Years ago I read a story that described white patrons of shops, gas stations and convenience stores as those who would never hand money or credit cards directly to African-American clerks or other people of color. They would put their payments, cash or credit, directly on the counter — all the while avoiding eye contact — and expect change to be returned in the same way.
That cruel pettiness and demeaning small-mindedness of those acts seared my soul the moment I heard of such gestures — I swore I’d never be that person. Since that day I think I have never failed to hand money directly to whomever served me — and I always take change directly back in my hand.
That’s why, when I read online statements like, “‘Wanting a white Republican president doesn’t make you racist,’ it ‘Makes you American,'” I take them seriously. I believe that racial bias drives much of the animus toward President Obama and that the recent crisis in Washington affirms it.
As Sen. Elizabeth Warren put it, a “reckless faction in Congress took the government and the economy hostage for no good purpose and to no productive end.”
The “no good purpose” struggle, ostensibly over health care, shutdowns and debt ceiling that cost America $24 billion, was evidence, I believe, that some Americans think they can delegitimize President Obama and his programs by mounting a nihilist attack using appeals to the emotions, fears and prejudices of their followers.
For what purpose?
What does it mean to fear honoring another human by touching them? What does it say about our humanity when we can’t look the other in the eye?
Perhaps the election of Barack Hussein Obama and his elevation as “leader of the free world” was a blessing we are all slow to recognize: that his election challenged all our previously unquestioned assumptions about American exceptionalist cultural and political traditions and forced us to confront our fears about touching each other — and The Other.
Today, we should acknowledge the reality that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” may not be attainable to many Americans if they cannot be touched, if they are not educated and not healthy, if they are not honored.
The American way is not about a Mayberry shaped by memories of “Leave it to Beaver” and Donna Reed surrounded by white picket fences. The American way is that we each honor the other, acknowledge each other’s dignity and humanity, and, as circumstances change, reset our priorities so that no American is left behind.
That’s what America is about, not the vanities of fundamentalists and literalists who insist on simplistic truths and values and for the preservation of white cultural tradition rather than acknowledge, for whatever motive, that we live in dynamic, pluralistic communities that are creative, contradictory, complex — and challenging!
America needs leaders and an educated electorate that understands the meanings of words and manners can shift, that meanings are dependent on context, where conclusions may be elusive, where priorities shift but where the bottom line is that the well-being, safety and dignity of all Americans must be acknowledged.
I embrace that we are imperfect, frail humans — that within our frailties and imperfectness we search for community, comfort and truth, for understanding and beauty in patterns and light. Indeed, what could be more beautiful than a family protected both in health and happiness?
I embrace that because we aren’t perfect doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have dreams, that we shouldn’t seek love, and that we shouldn’t desire justice, dignity and freedom for all.
I believe that life is sacred, that there is beauty in the sacred, and that the sacred is irreducible. I believe that from within the mystery of the irreducible we are compelled to speak out against injustice — to protect the weak and defenseless. To speak against those who deny beauty, meaning and humanity to our brothers and sisters.
Finally, we must acknowledge that while there can be no greater privilege than being chosen to serve your nation, there can be no greater betrayal than betraying the Constitution and the needs of the nation.
Today, where are the normative leaders of the Republican Party? Where is the courage of George H.W., George W. and Jeb Bush when a Confederate flag is flown at the National Mall? Where are Scott Walker and Chris Christie when President Obama is accused of being a Muslim who “bows to Allah?” Where are Kelly Ayotte and Bobby Jindal, Mitch McConnell and Reince Priebus when America’s public square is being desecrated by hate speech?
Will they embrace the mystery of the irreducible and speak out against injustice? Will they touch the Other?
Will they speak, as did the Rev. Barry C. Black in a recent invocation to members of Congress: “We acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcomings, our smugness, our selfishness and our pride. Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable.”
Americans need to step out of denial and recognize where transgressions and pride have taken us. We should apologize to those we have kept from their homes, meals, shelters, schools and livelihoods.
In his hymn “Wake Now Our Senses,” Thomas Mikelson writes, “Take as your neighbor both stranger and friend/Praying and striving their hardship to end.”
Wake, now, our senses: Hear justice and mercy call.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.