Tuesday, April 13, 2010

My Familiar Fear

I find myself repeating questions asked by my 11-year-old self: “Who are these people?”

It is absolutely nauseating for me as I watch the mainstream media’s “fair and balanced” coverage of the Tea Party Movement. Yesterday, Sarah Palin rallied a crowd at the national Tea Party Express tour in Boston, just a mile from the site of the original Boston Tea Party. “There is a growing movement across the nation, and you are it," Palin told the estimated crowd of 5,000. "Those of you who won’t sit down and shut up are sounding the warning bell.”

It's this "growing movement" of fear-based irrationalism that has me nervously reflecting on the past.

The 2008 election held profound historical relevance for me. It was no mere coincidence that the winning candidate’s mantra of “hope and change” epitomized the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Barack Obama’s election, 40 years after the fallen civil rights icon's assassination, affirmed the dream of equality and this country’s slow social evolution.

Yet, along with this empowering déjà vu moment comes another disturbing 1960’s-era reminder. It is epitomized by angry, gun-toting protesters hurling words and bricks, while depicting Obama as a radical Muslim, a Socialist, a monkey or the Antichrist. That defiant tone of privileged desperation pulsates behind the dressing down of the nation’s leader, the ugly epithets spat at supporting black or gay Democrats and the unprecedented escalation of venomous hate groups in this nation.

Last month, Daniel Cowart (left), a white supremacist pleaded guilty to a 2008 cross-country plot to commit robberies while killing and beheading dozens of black people. Then-presidential candidate Obama was also a target of Cowart and Paul Schlesselman, his neo-Nazi, co- conspirator's plot.

A note attached to a brick thrown through the office window of Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) read: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” In phone messages after the passage of health care reform, Slaughter said she received a message from a caller who used the words “sniper” and “assassinate” when referring to “the children of lawmakers who voted yes," for the measure.

“If we’re going back 40 years—and I hope to heaven we are not—in the way we treat each other, we have got to stamp that out right now,” Slaughter told reporters.

Why can’t we stamp out the madness? We know what fuels it– anger, opportunistic politicians, right-wing commentators and the paranoid fear that something familiar, something privileged has -- or will be -- lost. Keith Olberman, Glen Beck, Frank Rich and others have explained, justified or ridiculed the rationale of the most extreme and irrational factions of these Obama haters.

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We may know why they think what they think, feel what they feel and do what they do, but “knowing” doesn’t dispel the fact that this country is glued to an unsavory page in history. It bothers me that the vociferous rants of Tea Partiers, Birthers and other extremists have unearthed an apprehension I considered long buried:

My fear of white people.

My father was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was raised in the Jim Crow South, a time when staying on the good side of white folk was as natural as picking cotton. Still, it was hard for me to watch my father, my hero, lower his eyes, step off a curb or cower in the presence of whites. Perhaps for good reason, my father was afraid of white people. As a child, I was ignorant of civil rights skirmishes and too young to notice the fading facade of overt racism in my Midwestern Missouri city. Fear didn’t gel for me until 1968 after I overheard a conversation between my mother and a neighbor about Dr. King’s assassination.

“They finally got him,” Mama lamented.
I remember thinking; “Who are ‘they?’” If Mama knew the answer, surely others must have known. Why weren’t “they” stopped before King was killed, I wondered.

Later, that evening, watching news reels detailing Dr. King’s legacy, I began to understand. I saw people who looked like me pulled from buses, beaten by mobs, attacked by slathering police dogs or slammed into brick buildings by fire hoses. I saw Confederate flags and signs splashed with the N-word and whites who brazenly defended their sentiments and actions. There were politicians on TV, too, pontificating about “state’s rights,” “Communist infiltrators” and “segregation forever.”


My fear today is a bit different than my father’s. I fear whites who tolerate white hatred. Observing the media’s objective reporting on the escalating Obama-inspired venom, I find myself repeating questions asked by my 11-year-old self:

“Who are these people?” Are they teachers, policemen, dentists, judges? Why do elected officials support these disgruntled fanatics? Why aren’t they ostracized by God-fearing, decent folk who are familiar with the combustible mixture of power, privilege and self-righteous, race-based loathing?

Dr. King once said; “Sometimes, silence is betrayal.” Does the rhetoric have to lead to an assassination before we realize that our silence is betrayal to freedom, common decency and social advancement?

Dr. King once said; “Sometimes, silence is betrayal.” Does the rhetoric have to lead to an assassination before we realize that our silence is a betrayal to decency and social advancement?

To pretend the government and the media have no power to address orchestrated hate is to pretend neither committed the willpower to defang, besmirch or destroy CORE, the Black Panthers, Dr. King or any other group or individual believed to be threatening or subversive.

Therein, is the answer to my question. The tolerance persists because the fears of Obama, the threat to the status quo and the thought of losing privilege are not just the concerns of extremists. After all, a recent Harris Poll noted that 40 percent of Americans believe Obama is a socialist; about 25 percent likened him to Hitler and 14 percent said Obama may be the Antichrist.

Unlike my father, I do not fear the lunatics. I fear the empathy that fuels their rhetoric and the tolerance that validates their cause.

I fear the silence that encourages the lunacy.


Sylvester Brown. Jr. is a St. Louis-based writer and a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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