Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Carolina Culture Shock

It sure is culture shock moving from Michigan to South Carolina. One of the biggest shocks is the blatant racism that I've noticed. In Michigan racism is something that is there, but more muted perhaps. Here it punches one in the face. Some examples: 

The sales lady I first had to deal with here came to see me in my office often. Tall, white, gray haired distinguished old lady type. As we trade the usual sales call chit chat, she asks where Im going to buy a home. When I answer that Im moving to Lexington County she tells me something odd. “Oh good, there’s not a lot of THIS there” and she points to the white skin on the back of her left hand knowingly. 

I was shocked.

“Do you mean skin cancer?” I said, pretending ignorance, and hoping she would get the point. “On no, the OTHER” she replies, “You know, undesirables”. Because her hand is a milky white, not a nasty black. And that makes her better than, oh, just a hell of a lot of folks, mostly starting blacks, probably Mexicans, and certainly Jews (who she also complained about to me). 

Now what the hell was she thinking? Im a Yankee and she is a salesperson, shouldn’t her better sense tell her better? Shouldn’t she be more careful, professional and have Southern Charm? Guess it’s so prevalent that she just never considered that I as a white person would be disgusted by her. Guess that type of ugly racism must raise her net sales, so she just assumed I was 'down with the sickness'. 

I was so surprised I never challenged her, and I wish I would have. 

Instead I bought a framed Martin Luther King Jr poster the next day and hung it behind my desk. I noticed a lot of sales people doing the same thing I do when I sell, looking around my office for clues to who I am. And many noticed old Martin on the wall, some commented, and all of them understood what that meant. 

But the painting crew didn’t see my office, so as they were painting our warehouse, I happened to hear one of them yelling to his coworker about the “whores and n******” that he was mad at. I stopped him, almost in a rage, and asked him his name and who he worked for. He told me with perfect confidence what company he was from and his name, then I told him to please put down what he was doing and leave. He was stunned, the very thought that another white man would suggest that what he had said was wrong was clearly perplexing to him. He started to argue with me, I raised my voice, set my jaw and told him to get out. 

Turns out he worked for his father, a very country man in a hunting camouflaged baseball cap who arrived not long after, and fired him, apologizing to me the whole time. But I still got the feeling that the only issue was that I had complained. Later, in talking to my black employees about the situation they made it clear that it was no big deal. It had been happening before I saw it, and they had raised no complaint. “That’s just how they were raised,” said one, “I don’t pay them no attention.” I would be hard put to imagine any of my black union worker friends in Detroit saying that. But then some blacks here have confessed privately to me that northern blacks are uppity, and they don’t pay them no attention either. 

But they know what restaurants not to eat at. 

Not at Malice’s BBQ: I have changed the name because I don’t want this guy suing me, but if you are from South Carolina you will know the chain immediatly. There is a restaurant chain here that specializes in BBQ. I ate there once and was kinda surprised that here in SC, a 50/50 white and black state, there weren’t any black folks in the restaurant or in the kitchen. Guess they aren’t big on the brothers. That was weird, until I started noticing the pictures on the wall. Like a General Lee (may his beard perpetually grow long or whatever, please don’t lynch me) picture with an inscription about how the South would have won if Lee had been at one battle or another. And the table of racist crap by the door, with books about the South and Confederacy in general. 

As an avid military history enthusiast, I can understand the interest in the “War of Northern Aggression” and all, but racist hiring practices, and muted hostility that makes all the black folks I know here not want to go to that restaurant…well I guess it’s the South. 

Blacks here get to deal with all sorts of reminders, daily. 

Rebel flag: Here in South Carolina, the rebel flag hangs prominently in front of the state capitol. My first day researching Columbia South Carolina with my wife, we arrived at the state house for a peaceful Sunday afternoon walk. To my amusement we happened to park behind a camouflaged pickup truck with Sons of the Confederacy license plates. I pointed it out to my wife with a grin and we had a good joke. It so happened that we ran into the owner later, as we were questioning different folks about the area. Rather than giving us meaningful information, the guy gave us details of where not to move so as not to encounter the “n******”. This while stroking his Nathan Bedford Forrest beard (may it also perpetually grow long, or whatever). 

As an avid military history enthusiast who grew up in Georgia, I completely understand the feeling the stars and bars inspire in the hearts of white folks. In fact, when I was 14, I had a jean jacket with a big rebel flag on the back of it, and I loved it. For me it stood for standing up against the man, the government, taxes, and being rebellious in general. But as I matured, I had black friends, and came to understand that it also stood for a hateful oppression, a cruel indicator or wrongs that should belong in another century, akin to the swastika. 

There is some sort of controversy about the NCAA not allowing certain college sports events until the flag comes down, but fly it still does. Because it is necessary to piss off and piss on the black folks who see it so commonly. 

Then there are the hiring practices. Listen oh ye temporary agencies, and hear. When I tell you to send me warehouse employees, I do not solely mean black men. You really can mix it up a bit, even throw some women in there. And when I ask for office employees, I don’t need just white women. I’ve tried hard to overcome that, as a hiring manager, but it takes constant work compared to the hiring practices in Detroit

That brings up the whole SIR thing: I mean everyone says sir and ma'am to some degree here, but with some of the folks that work for me it’s almost ubiquitous. “Oh yes sir, Mr James” I must hear 15 times a day, despite my protest that Im just James. “Oh yes Mr James, whatever you say!” and a little polite laugh. In Detroit I think many of my black friends would choke before they would pay me such obsequiousness (and you guys are reading this, correct me if Im wrong). Darn sure the white folks here rarely say such things to me. 

But with the Plantations still here, it’s not hard to understand. It’s not something that can really be understood up north I think. It took a lot of aimless driving through the country down here, and a lot of interviews collecting information from prospective employees and their resumes before I began to understand the reality out in the South Carolina countryside. 

Plantations still exist here. Old giant white country houses with big white pillars, surrounded by fields of cotton, or groves of walnuts. The same white families still live in many of them that did 200 years ago, having been passed down through the ages since time immemorial. The towns built up around them still have mainly poor minority residents whose families still mostly live there in that same town, and can trace their heritage back a handful of generations to when they were slaves. And they still work on those same plantations, now called farms, and they still make pitiful tiny wages. 

Oh I can hear the cynic saying let them find some gainful employment. And how will they find this gainful employment when the primary employment is agricultural, and the illegal immigrants will work for half the minimum wage? And there just aren’t factories in the South Carolina countryside. 

So the cynic says let them get a job in the city! With what transportation? There isn’t any public transportation when you are an hour away from a city. Then let them buy a car! With what money? Certainly not a car whose reliability and gas efficiency is such that it doesn’t break down and lose you your job for no call no show, and cost you an arm and a leg just to fuel once a week. 

I have seen one after the other of their resumes, they were trying to buy a car, got a job in town, the car broke down, they lost the job and are back to square one. They work part time half the year on the plantation farm for pitiful wages and no health care, and seem to never get ahead. It gets piled on them from birth that they are never going to be able to leave the plantation, never going to be able to succeed, and if you hear it enough it becomes true, and tiresome. And somehow it doesn’t change, generation after generation. When I drive through those country miles I see how little it’s changed since 200 years ago. 

As I shine a light on it I see how complicated it all is. There is no way to change generations of feelings overnight, but as we all become aware hopefully we can begin our own personal changes. Did you know a black guy was dragged behind a pickup truck not so long ago, making national news? Or that South Carolina State Troopers yell things like "You better run, n-----, because I'm fixing to kill you," (go to YouTube to see it if you don’t believe me) because even though they are on camera they aren’t thinking, just reacting naturally. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh. 

Therefore, let us all search our hearts. Answers lie within, if truth has not been extinguished. A candle will not burn where there is no fresh air. Many other Yankees are moving here from the Rust Belt, and confess to me that they never understood racism claims in the Northern progressive towns they lived in where affirmative action and interracial marriages were common. But they are seeing it clearly down here, an unwelcome education. 

Perhaps this new influx of thoughts will provide the fresh air that will make the candle burn anew.





Monday, November 24, 2008

The Crazy White Woman

I was shamed at church by the Crazy White Woman last night. Sitting in my cozy seat with my cozy wife and kid, wearing our cozy jackets, bellies full, listening to the plight of starving children. Not around the other side of the world, or on some TV commercial where I give .29c a day to adopt a kid, but right around the corner here in my cozy hometown. 

There she stood, microphone in hand, tears streaming down her face while she described the things I drive past every day, and yet never see, or choose to never see. How does it happen that I have become so comfortable, to glibly walk past those who are hurting, and never see the pain in their eyes.  

She laid it all out so calmly. The 55% of children here in my hometown that are on the public school Free Breakfast and Lunch, not just reduced price. How they often fold their sandwich up at lunch and carefully keep it, because there is no other meal for them, Friday to Monday. The toddler children of the prostitute mother, forced out until late hours to roam the street because mommy has "company", if you know what I mean. 

It’s easy for me to walk past some homeless guy and respond that I don’t have any cash. I don’t, its all plastic for me, and if he can take plastic, well, he doesn’t need my help.  

But children? 

She goes on. The child with the ear infection that she took to the doctor, the mother just didn’t care. Only it wasn’t an ear infection, it was roaches. This happens in America? Or does it not matter because it’s so easy to ignore, if I want to. 

When did I stop asking my inner voice what to do, when I see the homeless guy? When did I lose my shock, sometime between now and when my parents used to rush me by and tell me not to stare? I don’t even consult my conscience to see if maybe something about THIS guy is different and I can hope and believe he will use my dollar and change for food not fire water? 

Or does it not matter because these children don’t look like mine? After all, they are of all cultural origins, dirty, unkempt, misbehaving, certainly we shouldn’t have to take pity on them! Far easier it is to sit back and take potshots, decrying the parenting and lack of structure in their family. And right we would be, but unkind, unhelpful, missing the point. 

For these are children. 

I cannot sleep; my thoughts are ever with the Crazy White Woman and her crusade, as many of the black residents of our town have taken to calling her. Perhaps she really is crazy too. Isn’t it crazy to take your paycheck and buy food, rent a hall every other weekend, and feed the hungry children who make their way there, every other Saturday night? Isn’t it crazy to take concern over little ones not your own, and take not just concern, but action? Isn’t it crazy to play with the four children out late in the park, until mommy's "company" is gone, so they can be safe until they return to their beds? 

So I am taking a stand with her, if she will have me. Too long I have been oblivious to the world around. Too long it has been someone else’s problem. Too long I have been blind, because they were poor, or look different, or are from the other side of the tracks. It is time I start taking responsibility for my community, and all of its members. 

Starting with its most helpless, the children.