All of my life I have had small epiphanies, understandings that suddenly revealed themselves resulting in an unexpected Aha! moment. Some of them were simply realizations of things that in retrospect I wondered why I hadn’t figured them out before. Others were more profound, coming out of nowhere, requiring reflection that resulted in a complete rearrangement of my understanding of the world.
Last Tuesday, one of the latter came to visit at a location where one would not ordinarily expect such visions – Orlando International Airport.
Let me begin with a confession. I don’t fly any more than I have to these days. The airline industry has become a master of calculated misery and I readily admit that I hate being one of their lab rats.
Virtually every domestic airline has increased its average passenger load by 1/3 over the past 15 years. With 1/3 more seats per airplane, that means correspondingly that the space for passengers is about 1/3 less than 15 years ago.
That’s hardly a revelation to those of us who must trudge by the prized First Class passengers enroute to our ever shrinking seats. They look up from their spritzers and highballs at the passing hoi polloi laden with the carry-on luggage we can no longer afford to check with disdain if not pity.
Few places more blatantly and effectively maintain class distinctions like airlines.
Before the flight is too far into its journey, a curtain will be drawn to shield the elite about to be fed real meals from the view of the great unwashed masses scrunched together in the rear awaiting our half cans of beverage and bags containing 12 tiny pretzels. Truth be told, we unwashed are too busy to care, desperately seeking any way possible to find even a modicum of comfort for the duration of their flight. Seats on the aisle or along an exit row sometimes allow the ability to stretch out aching knees like mine but they always come at an additional cost.
It’s a pretty simple formula: Less misery, more money.
In this game of calculated misery, the airlines always have the upper hand. And they have proven to be genuine experts at playing this game not unlike counsel on both sides of personal injury law practice or the steely, stalling gatekeepers in the insurance industry whose misery calculations sometimes extend to actual decisions about life and death. What they all hold in common is that in each of these transactions, the average consumer always stands to be the loser.
Misery once on the airliner is always preceded by the unpredictability and irritation of checking in to get to them. It’s hard to know what the TSA - an agency providing the appearance of security whose value is more in its dramaturgy than its actual capacities to stop dangerous items from coming on board - will demand of passengers coming through their lines. Last Tuesday was no exception. But it would also prove to be the context for an unexpected epiphany about the cancer of racism that eats at the very soul of our shared existence.
Revelations are often subtle like that.
The TSA process had changed since the last time I’d been in OIA. Clearly I was not the only customer taken off guard. Entrances to premium services and pre check lines were clearly marked. No signs for us poor plebeians. Just a maze full of people already in line, waiting for a 7 am opening that was neither announced over the intercom nor posted with infographics.
A guard stood at the only entrance to the already full cue offering no verbal instructions to the confused and increasingly agitated passengers arriving at this madhouse. When I asked him where I needed to go he said “End of the line,” pointing to a line of well over 50 passengers that stretched down the shopping corridor toward the terminal on the opposite of the airport.
I nervously pulled out my cellphone to check the time. Would I make my flight? These lines were standing still. And I wasn’t alone in that apprehension. As I put my cell back into the pocket of my cargo pants, I noticed most of the folks checking their watches and cells as well.
Suddenly the line began to move. No announcement, no directions from the guards. TSA was just suddenly open for business. Figure it out. Move on.
About midway through the cued lines, a white male guard, mid 50s, salt and pepper crew cut, stood in a roped off space between the cues watching the crowd filing through. He tightly held a German Shepherd straining on its leash. The man barked orders intermittently, most of which were not terribly coherent. It was unclear whether he wanted the dogs to be able to sniff our bags or whether he wanted us to move them to the other side of our bodies away from the dog.
What was clear was that he wanted us to keep moving.
A young African American couple was just ahead of me. As the young woman came up to the dog, she simply froze, her face marked with terror. The guard barked yet another incoherent order. She didn’t move. He began frantically motioning for her to proceed.
“I’m afraid of the dog,” she said apologetically. “You’re afraid of the dog,” the guard parroted back without any emotion at all. It was almost as if he she had spoken to him in a foreign language. But he gave no further instructions, just continued his irritable waving at the young woman to pass.
When the couple had finally passed I heard the guard speak into the squawking communication device on his shoulder:
“Suspicious young African American woman with black hat. Watch her.”
Ahead of us a young Latino guard suddenly unsnapped the cue ropes and stepped into line behind her. He would closely follow the young black woman with her male companion all the way to check in. At that point, I was suddenly told to move over two cues to another x-ray line and I lost sight of them.
Historical Amnesia, Racial Memories
Let me be clear up front that I do not envy TSA officers their jobs. Like teachers, they have impossible, thankless jobs that pay them way too little for their efforts. Indeed the initial line in which I was standing was snaking down the corridor toward the other terminal where a TSA officer had recently died after leaping from a fourth floor hotel balcony. This almost a month into the Trumpland government shutdown which had left him without a salary to support his family.
But it was less the actual interactions that disturbed me in this exchange between the guard and the young black woman than the pattern that had just played out in front of me. Scenes from 1950s Birmingham sprang to my mind unbidden. In my mind’s eye I could see grainy black and white images of Bull Connor and his police I remembered from our tiny television. Their ferocious dogs strained on leashes as the pressurized blast of fire hoses assaulted young black women dressed in their finest Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes, tossing their bodies into the air as if they were dolls, driving them forcefully into the pavement and nearby walls.
They were young women not terribly unlike this woman.
My guess is that this middle-aged white guard who found this woman “suspicious” would never have made those connections. Indeed, he looked as if he could have been a veteran of one of the many recent invasions of hell holes with names like Kandahar and Mosul whose occupations now completing their second decade. Perhaps he was one of the many veterans who returned homes with stories of women and even children who had served as agents of destruction bearing suicide bombs. Any kind of dehumanizing abuse tends to color our perceptions of the world in seriously misanthropic ways.
More importantly, the chances were that this man’s knowledge of Bull Connor was limited at best if he ever actually learned about those events at all. And it was with that realization, as I filed down the aisle, stowed my bag and sank into my seat, that this unexpected epiphany suddenly came fully into focus.
He Never *Needed* to Know
Like me, this was a white man enjoying unearned privilege in a sexist and racist culture. He would never have needed to know those stories. The chances are that in this society he would always be on the control end of the leash, not the snarling, toothy end.
His conclusion that this woman was somehow suspicious was formed on the basis of enculturation into a society in which people who looked like him were expected to maintain control of people who looked like her. The chances are that neither he nor I would never be the target of coercive force simply because of who he was, only the agent of its imposition. And the chances were he’d never considered it could be any other way.
White male privilege is subtle that way.
On my way out of my bodily x-ray and bag check, I saw the black couple recovering their bags from the conveyor belt. Assuming there were no more delays, we would all three soon be boarding the monorail to the gates, headed our separate ways.
My guess is that both the guard and the young woman he targeted for surveillance would soon forget this encounter. For the guard, it would be just another hassle dealt with, a false alarm, another person he was already strongly inclined to view with suspicion who had simply proved harmless – this time. She was just the first such suspicious person he’d have to deal with this day which was just beginning. There would no doubt be more.
For the young woman, it would be just another brush with a white authority figure who often sees her and those who look like her as suspicious simply because of who she is. But this one was a bargain – in this encounter, the probability was low that either she or her companion could end up dead.
Racist systems are subtle that way.
The events that transpired at the Orlando International Airport last Tuesday are hardly the exception. They are, in fact, the norm. The disparity of power on display is a given. The powerful party’s suspicion of the powerless and the powerless party’s resulting fear of the powerful is a constant. And the history that informed their interaction is the great elephant in the room we don’t like to talk about.
If this country is ever to come to grips with its original sins - a country rising from a near-genocide of indigenous peoples followed by the rise of a predatory capitalist culture on the backs of enslaved human beings - we will need to first become aware of our history. All of it. And all of us.
That will need to begin with the recognition that historical amnesia is the rule rather than the exception among my fellow white countrymen and women. It is an unearned privilege not to know, a luxury to which the privileged presume entitlement in a racist culture. Truth is we’ve never needed to know these dark chapters of our national experience because they have not affected us. And they rarely affect us now.
It’s also convenient. It’s easy to state “I never knew about any of that” with a modicum of truthfulness when one has never actually learned it. But it is the intentionality of not knowing, of never informing oneself of facts that were readily available, of the scrupulous avoiding of the thousands of untold stories that lurk in our collective Shadow that make it impossible for any of us to assert ignorance of the facts with even a modicum of good faith.
The peoples who have had to struggle to survive never had that luxury. Their survival has long depended upon them learning the truths about the interactions of their forebears with people who had power over them. They learned in that process that they could not trust those men holding snarling dogs and brandishing weapons of torture if they wished to survive to tell about it.
These racial memories have been passed down in stories like the ones which came swimming into focus unbidden last Tuesday. They are the memories of ancestors whose own stories abruptly ended in their youth, middle age at the latest, ancestors whose lives were cut short by fear and loathing at the hands of frightened, angry men with snarling dogs. Or worse.
Ears to Hear? Eyes to See?
Today there is much public hand wringing about how polarized our society is, how fragmented we have become as a people, if we can even call ourselves a single people with any degree of intellectual honesty anymore. We lament our lack of civility in our interactions and the dehumanizing rhetoric we use to describe one another. The decline of civility is an observable phenomenon. And, sadly, in Trumpland, that starts at the top.
Even so, at a very basic level it is our addiction to a constant comfort we presume entitlement to, the marks of a consumerist culture, that is speaking here. We like it a lot better when people are nice, when the turds in the punch bowl go unnoticed, when the collective Shadow of our history remains neatly repressed and out of sight. And we don’t care who bears the costs of that luxury.
But if we are serious about becoming States that are actually United once again (if they ever really were) and embracing one another as a single American people, we must be willing to hear the painful stories that gave rise to a young black woman’s apprehension about a frightening dog on a leash in an airport. We must come to understand why her fear was actually prudent, not misplaced, and why the suspicion that resulted from her reaction was already present long before these two people ever met that fateful morning - in the mind of the white guard who projected it onto her.
For most of my adult life, I have been prone to wear tee-shirts that I hope will prompt people to think about the messages they bear. In seminary I was told I wore my theology on my sleeve. I suppose that is still true today.
One of my favorite current tee-shirts features a silhouette of writer and social critic James Baldwin with one of his more memorable quotes. It reads:
“I cannot believe what you say because I see what you do.”
Baldwin is onto something. The racist culture in which we reside is not hard to recognize if you know what to look for. The question is, to paraphrase words attributed to Jesus, whether we have eyes to see.
The signs are everywhere. They are unmistakable. And they sometimes reveal themselves at unexpected times and in unexpected ways like early morning epiphanies at the security check-in at an international airport.
Coming to consciousness can be subtle that way.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston 2019