African-American

I had a wonderful weekend holiday near Lake Tahoe that was only marred by the events in Dallas. Some comments made by Sarah Palin (and yes, I know, I shouldn’t be giving her any more free publicity) struck a cord, and I wanted to share some thoughts.

I have an old friend who is police in Durham, NC, and about once a year I do a ride-a-long with him. It really makes me appreciate the effort most police put into their jobs. Every day they put their lives on the line to protect our society, and I sleep better knowing they are around.

That said, in the past year or so I’ve seen a number of cases where police have shot and killed black men, and at least from the limited viewpoint of a mobile phone video, it looks like excessive force was used. When those cases don’t even make it to a courtroom, I have to wonder. In the case of my friend, he always gives the suspect the benefit of the doubt. When he was in the Army stationed in Iraq, he was attacked by a man wielding a knife and would have been perfectly justified in killing him. Instead, he used his police baton to disarm the man, who was distraught over losing his family and was just striking out. He used an extra element of understanding in that situation and it saved a life.

In the interest of understanding I wanted to comment some of the things Ms. Palin said.

Shame on politicians and pundits giving credence to thugs rioting against police officers and the rule of law in the name of “‘peaceful protests.’ It is a farce. #BlackLivesMatter is a farce.

Okay, let’s get one thing clear. When an African-American reads the word “thug” these days, they see “nigger”. Of course, the original of the word “thug” has nothing to do with black people in America, but it has been co-opted in much the same way “gay” means “homosexual” and not “light-hearted and happy”. It is used by racists to get away with using the “N-word” without actually saying it.

She then went on to attack the term “African-American”:

Self-descriptions that put any race in front of being an American are now used to further divide our nation. It’s time to acknowledge you’re either an American under our system of equality, law and order – and traditional patriotic spirit – or you’re not. Knock off the hyphenation of who we are. And knock off the shoulder chip if you’ve let ‘leaders’ burden you with it through their example that sadly capitalizes on division for untoward purposes. That chip is crushing the people’s hope.

She doesn’t get it, and what’s funny is that I used to be in the same camp. I used to dislike the term “African-American” but unlike Ms. Palin I sought out understanding.

At one point in my life, about 25 years ago, the two people I hung out with most were Rodney, an African-American, and Saeed, a Persian born in Iran. Not bad for a kid brought up in a small Southern town in North Carolina.

Anyway, at one point I got to know Rodney well enough that I brought up the fact that I hated the term “African-American”. By that measure I’m a “Hungarian-Russo-Slovak-American”.

His reply stuck with me. He told me: that’s the point, you know what you are. You know your heritage. What am I? Where did I come from?

Due to the slave trade in America, millions of Americans have no idea where their ancestors originated. Sure, there is some African in him, but which part? How much of his bloodline has been mixed with other races, either forced or with consent? All he knows of his culture is that he came out of slavery, and to share that label with millions of others in the same boat, they use the words “African-American”.

I lack the words to describe how powerful that was for me.

When I went to Budapest and saw the name “Balogh”, I knew that in some way I was related to that person. Most white people in the US have some idea of their background, because for the most part white people weren’t treated as property and records were kept. This isn’t the case with African-Americans, and understanding and identifying with that is important.

All it really took for me to have this epiphany was a conversation. But many Americans seem hell bent on throwing up walls, both literal and figurative, so that these conversations won’t happen.

It’s sad and shameful.