changed our national narrative. It needs to be remembered as the moment when we as a united people said no more to inequality and did something about it. If it does not I fear it will be the moment remembered as the time when our nation finally gave up and accepted its own inevitable decline and fall.

As Michael Brown is laid to rest I pray for his soul and the soul of my nation. I pray that something good can come of his death, that he may rest in peace and that this country, too, may find a way to live in peace from this day forward.

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I Am White

Hands Up!  Don't Shoot!  Dane County (Wisconsin) Boys and Girls Club Executive Director Michael Johnson at a vigil for Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man who was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri.

Hands Up! Don’t Shoot! Dane County (Wisconsin) Boys and Girls Club Executive Director Michael Johnson at a vigil for Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man who was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri.

I am white.

It is the circumstance of my birth. It is who I am and who I have always been. It is what it is. But it brings certain advantages for no reason other than the fact that my whiteness matches the dominant culture in the society of my birth.

I do not know–and cannot know–what it is like to be a person of color in a country where that automatically puts one at a disadvantage in myriad ways. I can try to understand, I can empathize, but I cannot know.

I do not know what it is like to grow up in fear of the police.  I think we all have some fear of authority figures in general, but typically as a white man I don’t have to worry that I am going to be stopped and questioned just for walking in my neighborhood. I don’t have to fear that if I make the wrong move at the wrong time I could be shot dead (and that the police will investigate themselves and absolve themselves of any wrongdoing). I do not have to be concerned that I am presumed guilty of something–anything–by virtue of the color of my skin. Yes, it may happen, but it is not likely, unless perhaps I am white and also homeless or very poor.

Yet today, ten days after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri I nearly cried when I heard the reports of yet another young black man shot and killed by police. I could not wrap my head around the idea that ten days later and ten miles away the men in blue could kill another black man, even with a heightened national awareness of the dangers of being a black man in a white society. And later in the day I read about another young man killed in Carolina. Michael Brown’s death was not an anomaly. It was simply the last moment in his reality of living life as a young black man.

Oh, I understand the need for police to protect themselves. I have a nephew who is a cop and I understand that he is trained to defend himself and others if necessary. But I would be a liar if I thought for a moment that the likelihood of him having to shoot some white person in Grant County, Wisconsin would be equal to the likelihood of a policeman anywhere in this country shooting an African-American citizen. It is the nature of living life as a person of color in this country.

White mothers do not teach their children not to draw attention to themselves in any way, even when they are doing nothing wrong. Instead they teach their children how the police are there to protect them. And indeed they are. As a white person if I am threatened or in need of police protection I do not fear calling 9-1-1. I dial and expect that I will be helped. If I were black I might not bother dialing.

All day long I have been bombarded with jumbled thoughts and horrible images. I have been reminded of the images of African-American men and women getting beaten, hosed, and harassed during the Civil Rights struggles of the 60s. It is fifty years later and nothing has changed except that the overtness of racism has been supplanted by an insidious racism simmering beneath the surface of everything in this country. All day long I have felt powerless, wondering what I can do as one white man with little to no access to the corridors of power in this country. The thought brought tears to my eyes every time it came up.

What can I do? I can go to a vigil for Michael Brown as I did last week and feel good about putting out positive energy but if I do not follow that up with action then I am failing myself and my African-American brothers and sisters, not to mention other persons of color. I am not sure what action I need to take, but I know today that I must take action of some sort. I will search until I know what it is that I must do as it is essential for my sanity as a human being. I understand that we are all children in the human family. We are all connected despite the color of our skin and the circumstances of our birth. Those connections have been severed by those who benefit from keeping us separate, so I know I need to work on building those connections, learning and understanding the struggles of others as deeply as I understand my own struggles. I understand that I cannot end all the racism in the world by myself, but I can reach out in my part of the world and work on creating community in my circles. I can reach out and make connections, and I can begin to enlighten myself. That, I believe, is where we all must start.

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This moment

A Woman in Black.  Photo by Callen Harty.

A Woman in Black. Photo by Callen Harty.

This moment

These messages of death come
across social media as swift as wind-swept leaves.
Robin Williams killed himself, Lauren Bacall is gone,
a teen killed in Missouri, children in Gaza.

We are all connected in our mourning.

I am saddened by Robin Williams’ death,
but I do not think about him.
I think of my dear friend Dan
who struggled with the same demons,
who swallowed a shitload of pills
but then could not swallow his own vomit
and died in his bed with dreams dashed
against the headboard
and pain spilled upon the floor.
White sheets like cotton clouds floating heavenward.

I think of razor blades against my young wrists
and know again that we are all connected.

And I do not think of Lauren Bacall,
but instead see my aging mother
confined to her bed where dreams
are fulfilled in daytime fantasies,
where reality is the four walls around her,
the pillow beneath her head,
and whatever memories and fantastical visions
God allows to intrude
at any given moment.
I ponder her life—
how she has come full circle from baby
to adulthood and back to infancy,
how she
will soon enter the womb of the universe
and be born again into new life,
new energy,
and how some day I will follow her into the stars.

We are connected that way.

I do not think only of movie stars.
I think of my heart and its betrayal,
and its continued beating within the walls of my being.
I think of the mortality
and immortality
of all,
those who have lived and died already,
my heart beating toward its conclusion,
the idea that in my living I am dying.
I can celebrate both–
the living and the dying–
I can celebrate all.
Today we have this moment.
We are connected in this moment.

this moment,
it is what we have.

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One Weekend

Power to the Peaceful.  The Overpass Light Brigade with a message of peace.  Madison, Wisconsin.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Power to the Peaceful. The Overpass Light Brigade with a message of peace. Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Callen Harty.

One of the things I regularly do is look at news online. This morning I saw that a man had been shot and killed in a hotel parking lot in my city of Madison, Wisconsin. It doesn’t happen often here, but it does happen. Madison is a relatively safe city, but there are a number of murders every year. A short time later I saw that a man had been shot to death in Milwaukee, a city which the last several years has had a large number of killings. Later in the morning there was a report of a woman shot and killed along a road in Beloit, Wisconsin. In reading another article on a Seattle television site I saw that two people had been killed in Seattle overnight. Then four more in Chicago, and I thought, this has to stop. Somehow this has to stop.

This is one weekend in America. It is unfortunately likely to be a typical weekend in America. The thought occurred to me that if I checked the newspapers of the most populous cities in the country I’d probably see a couple dozen more murders listed, and I was unfortunately right when I decided to go ahead and do that. Here is what I found in a cursory glance at the newspapers from the 25 most populous cities in the country. Keep in mind I pretty much just looked at the front pages and in some cases the local news section. It may be that I missed some.

  • New York, New York (New York Times): No violent crimes that I could find.  I’d be surprised if I weren’t looking in the wrong place.
  • Los Angeles, California (L. A. Times): One man shot and killed in a motel parking lot in Pomona. Another man shot and killed his wife in Jurupa, injured someone else, and then later committed suicide (police did not release details on how he killed himself).
  • Chicago, Illinois (Chicago Tribune):  At least 40 people were injured and four people killed in Chicago over the weekend from gunfire, including a man who was shot and killed through the door of a bar in Brighton Park and an 11 year old girl who was shot and killed at a slumber party.
  • Houston, Texas (Houston Chronicle):  A teenage boy was shot and killed in a Houston park late Saturday night.
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia Inquirer):  I couldn’t get to the articles without a subscription, but saw the following headlines under “latest news”–“Paraplegic fatally shot brother”, “Three dead in city violence streak”, and “Body found in Pennyback Creek”.
  • Phoenix, Arizona (Phoenix Sun):  Man in Tempe officer-involved shooting died.  A man died and another was wounded in a shootout in Glendale.
  • San Antonio, Texas (San Antonio Express-News):  A man was shot in the head early Sunday morning and is in critical condition in the hospital.
  • San Diego, California (San Diego Union-Tribune):  No deaths reported, but the following items were listed–A San Diego State University student was stabbed at a frat party and survived.  A woman walking alone was assaulted and survived.  Another person was stabbed at a swap meet.
  • Dallas, Texas (Dallas Morning News):  Elderly woman found dead in Garland; being treated as a homicide.
  • San Jose, California (San Jose Mercury News):  Four injuries reported in separate shootings, including a ten year old girl.
  • Austin, Texas (Austin American-Statesman):  No deaths reported.  One report of a woman assaulted on the Riverside campus.
  • Jacksonville, Florida (Jacksonville News):  No deaths noticed.  A man was shot in the heel on Saturday night.  Another man was reported shot on Sunday.
  • Indianapolis, Indiana (Indianapolis Star):  Man arrested in murder of his wife, who died of a head injury; he was also accused of stabbing his son.
  • San Francisco, California (San Francisco Chronicle):  Two people died in Sausalito after a report of shots fired.
  • Columbus, Ohio (Columbus Dispatch):  One man died and a woman was injured in a shooting at a Hocking Hill cabin.
  • Fort Worth, Texas (Fort Worth Star-Telegram):  None noted.
  • Charlotte, North Carolina (Charlotte Observer):  A man was attacked with a concrete block.
  • Detroit, Michigan (Detroit Free Press):  A man was shot and killed while trying to break up a fight between his wife and another woman on Saturday.
  • El Paso, Texas (El Paso Times):  None noted.
  • Memphis, Tennessee (Memphis Daily News):  None noted.
  • Boston, Massachusetts (Boston Globe):  Four injured in separate shootings.
  • Seattle, Washington (Seattle Post-Intelligencer):  Four officers injured and a suspect killed in a shootout in Kent.  A man was arrested in a double homicide in which a man was found by a river with severe head trauma and a woman was later found with similar injuries.
  • Denver, Colorado (Denver Post):  One person injured in an Aurora shooting.
  • Washington, DC (Washington Post):  None noted.
  • Nashville, Tennessee (Nashville Tennessean):  None noted.

Not counting the murders I had previously noted in my home state of Wisconsin what I found was 24 deaths and 65 injuries from violence reported in the 25 most populated cities in the country, all from this weekend. There was the occasional concrete block, a couple stabbings, a couple traumatic head injuries, but the bulk of the violence was due to shootings. We are living in a war zone in this country and we need to do something about it. Importantly, though, it’s not just the large cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. It also includes places like Madison and Beloit, Wisconsin, and smaller cities all over the map. This was just one weekend. There are 52 weekends a year and 52 weeks of Monday through Friday as well. There are hundreds more medium to large cities that I didn’t look up, thousands of small cities and towns. It is just a small glimpse into the violent culture in which we live. Most of us don’t hear about murders in places like Nashville, Jacksonville, or Milwaukee unless we live there, let alone smaller places, but this kind of violence is happening across the country every day of every week of every year.

I don’t have any suggestions. I don’t know what to do to stop us from sinking further into violence, but I know that we cannot live like this. I know that something must be done to keep us from falling into a dystopian American nightmare where we are afraid of our neighbors and fellow community members. I wish I had an easy answer, but clearly it needs to start with an examination of the gun culture which permeates our nation. I believe in the Bill of Rights, but I also believe in the right to pursue happiness without the fear of getting shot and killed by random violence. We need to take a hard look at what is going on with our violent culture.

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Bobby Lee and Me

At a neo-Nazi rally in West Allis, 2012.  Photo by Callen Harty.

At a neo-Nazi rally in West Allis, 2012. Photo by Callen Harty.

Bobby Lee McClung has been on my mind a lot lately.

I have been thinking about race and racism a lot lately.

Bobby Lee came to visit my home town in southwestern Wisconsin when I was a kid and an event while he was there changed my perception of the world. He was from a small town also, Itta Bena, but his town was in the Deep South in the middle of Mississippi. Bobby Lee was black and the citizens of Itta Bena were almost all black also. The people of my town were white–not almost all white–but all. I had never met a black person before him because there were quite simply none in my town or county. In fact, there was pretty much no diversity at all. One Jewish family moved into town when I was about ten or eleven, one family was said to have Native American blood and people talked about how they received government money because of it, and we had a Filipino doctor for a year or two. That was the extent of our understanding of cultural differences. There were no Mexicans, no African-Americans, no Asians. Instead, the distinctions were Catholic or Protestant, Irish or German or a handful of other European possibilities, and, of course, wealthy or poor. My family was Irish-Catholic and closer to the poor end of that scale.

My first experience with human color was several years before Bobby Lee’s arrival. I don’t know how old I was at the time, but I know I was still quite young. We were visiting relatives in Hanover, Illinois. My aunt and uncle and their family lived at Craig Manor, an entire section of town filled with countless identical apartment buildings that were built as temporary housing during World War II for families working at the Savanna Army Depot. The buildings were still being used well into the 1960s and 1970s and provided affordable housing for many families. My family had lived in one of the units in the late 1950s, until my father passed away at a young age and my mother moved us back to her home town to raise us. That day in Hanover I was on the front steps of my aunt and uncle’s place when a woman came out of one of the apartments across the street. She was a heavy-set woman of a dark chocolate color, which I had never seen before and didn’t understand. She raised her arms and started shaking a rug of its dust and I turned and ran back into the apartment to my mother because I was scared of this woman who looked so different than anyone I had ever seen.

While I know that prejudice and racism are rooted in fear and ignorance I’m not sure if I believe that fear and ignorance automatically make one prejudiced. Maybe they do. If so, I was prejudiced that day, although I didn’t run from this woman out of hatred or any preconceived beliefs about her or others who might be like her. I honestly didn’t know what I was seeing.

I don’t recall what my mother may have said after I ran to her, but knowing her ways later in life my guess is that she explained to me that people come in different sizes, shapes, and colors and that the woman was probably just a hard-working housewife like she was. She probably told me that we are all God’s children, despite any outward or other differences. She lived her religion.

As I grew older I discovered that people sometimes hate those who are different just because they are different. I discovered that there were words like “nigger” and “faggot” that were assigned to others and those words indicated a belief that those people were somehow lesser. As I grew up throughout the 1960s I heard and read news stories of the civil rights struggles in the South, none of which really talked about the racism that also existed in the North and in places like the one where I grew up. Because I was so insulated in so many ways I didn’t recognize that even without black families in our town there were people who didn’t like those “colored folks”. Looking back now I recall confederate flags, hurtful words that were tossed about with abandon, an antipathy toward “other”. I remember a man saying, “There used to be a colored man that lived here once. He’s up to the cemetery now,” almost implying a violent end to the man’s life, though I found out later that early in the 20th century there were several African-American families in the region, so it may have been a reference to a man from one of those long gone families. Or maybe not. I never knew.

I’m not saying that everyone in my town was racist, or even that most were. I believe that most of the people truly believed in the Christian teachings that my mother imparted–that we are all equal under the eyes of God, that love is better than hate, and that we should treat everyone as we would like to be treated ourselves. But there was definitely ignorance about the larger world and a pocket of prejudice there, and certain people who had no room in their lives for anyone who was different. I grew up seeing those people with confederate flags in their windows or decals on their cars and didn’t understand the symbolism behind it. I grew up hearing the “N” word and having no context to understand what it meant or the horrible history behind it. In retrospect I recall hearing racist jokes and I wonder now if I laughed along with them. I hope not, but I can’t say with certainty.

So in the midst of this typical Wisconsin town Bobby Lee McClung came to visit. At the time there was a program that brought black children from poor towns in the South to places like my home town where they stayed with host families. It was an attempt at bridging cultures and teaching us about each other. To my knowledge none of the young white kids from my town were sent to places like Itta Bena, Mississippi to make it a true cultural exchange. It was a one-way trip. Perhaps the townfolk were a little nervous about that possibility. Despite that, there were families that invited and welcomed the visitors from Mississippi. My neighbors, the Allens, hosted Bobbly Lee that summer and so, for the first time in my life, I met a black person. Unlike the time in Hanover I didn’t run in fear. I was genuinely excited to meet him and learn about life in his town.

I normally spent a lot of time with the neighbor kids, so I naturally got to be a part of the experience of Bobby Lee’s visit. He loved basketball and I did, too, so we played a lot of basketball while he was visiting. He had dreams of becoming a professional, though I don’t believe that ever happened. We went to the swimming pool, spent time downtown, and played a lot of other games. And I liked just talking to him. He was a nice kid.

One day a large group of us were getting set to play a game–I don’t remember what it was–and one of the kids started counting. I don’t remember which of my friends was the one counting, but it could have been any one of us. We were all in a circle and he started up, “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a nig–“

He stopped. My heart stopped. The world stopped for a moment. A couple of the kids laughed nervously before he caught himself and continued.

“–a tiger by the toe.” I was absolutely embarrassed and ashamed at what had happened and I have never forgotten it. It revealed to me at that moment the insidious nature of racism. It revealed my privilege, even as a relatively poor white person, long before I even knew about the concept of white privilege. It told me that our dominant white culture carries in it an inherent racism that we may not even realize is there unless and until we are confronted with it directly. It told me that I had participated in this insidiousness simply by being willfully oblivious and not questioning the way of the world in that town. I had witnessed it without witnessing it.

That childhood moment and Bobby Lee’s easygoing sweet personality altered my consciousness and moved me to want to better understand why people create “other”. Growing up gay in a straight world added to that as well. I could relate to Bobby Lee having to listen to the counting and the nervous laughter it created when I heard “fag” jokes and the reaction those jokes created. I could not, though, ever fully understand the deep, deep history of overt and covert racism that he and everyone else of color faces on a daily basis. As a gay man I could hide myself. For a person of color there is no hiding.

I am still working on this. I am still learning. My friend, Chris Long, a man who walks the arc of justice as a daily pilgrimage, has taught me much, both directly and indirectly, about privilege and about how easy it is to not see racism because of living as part of the dominant culture. I understand I have even more work to do yet. I have even more things to learn. But I do believe in my mother’s early lessons. I believe that we are all equal under the eyes of God. Whatever work it takes to move us past prejudice and racism in all its manifestations is worth it to move us toward a place where all are equal not only under the eyes of God, but also under the eyes of man.

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