Sunday, April 29, 2012

Remembering the Titans

Papua New Guinea, 1982. I'm in a training camp with my wife and toddler. Among the other campers is a single German woman, very plain, half a head taller than I am, not the stuff of daydreams. Perhaps twice during the two months of the course, we're within conversational distance, but both times she makes it surprisingly and memorably plain that she's not interested in conversing.

Eugene, Oregon, 1987. I see the same woman at a bulletin board in the dormitory we're living in during the summer. She sees me, lights up, introduces me to her husband, asks all sorts of questions about the intervening five years, and generally treats me like a long-lost friend.

In my grammar class that same summer is a single German woman who owns what looks to me like a really nifty computer. She answers my questions about it with as few words as possible and makes it plain that she's not interested in conversing.

Papua New Guinea, 1990-something. The woman from the grammar class sees me at the market, lights up, introduces me to her husband, asks all sorts of questions . . . .

My conclusion: while respectable single US women can be freindly (as defined by a US man) with married men, respectable German women can't, but they can once they are married.

People are different, and not all of their differences sit well with their neighbors.

One of the subplots of the movie Remember the Titans involves a white high school football player who takes his two friends, one white and one black, into a restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, circa 1970. The owner firmly, though civilly, informs the white boys that the black boy is not welcome in the restaurant and tells them to leave. The boys do leave, but at the end of the movie they return; when the restaurant owner again tells them to leave, the white boy says that his father works for the feds and can sue the owner for a daunting list of civil rights violations. The restauranteur backs down, the black high schoolers get to sit in the restaurant, and everything is hunky-dory.

The message is clear: the restauranteur was a bad guy, and the kids were made heroes by the government. Government good: entrepreneurship bad.

I'd like to play devil's advocate here and take the side of the restaurant owner in the movie because I think he was acting rationally and within his rights even though I would have wanted to see the black boy seated. Furthermore, he was not nearly as evil as those the movie portrays as heroes.

So here I am. I've worked at jobs I don't particularly like for years, saving my money instead of spending it on things I would like to have, like nice clothes, a nice car, season tickets for the Senators or Redskins, whatever. Maybe I've taken out a sizable loan to buy the stoves, refrigerators, freezers, flatware, plates, etc., I need to run my restaurant. I've rented or taken out a mortgage on the building and paid for the structural changes and signage. I've advertised in the Yellow Pages, in the newspaper, maybe even on the radio and TV.

All this before the first customer walks through the door.

When I open the door, I have no guarantee that customers will come in. I probably had a grand opening discount deal for the first week, but there was no guarantee those who took advantage of the low prices then will come back and pay full fare. But let's assume I got over the hump and have been in business for a few years.

Who are my customers? They are the people of Alexandria. I grew up with them. I know their names, where they live, and how they think.

Tillamook, Oregon, August, 1972. I'm riding my bicycle up the Oregon coast. I pull into Tillamook at sunset with no idea where I'll be sleeping, and it looks like it might rain. I ride around the town a bit and don't see anyplace tolerable. So I stop at a low-end Mom and Pop motel and ask if they've got a bit of floor I can sleep on.

They reply that they have a room that has just been painted and they'll let me have it for half price. Oh, joy!

It even has a bed in it!

A few minutes later Mom and Pop surprise me by inviting me to dinner: fried chicken, potatoes, and I can't remember what else, but I was hungry and probably ate like a bear. And we get to talking. They ask about me and really seem interested in my world, which at that point was leftist politics. Eventually—I don't remember when, but it makes the story better if I say it was after thirds on fried chicken and halfway through dessert—I ask about them. They tell me they're from Louisiana.

"Oh. So why did you move up here?"

"Too many niggers down there."

Generous, loving people can be racist.

I know that my people don't choose to have anything to do with blacks. But they're not bad people.

Like my aunt who gave me my first bicycle, my neighbor who taught me to repair lawn mowers, or my father who worked two jobs and paid for the sign on my restaurant. But these are the people in my world, Alexandria, Virginia, circa 1970.

Maybe I'd like to leave someday, maybe not, but I can't yet, so I do the best with what I've got. But leaving my people I love so that I can spend more time with black people isn't a high priority for me now.

Meantime, the success of my restaurant, and my ability to earn a living, depends on the good will of white people who, whether I like it or not, choose not to associate with black people.

So now a black boy comes into my restaurant with his two white friends. Most of my clientele is adults, so they're already somewhat out of place, but if kids that age behave themselves properly, they're welcome.

But what do I do about that black boy?

If I choose to open my main dining room to him, the whites now here will leave, never to return, and tell their friends not to patronize me. So almost overnight my entire clientele will be black. There are [I'm having to guess here—QP] only half as many blacks as whites in Alexandria, and their earning power is also about half that of whites. So we're looking at a reduction in my gross revenue somewhere near 75% if I seat this fellow.

I could open a separate dining room for blacks, but it wouldn't be as nice as the white dining room for the same reason Chock Full o' Nuts isn't as nice as the Waldorf: the offering has to be tailored to the prospective buyers. And if the blacks are going to be offended that their room isn't as nice as the whites' room [I'm probably bringing in an anachronistic bit of twenty-first-century entitlement mentality—QP]; I also, not being black and not usually associating with them, run the risk of making mistakes based on my unfamiliarity with black culture. So why should I risk the resources to open a separate dining room? Why not save my money and do my best to serve the people I can serve best and leave the opportunity open for a black entrepreneur to better his lot by opening a restaurant that blacks will enjoy going to?

It's my property. It's my capital and living on the line. "I'm sorry, boys, but you can't eat here."

The "good news" we all heard about is that before long all restauranteurs had to open their doors to black and white, so now blacks and whites eat in the same restaurants, sleep in the same motels, go to the same schools, ride in the same airplanes, and so on. As my Yankee upbringing (since repudiated) would have me expect, I've never heard of any white folks getting cooties from the experience.

But has getting what we wanted gotten us where we wanted to go?

Years ago I read (in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, but I don't remember which one) a lament that in racially integrated schools the black kids sit on one side of the lunchroom and the white kids on the other. And why not? If Germans and Yankees have different expectations and customs and preferences, we would expect the same of black and white kids thrown together by government decree, ¿nĂ³?

What do the closing of beaches in Milwaukee and Chicago because of interracial violence, and the rancor over the killing of Trayvon Martin, tell us, if not that government can put black and white in the same room but can't make them like each other?

More importantly, we should also remember that those Titans are my contemporaries, who voted for the Bushes, Clinton, and Obama, and so share the guilt for depradations of those monsters. Compared to the mega death dealt by those "heroes," a restauranteur defending his livelihood seems like pretty small potatoes.

I would even go so far as to say that someone whose response was less civil than that of the restauranteur in the movie is small potatoes. Consider Lester Maddox, who famously ran an erstwhile black customer off his property with a gun and a club.

Photo source

Compare that with this achievement of the Titans, a scene from Afghanistan that is matched by many in Vietnam, Kosovo, Iraq, and now Yemen and Pakistan.

Photo source

Loving, generous people can be racist. They can also be litterbugs and road hogs. In the case of Bush Republicans and Obama Democrats, they can be proponents of mass murder.

Yankees celebrated the desegregation of restaurants and put their (I should say our, since I did at the time) trust in government to do what was right and make the world a better place, morally as well as economically. Today little protest is raised against government attempts to stamp out every evil from racism to distracted driving to substance abuse to to prostitution to terrorism, even where it involves invasions into what any reasonable person would consider one's private life (like the bathroom and bedroom). Even when it involves the mass killing of innocent people.

But I would suggest that where government has failed to stamp out these vices, accepting its right to do so has involved us in much greater evil.

Jesus nowhere tells us to regulate others' views on race. We are to pursue justice for all, the safety of all people and their property from violence and fraud, and we are to be hospitable, a city on a hill that welcomes those outside the main stream. I can castigate Lester Maddox and try to change the thinking of his society all I want, but if I'm not willing to say, "Mr. Negro [That was the polite term in those days—QP], you don't need Lester Maddox's restaurant. Come to my house for a barbecue," I'm not doing my job, plain and simple. And, as is most likely the case, if Mr. Negro says no, he'd prefer to be with his people, he's within his rights as well.

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