It comes as no surprise to me that most church folk I talked to were unaware of former Education Secretary William Bennett's shocking remarks last week, where he posited that aborting "Every black baby” in the U.S. would help drive the crime rate down. But I am sure that employers heard it. I'm sure that colleges heard it. I'm sure the police heard it. As much fun as it is to go after Bennett, the truth is Bill Bennett got sucker punched. Our problem is not Bill Bennett. Our problem is racism. Scapegoating Bennett only makes the job of eradicating actual racism that much harder.
Steve Martin and Queen Latifah’s hilarious movie last night, a
film that probably should have just been okay but actually is
quite funny, due in no small part to Latifah’s incredible
instincts (who’d have thought a street rapper could produce a
top-grossing film?) and Martin’s classic comic timing (and we
really haven’t been terribly impressed by Martin in a long time,
but his classic zaniness—much like Michael Jackson’s trademark
dance steps—really works in this context, even if it is, in
fact, ground pioneered earlier by Warren Beatty, Halle Berry and
the brilliant Don Cheadle in Bulworth, a film I’m sure few if
anyone reading this essay ever saw). Bringing Down The House had
an absurdly racist throughpoint in the story, where virtually
all of the white people, including Steve himself, was
cartoonishly racist. The venerable actor Betty White plays a
neighbor across the street in Martin’s toney neighborhood, who
says unimaginably racist things like, “I thought I saw some
Mexicans yesterday. If they don’t have leaf blowers in their
hands, they make me nervous,” and, “I thought I heard ‘negro,’”
as in Ebonics or ‘the black people slang.’
Initially I thought Latifah, who executive produced the film, went too far with this. That it really wasn’t funny because this aspect of the film was simply over the top. I mean, I’ve met plenty of white snobs (and more than my fair share of black ones), but people—regardless of race—simply do not behave this way in an enlightened society. Racism today is more about institutionalism. It’s more about assumption. About the white lady clutching her purse when I step into the elevator—which amazes me that, at 44 , they still can’t tell the difference between me and a gang banger. Today, racism is about my neighbors here in Shangri-La, a Colorado sub-division populated mainly with retirees. I call it Little Florida; a white shoe Twilight Zone where people long for the good ol’ pre-Watergate days of Eisenhower and Pat Boone; the world of Kevin Bacon’s ridiculous Footloose, a film not quite so ridiculous to me now that I’ve met these folk. Many of these folks simply do not like me and go out of their way to make me feel unwelcome and unwanted, hoping, I suppose, that I’ll move. I stay, I suppose, because I like this house and I’m really not about to be run out of it by these Pod People whose overriding motive can’t possibly be anything other than racism. After all, they don’t even know me. They’ve made absolutely no effort to know me. They just want me out. They’ll occasionally smile and keep up neighborly appearances, but for the most part, they are cold and distant and unfriendly, finding fault with me about the most absurd and ridiculous things. These are people who do not like me and are in search of a reason why.
That’s racism. The irrational hared of someone who has done you no harm, of someone you don’t even know. And that’s the subtle nature of racism today: an irrational hatred of unknown origin masked by outward politeness. It’s really hard to live somewhere you’re not wanted. To live among people who fairly despise you and aren’t good at hiding it. Especially when you know you’ve done these people no harm and, in fact, when—unbeknownst to these simple-minded folk—you’re actually looking out for them. I am one of two people living on this block who could actually run to the rescue if rescue was required. Almost no one else on this block is capable of running at all. In an emergency, I’m one of two people able to kick a door down or carry somebody to safety. And, despite how I am routinely treated here, I will, I certainly will help because that’s how I’m wired. Never mind my call to ministry, it’s who God created in me: I’m a guy who will help. Every time. No matter what. In many ways, I feel like God has put me here to watch over these old timers, people stuck in their little time warps and obsessing over their lawns and hating me because I am not them. I am not white. I am not retired. I cannot spend all day obsessing over my lawn. To them I am, first and above all else, a Negro. Not black, a Negro. They’re stuck in the 1950’s and 60’s when Negro was the operative term. They don’t want Negroes living on their block, bringing their property values down with their loud music and drunken parties.
The pool party scene in House is, I’m certain, what my neighbors are most terrified of. Which misses the point that I am middle aged, don’t drink and, in the five years I’ve lived here, I have never, and I mean not once, had a party. I hate parties. I hate super-loud music. I am so quiet, most people here never know whether I am home or not. And their chief complaint is always about my lawn because that’s all they now about me. They know I don’t obsess over my lawn the way they do. I could be lying dead on my living room floor and they’d never know it because none of them care one whit whether I live or die. Long as the grass gets cut on time. I’m so quiet, they can often forget I even live here, but they have, I suppose, spent five years bracing for the loud, drunken party that never came. For the wild women or pot-smoking loud-mouthed gang types who never came. For all of that Negro activity—that never came.
The fact that it never came is never credited back to my account. In spite of my failing to meet any of their fears and expectations, these people simply don’t like me. They’ve decided they don’t like me, now, because I yell at my neighbor’s dog. A 125-pound golden lab that sits directly beneath my bedroom window and woofs for hours at a time. They’ve decided that, since I hate the dog, I am not a Christian and I must go. Which misses the point that, if I weren’t a Christian, not only would the dog be dead by now, but many of them would be as well. These are frail, old busybodies easily shoved under a milk truck and tossed into a dumpster. If I was even half-gangsta, trust me, they’d know it. And yelling at the dog is the only way to train a dog to respond to you. The dog is not a person, he’s a dog. You have to train him like a dog. And when Cody keeps barking outside my window, when Cody’s master refuses to believe he’s doing it—even when I’ve given this guy HOURS of recordings of his dog barking (he tells me he believes I’ve manufactured those recordings; looped the dog barking to make it seem like he’s barking for hours when he’s really not)— well, then, I need to do what I need to do. And, trust me, hollering at the dog to be quiet (which he then does) is the least of many exponentially uglier options.
All of which is to say, the comic racism in Bringing Down The House seemed unrealistic to me because, well, racism is rarely practiced so blatantly and ridiculously. Today racism is more subtle, more about being passed over for promotion or hurled assumptions about social status. Which was why last week’s incredible blunder by former Education Secretary William Bennett seemed so shocking.