Profiles in Gutlessness: Racists among us

Some headlines this week:

Red Sox apologize for racial taunts toward Orioles player,” Burlington Times-News and a few hundred other newspapers and websites around the nation.

Sigma Phi Epsilon used racial slur towards black student, according to sources,” Elon News Network.

Racism prompts Elon professor to return to Canada,” Elon News Network.

Trump on Civil War: Why could that one not have been worked out?” New York Times and thousands of other places.

race trump civil war

A meme that made the rounds after President Trump’s Civil War statement. It’s a joke for those who might be unsure.

These things, all either occurring or just reported over the past few days are neither random nor unrelated. And in the Department of Perpetual and Profound Sadness, not at all surprising. Yes, America is a sharply divided multicultural nation founded upon the novel idea that all are welcome here yet always tragically and ironically scarred by racial intolerance, hatred and deep misunderstanding. It is a nation now led by someone who propels this division through either a lack of intelligence, his own racism, for political purposes or because he can’t escape the fact that he is a  common individual devoid of even basic humanity.

Let’s say our president hits for the cycle there. Hey, what can you do, he’s only been like this since forever and widely known for these characteristics dating back to least the early 1980s. Yes, an internet troll was elected as leader of the free world in November. Beyond political beliefs, we all must live with this character flaw.

But Donald Trump didn’t invent racism in this country, he’s merely exploited it as others have before him. It’s a cynical and ignorant strategy that preys upon the worst instincts of too many mentally diseased and morally bankrupt people to count in our nation. It’s also a very dangerous one. We’re witnessing how dangerous at the moment.

Let’s look at two of those headlines.

Race fenway

The one gaining national attention occurred in venerable Fenway Park in Boston where the Red Sox were playing the Baltimore Orioles. Os outfielder Adam Jones reported that during a game on Monday he was referred to by a racial slur – the N-word – multiple times by Boston fans. Objects were also thrown at him – peanuts. It was an appalling an unacceptable display by some yahoos in a city where similar appalling displays have been all too common over the past several decades. This is nothing new for Boston. And conduct at sports venues in general everywhere has been godawful for a long time, owing mainly to the availability of alcohol and the entitlement some fans feel to say or do whatever they want after purchasing a ticket. It is hardly a pass to public displays of drunken assholery but they sure act that way.

Yes, fans have been yelling obscenities at players for years, but public use of the N-word has been seen as out of bounds for some time now. Its return is disturbing and another of many warning signs our nation is headed down an ugly path. That Red Sox fans near these “people” didn’t call the perpetrators out or contact stadium officials to have them immediately removed is a more troubling aspect of this pathetic story. It was good to see team, city and state officials so mortified by these actions but their rebuke is pretty hollow all things considered. The standing ovation Jones received Tuesday night at Fenway was at least heartening.

In all, 34 fans were ejected from Fenway Park on Monday – including the peanut thrower. It was not known if the purveyors of racial slurs were among those tossed. In the future they should be not only be removed from that game but barred from attending games ever again. Stadium officials could create a Wall of Shame in the concourse with photos of people permanently banned with an explanation as to why the action was taken.

Closer to home – and note there are two of those, both linked to Elon University (my current employer) – I want to address the professor who is leaving at the end of this semester because she and her husband, who is from Nicaragua, encountered multiple incidents of racism in Burlington and one in Greensboro. It soured them on this entire area – and indeed, America in general. Who can blame them?

Robin Attas is an assistant professor of music at Elon and lives in Burlington with husband Nicolas Narvaez Soza and their two children. They moved here in 2013 and Soza began to notice that he was often treated more rudely than other customers at places around town. Because he’s not a conspiracy guy, Soza figured he was simply encountering people who were having a bad day.

But things got off the rails on a trip to a home improvement store in 2015. Soza couldn’t think of the English name for what he was looking for and asked a fellow customer. He was bluntly told to learn to speak English if he wanted to find something. In another incident, Soza was standing at the front door of their home with the couple’s two small children when someone drove by, tossed a bottle in the yard and yelled “F—ing Mexican go home,” then drove off in a hurry.

File that act under “Profiles in Gutlessness.”

Another incident with a police officer in Greensboro was the real turning point. During a traffic stop, Soza felt that he might become another news story – one about someone of color shot during an interaction with law enforcement.

The family is moving to Winnipeg, Canada and can’t wait to put this area behind them.

What a nice recruiting story for businesses looking over our community.

Unfortunately, the family moving away is exactly the outcome spreaders of hate and racism want. In this case, the terrorists won.

I can’t speak from personal experience regarding how someone who’s African-American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern or Asian is treated in Alamance County or North Carolina. I’m an old white guy. But as an old white guy I’ve heard things said over the years – things I’ve walked away from in disgust. As someone who worked in newspapers for 34 years – 17 of them in Burlington – I’ve spoken to some of the worst people I’ve ever known by phone, a couple of them elected officials. In some cases I’ve stopped conversations and stated, “I’m not going to listen to this,” or “I’m not going to have this discussion.” A couple of years ago, I instituted a personal zero-tolerance policy for talking to people on the phone who espouse racist points of view. Here’s something I wrote back then. This is a Facebook post I made three years ago, right around May 1, by coincidence. I also wrote a column for the Burlington Times-News about it, published on May 4, 2014.

I’m not paid enough to be polite to racists.

This is the decision I reached recently. I pretty much made up my mind about it already, then a caller pushed me fully over Thursday morning.

“Do y’all notice that every day you only run pictures of black people on the front page of the sports section?” he asked.

“Huh?” I responded, then added, “can’t say that I have.”

“Well what are you there the janitor? Don’t you look at your own paper?” the caller continued. “It’s pretty obvious.”

“Not to me,” I said. “Yeah, I look, but I don’t notice that kind of thing. It doesn’t matter really.”

“Well, y’all are quick to point out when white people say something about black people …” he began.

And then I cut him off. “ don’t see how one thing has much to do with the other. And besides, on today’s sports page there is a photo with two black NBA players and another photo with a white NASCAR driver. Looks pretty balanced to me.”

End of conversation.

But I decided right then and there, I’m not going to listen to this kind of crap, not anymore.

As a newspaper editor, I’ve had more than my share of calls like this over the years. Usually I’m dumbfounded by them to the point of near verbal paralysis. I stammer. I stutter. I search for purchase in my mind for something intelligent to say beyond “why don’t you just shut the hell up.”

What I do is get angry about it later when the story is retold.

Often I would simply let them speak their piece, add in a “we’ll just have to disagree,” then try to hang up without further incident such as listing in detail exactly why I might think this particular caller to be a chunk of subhuman excrement. My mother taught me to be polite to almost anyone. I have worked on this over the years because it’s part of my job to listen to complaints, no matter how absurd or misguided the motivation behind it.

That stops. I’m not paid enough to be polite to racists.

Since I left newspapers I don’t encounter those kinds of calls anymore and very few emails — I used to get a few of those a month, by the way. About the only time I interact with people like that now is via comments on this blog or on social media. It hasn’t happened very often since I began this site, but I’ve certainly opened the door now.

Over the past three years this situation has only grown more troublesome and the election of Donald Trump to president of the United States — and I have to make that distinction for people who might be confused and think he’s president of something else entirely — has made it worse. Only a handful of Trump supporters are truly racists, but his manner of speaking — blunt ignorance that resembles internet trolling — has emboldened those few who are racists to wave their collective flag publicly again. They now believe it’s somehow acceptable to do so. It has a sort-of presidential stamp of approval.

But they’re wrong — as wrong as wrong gets. It’s not only in poor taste and bad manners but inherently evil. It’s the worst of mankind on display. I’ll agree it’s free speech, but free speech does have consequences.

As for our own community, the actions of the Elon family to leave speaks loudly. If people feel unsafe in our community, that reflects upon us all. It’s our mess and we have to try and clean it up. We can start by electing better leaders, people who actually give a damn about some larger goal other than themselves or their supporters. One in particular jumps to mind. I would stop short of calling him a racist — he’s just only interested in the issues that pertain to white men and little else. I would say his motto based on his actions or lack of actions is “No lives matter.”

And that is also unacceptable.



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