Monday, May 29, 2023

Our New Normal

On this day, May 29, 2023 we Americans observe Memorial Day, the day we honor the men and women of our armed services who gave their lives in the service of our country. It is right and just that we do this. We must never forget them and their sacrifice. 

During my childhood, my family had a tradition of visiting the graves of our deceased family members on Memorial Day, whether they were veterans or not. It was right and just that we did that too.

Last Memorial Day came directly on the heels of the beginning of Russia's war in Ukraine, inspiring me to dedicate my last Memorial Day post to "the people who through no fault of their own, get caught up in war." I then went on to liken Ukrainians and civilians in war zones all over the world, killed while going about their everyday lives, to people in this country going about their daily lives who are killed in gun violence. 

It is also right and just to do this.

Because perhaps every Memorial Day from now on, we will be reminded of two specific days of infamy in our own country, the anniversaries of two American massacres that occurred just before the holiday last year, to be exact: May 14, 2022, at a Tops Grocery Store in Buffalo, New York, and May 24, 2022 at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. 

Yet another truly horrifying and repulsive thing is this: in our day there are more mass shootings in the United States in one year than there are days in a year, so one can mark the anniversary of a mass shooting practically every day of the year. Worse still, the number of mass shooting victims is a small fraction of the total number of victims of gun violence in this country.

In 2022, according to the web site The Trace, 20,138 gun deaths, (not including suicides), occurred in the United States. That number was a slight decrease from the previous record-setting year.

Now consider this: inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, there are 58,318 names of all the U.S. service men and women who either died or were MIA during that conflict which for us lasted between 1955 and 1975. 

You do the math.

This is our new normal. There are so many gun tragedies in our country that unless they are particularly horrific in terms of the number or age of the victims, or the reasons why they were killed, we hardly notice anymore.

It's tempting to find a single culprit for these horrible statistics, but there are many. According to this Wikipedia chart which is quite out of date, for every 100 people in the United States, there were 120 guns.  That number is significantly higher today. Number two on the list is Serbia with a paltry 37.2 guns for every 100 people followed by Canada, with 34.7 guns for every 100 people, and Finland with 32.4.  If you remove the U.S. from that equation, it is obvious that the number of guns per person in a country, does not necessarily correlate with a high gun-murder rate.

The countries with the highest gun-murder rates in the world are concentrated in one geographical area, Central America and parts of South America, with Venezuela and El Salvador far and away leading the pack with 36.75 and 36.34 gun related deaths per 100,000 people respectively, according to a recent web site from World Popluation Review. According to that site, those numbers are attributable to "the prevalence of criminal gangs and a vibrant drug trafficking industry." In El Salvador, at least according to the older Wikipedia list, there were only 5.8 guns per 100 people in 2015. By contrast, Serbia, Finland and Canada all with about seven times the number of guns-per-capita, had 4.8, 2.9 and 2.3 gun-=murders per 100K people respectively.

From the World Population Review list, the United States experienced 10.89 firearm related deaths per 100K in the past year, a rate comparable to those of Uruguay, Paraguay and Panama.

If one only looks at these numbers, gun rights advocates have a point when they say limiting the number of guns available to the general public is not going to eliminate gun violence.

But what do we make of the off-the-charts number of guns in this country? Remember, there are almost four times as many guns-per-capita in the States than in Serbia, the country second place in that category the world.

My take is that with all those guns available, it is stupid easy to get your hands on one in this country, be you a responsible gun owner, a run-of-the-mill criminal, or a sociopath. And with few meaningful restrictions on the sale, manufacture, possession and the carrying of firearms in many U.S. states, and even more lax restrictions on the way, it's only going to become more stupidly easy in the future. 

True, the U.S. is not in the top twenty in the world in terms of gun-murder rate, it's number 22, according to the WPR list. That's hardly a bragging right.

But as far as public mass shootings go, along with per-capita gun ownership, we are in a class all by ourselves. 

The connection may be purely anecdotal, but I don't think so. Gun rights activists claim other culprits for the preponderance of mass shootings in this country, mental health being number one. 

I don't buy it. As far as I know, there are people with mental health issues everywhere in the world, not just in the States. I'm not even convinced that all perpetrators of mass shootings are indeed mentally ill. There are certainly millions of people in this country and elsewhere with mental health issues who would not harm anyone, let alone commit mass murder. I'm all in on making mental health a priority in this nation. But the emphasis on mental illness being a major cause of violence is no more than a smokescreen from the issue of gun legislation and an excuse to stigmatize and marginalize yet another group of people. 

Regardless, the one thing we have that nobody else does here in the good ol' U.S.A., along with a mass shooting or two every day, is unfettered access to guns. 

What IS sick are politicians looking for gun lobby money and a few extra votes, people who could make a difference to save at least some lives, wearing lapel pins in the likeness of AR-15 assault rifles, the preferred weapon of mass shooters. 

What a slap in the face to the people who lost loved ones to those weapons of mass destruction. 

They may as well piss on the graves of our fallen soldiers, seamen, airmen and women. I have no doubt that in exchange for money and a vote or two, they would do just that.

Monday, May 8, 2023

Angry White People

Much of the political divide in this nation right now is focused between two distinct groups, angry white people, and everybody else. This subject has gotten a lot of attention lately after the recent departure of Tucker Carlson from FOX "News". In his role over there, Carlson as you probably know, cast himself in the role of chief defender, spokesperson and provocateur for tens of millions of angry white Americans.

On his show he typically addressed his devoted viewers as "YOU." That "you" was a means to distinguish his followers, or as Carlson put it, "Legacy Americans", from THEY, everyone who is not an angry white person.

Typical Tuckerisms include: 

  • THEY'RE coming after YOU,
  • THEY'RE taking your rights away from YOU, and most sinister of all: 
  • THEY hate YOU.

Unfortunately Carlson is not alone in riling up white people,. The machines that drive both sides of the ideological divide in this country from politicians, members of the press, pundits and other public figures, to lowly bloggers such as myself, in our words and deeds, only exacerbate that anger, further dividing the country. 

So why are so many white people so angry? Google that question and you'll find all sorts of explanations, some logical, some let's just say, far reaching.

Here in Chicago and in several comparable American cities, there is a complicated historical force at work that contributes to white rage.

I've been thinking about it since I wrote this piece twelve years ago about a South Side Chicago Roman Catholic parish that closed its doors largely because of so called "white flight" from the neighborhood as black people moved in. That piece continues to be one of the most viewed posts on this blog. It struck a nerve as it has received by far the greatest number of negative comments of anything I have ever written.

I tried to be balanced in my assessment of why white people have historically moved out of neighborhoods in Chicago as soon as black people moved in. In the piece I cited institutional policies and greedy individuals who took advantage of people's fear, all of which contributed to white flight. Then I said: 

It would be easy to make a blanket condemnation of white people picking up stakes and leaving their neighborhood based on the threat of change...

Yet, next to our children, the biggest investment most of us have is our home. As much as we all would like to be community minded, the bottom line is that most of us need to look out for ourselves and our families first. "Get out before it's too late and you lose your investment..." may not be the most altruistic or public-spirited advice, but one certainly cannot say that it is not prudent.

I went into more detail in my recent post on West Garfield Park about housing covenants, redlining, contract selling, and other

...pernicious discriminatory practices that all but guaranteed segregation in the city and second-class status to people of color.

Despite taking the blame of white flight largely off the shoulders of most (but not all) average white homeowners, some folks reading the piece still took issue when I wrote that in addition to all those things I just mentioned, racism was also part of the mix.

I stand by that statement.

But here's the thing, there's racism, then there's racism. One type of racism leads people to dress up in white sheets, give Nazi salutes, and march with tiki torches while chanting "we will not be replaced." The other is nuanced and from my experience, to some extent lives in all of us. If someone tells you he "doesn't have a racist bone in his body", rest assured he either lacks the self-awareness to recognize it or is flat out lying to you.

For good reason, "Racist" in our society is one of the most devastating accusations that can be leveled against a person, as people by nature associate the word with the former, the unequivocal, un-nuanced, heil-Hitler form of racism.

But today, the word is thrown about with such reckless abandon, especially by the Left, that it has virtually lost its meaning, but not its offense. 

Another term that needs to be judiciously reconsidered is "white privilege."

There's privilege, then there's privilege. The former comes through access to money, higher education and personal connections, among other things.  The latter privilege is something that should be enjoyed by everyone who lives in a free society. Unfortunately, far too many of us, especially people of color, are often denied many of those privileges. Therefore, "white privilege" which for the record I believe is a real thing, is not something bestowed upon white people, but rather, something that is taken away from others.  

Yet like racism, the word privilege evokes a very specific image to most people.

Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson, heir to the TV Dinner fortune, is undisputedly a man of great privilege in every sense of the word. The vast majority of his audience which is mostly white, does not enjoy the kind of privilege Carlson and the proverbial one percent of Americans have, and never will. 

Since Carlson is nothing if not two-faced, it's difficult to know exactly who he is or what he really believes. Judging from his public words, and now his publicly distributed private words, Carlson is likely also a racist in every sense of the word.  I'll go out on a limb here and state that the same is probably not true of much of his audience, although I haven't a clue how much. 

I read two books in preparation for my recent post about the Chicago neighborhood of West Garfield Park. The first was: Redlined: A Memoir of Race, Change, and Fractured Community in 1960s Chicago, by Linda Gartz. Gartz writes about growing up in the West Side neighborhood where both she and her father spent their formative years. Linda's formative years coincided with the drastic population shift of the community which went from virtually 100 percent white in 1950, to virtually 100 percent black in 1970.

In 1968, the neighborhood was hit particularly hard during the riots that took place after the assassination of Martin Luther King. In the subsequent decades, between 1970 and 2020, West Garfield Park lost nearly two thirds of its population. Unlike the vast majority of their fellow white West Garfield Parkers, Gartz's family remained, at least as landlords, (they moved out in 1965). As the buildings around theirs crumbled due to vandalism and neglect, Gartz's parents dedicated themselves to the upkeep of their three properties and faithful service to their tenants for the rest of their lives. (They died in the nineties).

Linda Gartz pulls no punches when describing some of the shortcomings of her family, including her mother's initial response to a black family moving to her block. But she also describes her mom's change of heart as she got to know some of her new neighbors.

Simply put, the message of the book is that both black and white families in West Garfield Park and other similar communities around the city, were the victims of bad actors, both government and businesses who profited off anger and fear of the white people, and the limited options for black people. The other message is that if we only could get to know one another on a personal basis, maybe we could begin to learn to live together.

That last point is also one of the messages of Vanishing Eden: White Construction of Memory, Meaning, and Identity in a Racially Changing City. The book was written by Michael T. Maly and Heather M. Dalmage, two professors of sociology at Roosevelt University. The book is based upon Dalmage and Maly's interviews of white folks whose families moved away from the neighborhoods in which they grew up when they began to change racially, and the two sociologists' take on them.

In all the interviews, the subjects spoke with reverence for the neighborhoods their parents felt compelled to leave. These places are described, as the book's title implies, as virtual paradises, places where everyone knew, cared for and looked out for one another, where the only limitation placed upon kids was to be home as soon as the streetlights came on. 

This all hit home for me as I have similar idyllic memories of my life growing up in Humboldt Park, a couple miles from West Garfield Park. We left the community in 1968 when I was nine, not long after the West Side riots, for the suburb of Oak Park. 

Many of the negative comments to the post mentioned above, implied that as an outsider, I had no idea what I was talking about and had no right to criticize others who experienced something I had not. I pointed out that I did indeed have "skin in the game", bringing up my Humboldt Park experience. 

At one point in reading Vanishing Eden however, it dawned on me that I was being disingenuous. In describing the factors leading people to change neighborhoods, the authors distinguished between being pulled away or pushed away.  

A few weeks ago, I asked my mother what was the factor that made her and my father decide to leave the neighborhood in which she had lived for nearly thirty years. She told me about an incident that took place while she was walking to the corner store, (a classic example of the bygone days). On her way, someone spit on her from a second-floor window. "That was it.." she said, "we were out of there." OK my mother doesn't talk like that, but you get the picture. 

Thinking about it however, that incident, unpleasant as it was, was not the reason we left Humboldt Park. We left because we were living in a small rental apartment in a residential hotel building in which my grandmother was the manager. Both my parents had good jobs, both had cars, and money to afford to buy a house in the suburbs. In other words, they were acting out the "American Dream" just like the vast majority of their peers at the time. Long story short, we would have moved regardless, the spitting incident only hastened the act. 

In contrast, the families of the people interviewed in Vanishing Eden for the most part had already realized the "American Dream" of owning a home. Many were working class folks who had to save and sacrifice for years to achieve that goal and once there, had no intention of giving it up. Had external forces not intervened pushing them out of their beloved homes, they or their descendants might still be there.

Naturally there was great bitterness once their neighborhood changed. As I pointed out in the West Garfield Park piece, most of these folks knew nothing about the bad actors Linda Gartz speaks of in her book. What they knew was what they saw with their own eyes: time and again, once a neighborhood in Chicago went from white to black, it deteriorated rapidly. Given that, it's not too hard to figure who they came to blame.

In her book, Linda Gartz mentions that growing up, she and her family knew no black people personally. While I didn't have a great deal of close contact with black people as a small child either, one of the most memorable persons from my life in Humboldt Park was the contracted painter in our building, a black man by the name of Rogers. As my grandma ran the hotel, I got to know all the people who had a stake in the building from the owners to the janitor. Honestly I liked them all, but Rogers was especially kind to me, and I'd say he and I were as close to being genuine friends as a grown man of thirty-something and an eight-year-old child possibly could be.

Further background in my development, I have no childhood memory of my parents ever making a disparaging remark about black people. In fact, as I pointed out in this space at least a couple times, after I reported to them some nasty racial comments made by the parents of my best friend at the time, my parents told me in no uncertain terms that my friend's parents were wrong. As my father would always say: "people are people." I will forever be grateful for that.

It wasn't until we moved to Oak Park that I experienced virulent racism.  It was tough entering a new school in fifth grade where virtually all the kids had known each other since kindergarten. I met a kid in my class who seemed nice enough. He was smart and would actually talk to me without condescension. It turns out that he too was a new kid at the school, also having recently moved from the West Side. One day in the playground much to my surprise, he told me he and his family were moving again. When I asked why he said "because nig--rs moved onto our block and there's no way in hell we're going to live with them." Even at my young age I understood that while they came out of this ten year old boy's mouth, those weren't his words. 

Perhaps he was one of the people interviewed by Professors Maly and Dalmage for their book. Some of the interviewees while not being that candid about their feelings, were quite brazen by today's standards about expressing their bitterness and distrust of black people. One particularly disgusting excerpt is a couple recounting something that took place after moving to a new, all-white neighborhood. They were having a garage sale and a couple of black teenagers from another neighborhood bought a bicycle from them. As they walked through the alley with their new bike, a couple of neighbors who were cops chased after the kids and jumped them, assuming they had stolen the bike. The most disturbing part is that in recounting the story years later, the couple telling it were laughing, finding the whole incident amusing. 

Vanishing Eden is a revealing book, not only in the attitudes of its subjects, but also the attitudes of the authors, whose own bias comes through clearly.

The first clue comes from the book's cover illustration which features a faded photograph appearing to have been made in the fifties of a smiling white boy, three or four years old, sitting in a Radio Flyer wagon in the midst of what appears to be a tidy neighborhood of modest post-war homes. With the exception of the social class depicted, this picture evokes "Leave it to Beaver" and other period pieces that represent to many, a time of lost innocence in this country, all made possible in their minds by white hegemony.

The subtitle of the book: "White Construction of Memory, Meaning, and Identity in a Radically Changing City" drives home the point that the book's creators don't hold that opinion, and the photograph gracing the cover is there for irony.

In the book they make the point that their subjects view their old neighborhoods through rose colored glasses. To them, before the change everything was perfect and after, everything went to hell. 

Had they interviewed me about my own childhood experience of Humboldt Park, I would have told them pretty much the same thing, except the going to hell part.

The truth is I spent my formative years in Oak Park. I made some of my most cherished friendships there including my oldest and dearest friend, also an emigre from the West Side. I have no such connection to Humboldt Park. In Oak Park I had a back yard and a basement where I had nearly full reign, in addition to my bedroom. Three doors away there was a lovely park where I learned to play tennis. In the winter I went skating and sledding. For all intents and purposes, the "quality" of my life improved exponentially after we moved there. I am who I am today, for better or worse, by virtue of my life in Oak Park. 

Yet moving away from Humboldt Park was traumatic for me as things I dearly loved, my friends and the only home I knew, were taken away. Today I have no bad memories of my life in Humboldt Park, even though bad things certainly happened there. For years I mourned losing it and went back every chance I could. Despite there being no rational explanation for it, to this day I still feel in some ways more connected to Humboldt Park than Oak Park. 

Memory is a funny thing.

It's not surprising to me that folks who left their childhood homes around the same time I did, would have similar memories. It's even less surprising that they would express bitterness had they felt pushed out of their old neighborhood, especially if that idea was constantly enforced by the people closest to them.

Not many of the subjects in Vanishing Eden come off looking as horrible as the ones I mentioned above. Most of them, forty and more years after the fact (the book was published in 2016), understand the dynamics of race in this country and realize that black people themselves aren't to blame for what happened to their communities. But the authors in no way let these folks off the hook as they all in one way or other, express understanding for their fellow white folks, usually family members, who feel more bitter than they do, thereby "excusing their racism" as the authors put it.  

Thumbing through the book it's difficult to find a page where either the word racism or the term white privilege is not found. The authors are correct in pointing out that many white people who experienced white flight to this day have no intention of living on the same block as a black person Somehow, they weren't able to come up with any white flight veterans who had no problem living with black people. 

I wonder why.

They could have asked Linda Gartz. Perhaps the most revealing part of her book is where she mentions how during the civil rights movement of the sixties, her parents sympathized with the plight of black people in American South. That feeling didn't extend to the blacks who were moving into their neighborhood. This NIMBY (not in my backyard) attitude is not unusual, it's one of the less flattering parts of human nature.

On the same token, it's completely understandable why white people who experienced making the difficult decision of moving out of a changing neighborhood, would feel put off being judged by other white people who had no such experience. I imagine it would be doubly irritating for working class folks to have people with more money, education and influence, people who could afford to live anywhere they pleased, including affluent predominantly white suburbs, accuse them of racism and exercising their "white privilege", just for wanting their families to be able to live in peace and safety.

I don't know the personal backgrounds of Professors Dalmage and Maly. From their profile photographs, they appear to both be white. I can't say if either had the experience of living in a racially changing neighborhood. Dalmage was born in the mid-sixties and Maly in the eighties making them both too young, especially Maly, to have experienced the height of the era of white flight.  

It's clear they have an agenda, not a misguided one, reminding us that we'd all be better off if we learned how to get to know one another. Where they err in my opinion, is they make the same mistake they accuse their subjects of, they lack a sense of empathy. 

In my piece on the baseball player Ty Cobb, I embedded a powerful interview with the great Negro League ballplayer, coach, manager, and historian John "Buck" O'Neil. In that interview, O'Neil refuses to condemn people for being racists. Everybody has their own mountain to climb he suggests. "Babies aren't born prejudiced", O'Neil said, someone had to teach them to be that way.

Had Rogers and other good people like him not entered my life, had I spent my first years in West Garfield Park rather than Humboldt Park, had we not moved to Oak Park allowing me to meet the amazing people who would become my lifelong friends... 

Had a slew of other things that happened by chance in my life making me who I am today not happened, and most of all, had I not had parents who set me straight and taught me that the most important lesson in life is that "people are people", my outlook on the world may have been very different.

Had things been different, I too may have ended up being an angry white guy, falling prey to bad actors like the neighborhood busters, Tucker Carlson and the rest, teaching me to fear and distrust anyone who is different from me.

"There but by the grace of God go I" they say.

I think everyone of good will needs to keep that in mind.