The other day, I shared a podium with state Senator Gary Winfield-Holder and several others at the Courtland-Wilson Library in New Haven. The topic was “Have You Ever Been Pulled Over for a Traffic Stop?” Panelists, including New Haven Assistant Police Chief Anthony Campbell, were each asked to address race relations in the context of policing.
Unbeknownst to me, the moderator planned to open the proceedings by reading a piece I wrote 15 or so years ago about how plea bargaining in criminal cases resembled slave auctions: mostly white men negotiating about numbers placed on black heads.
After the reading, I spoke. I am blunt about the topic of race in the United States. We’ve never got it right; the courts’ deference to police officers yields little relief; mass protests, even violence, are all that seems really to effect change.
Senator Winfield-Holder spoke next, and what he said stung. His remarks were seconded by State Representative Robyn Porter.
In effect, he said he was tired of hearing from white people about their guilt. We need solutions, not talk. The state of race relations, and the antagonism in many communities between police and people of color, is a black issue. If you don’t have the right skin, you’re just not in. White people need, and this is close to a quote, to just shut up and listen.
In other words, when it comes to race relations, it you’re white, you just can’t be right.
Forgive me if I part company with the legislators.
Identity politics are dangerous. If only those possessed of like characteristics can understand and respect one another, then politics is reduced to tribalism. You don’t build better communities by playing the reverse race card.
Saying this opens me to attack on the latest, and most devastating, critique possible in today’s climate: I possess “white privilege.” My case is particularly virulent because I am, after all, a white male. There are none so blind as the white male, the narrative goes. We are, after all, the villains, and responsibility for all sorts of social “dis-ease” falls upon our shoulders.
Of course, those leveling the claim are quick to argue in other contexts that race, and gender — recall the case of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner — are mere social constructs. We’re all equally entitled to respect, regardless of the accidents of birth, or the drives, than define us in one another’s minds.
Identity is a rhetorical trump card, to be played when it suits the possessor’s interest.
I don’t doubt for a moment that racial disparities in housing, educational opportunity, treatment by the police, and scores of other indices, exist in this country. Equality remains a difficult work in progress. I will concede as well that I enjoy the benefits of skin and gender.
But the new narrative gathering steam nationwide claiming that the voices of white men are somehow suspect because of our identity is one I will meet with open scorn and contempt. Senator Winfield-Holder’s suggestion that my role in the new debate about policing is simply to sit back and listen to those with a different racial identity is an invitation I return unopened.
We need to have candid discussion about race in this country. Former Attorney General Eric Holder was right to observe that we’ve yet to have one. But a dialogue consists of more than me sitting by and saying “yes’m” when the senator speaks.
There’s a lot of rot being uttered in the new discourse on race, and some of the worst comes from well meaning white folk. In June, a fellow named Tom LeDuc wrote a piece on a site called The Angriest Angel entitled: “An Open Letter to My Fellow Whiteys.” It was a silly piece of race pandering, and was, perhaps, the sort of gibberish the senator objected to coming from white folk overcome with guilt.
“We stole African people and sailed them across the sea in chains,” LeDuc wrote.” We killed those that resisted…. We tore babies from their mothers and sold them like cattle.”
Not guilty, I plead. I did no such thing. Neither did my parents, nor their parents. We’re recent immigrants, arriving here late in the drama.
“We hung them if we felt like it,” the angry angel continues, “and we buried them with no gravestones ….”
Not guilty, I plead. It occurred, but not on my watch.
“We built this nation on their backs, with their labor, with their suffering, with their blood, with their deaths….”
Who is this we? My father, who snuck into this country as an illegal, did no such thing.
“We freed those slaves only to give them no room in our society to integrate, to adapt, to thrive. Decades passed until we forced integration to happen ….”
I did all this? When? How?
“And even then, even after centuries of nightmarish abuse, we didn’t really mean it ….”
The charges here cut closer to home. I bear racial attitudes. I own it. I need work, and lots of it.
“We told black people that they were equal to us, and then did everything we could to make that not the case …”
Again, florid, even purple prose. Not guilty, I claim.
“Get up, white America. Wake up. Stand up. You have work to do, and it’s way overdue."
I don’t know, Danny. I’m told all I need do is shut up and listen. This is identity politics run riot.
I don’t feel guilt about a past I’ve only read about. I recognize that when it comes to race, membership has its privileges, and that my skin has made life easier in some respects. But as I watch the gathering storm on race relations, fueled, I suspect, by changing demographics — Caucasians will be a minority in the United States sometime around 2014, I shudder.
I don’t intend to shut up and listen to others just because of their skin color, any more than I intend to enslave the next black man or woman I see. This doesn’t make me a white supremacist. It makes me a citizen of a nation with deep and troubling divisions.
I’m tempted to think that Harper Lee kept her silence all these years because she knew a deeper truth: Atticus Finch was a racist before he was a saint, and Scout never really came of age. Ms. Lee, it turns out, grew wealthy off the wages of this nation’s original sin, selling easy virtue to a nation of sinners.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” was published by J.B. Lippincott in 1960. It’s an iconic sort of work, a book you can hear late-middle-age folks describe as the reason they became a lawyer. It has sold millions of copies and is used in schools nationwide.
Scout recounts her childhood in a single-family household headed by her lawyer-father, Atticus Finch, in Maycomb, Alabama. Atticus is kind, patient, gentle, loving and unerringly just. When he defends a black man, Tom Robinson, falsely accused of rape, Scout sits secretly in the courtroom gallery, in the space a segregated South reserved for blacks. An innocent man is convicted because of hatred. Her father is a lonely voice of courage, doing the right thing, for the right reasons, and enduring the wrong result stoically.
Candidly, I’ve only recently read “Mockingbird.” Attempts to do so in years past met with failure. The characters in the book are almost parodies. Atticus is too good. Scout is too innocent. Even the Finches’ black cook, Calpurnia, seems to have jumped off the label of a flour advertisement. Atticus explains to Scout that he tries to love everyone. He is the social gospel made flesh, grape juice offered in lieu of communion wine.
When I learned Atticus had a secret past, however, I tackled “Mockingbird.” Then I read the first draft of the novel, published this summer under the title “Go Set A Watchman.”
Ms. Lee sent “Watchman” to her publisher in 1957. An editor at Lippincott, Tay Hohoff, sent it back for a rewrite. The new book became “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It is no sequel. “Watchman” is told from the perspective of a 20-something adult; “Mockingbird” is a child’s vision.
In “Watchman,” Atticus is not quite so pure. The NAACP is cast as a villain; Atticus fusses about the changes black folk will force on his comfortable world. Atticus’ sister, Alexandra, once utters to Scout: “Keeping a nigger happy these days is like catering to a king ---.”
The new Atticus is so raw that some folks now regret naming their children after him. Indeed, I asked a friend at breakfast the other day whether she planned to read “Watchman.”
“No,” she replied. “I prefer my old Atticus.” She likes her good and evil easily distinguished, she said.
I sometimes wonder whether there are any accidents in history. Things seem to happen for reasons, or, at the very least, we make necessity out of chance. My sense is that “Watchman” was published at just the right time, a time in which we are still, sinners all, in need of a candid discussion about race.
“Watchman,” after all, was published the same month South Carolina finally decided to stop flying the Confederate flag outside its state capital, a decision prompted by the murder of nine black worshippers in a church. The color line is still a lit fuse.
In truth, Atticus Finch was never really all that good. He enjoyed his white privilege, and worried what would happen when he lost it.
“Don’t fool yourselves,” he tells Scout and her brother, Jem, in “Mockingbird,” “it’s all adding up and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it. I hope it’s not in you children’s time.”
This line was not edited out of the saintly version of Atticus, the one in which all men are equal, and good intentions are all that matter.
In “Watchman,” Ms. Lee offers a darker version of Atticus’s fear.
“We’re outnumbered, you know” Atticus tells Scout. “I hope to God it will be a comparatively bloodless Reconstruction this time.”
Atticus is afraid in both versions. In the earlier text, he resorts to self-defense, joining, and leading, white Citizen’s Councils, as a means of trying to stave off the deluge to come. Why, he’d even been a member of the Ku Klux Klan for a time.
In “Mockingbird,” Finch becomes the avatar of the politically correct.
Ms. Lee, and, frankly, the reading republic, owe a debt of gratitude to the fussy editor, Tay Hohoff. Had “Watchman” been published first, few would ever have heard of Harper Lee, and fewer still, would remember Atticus Finch.
“Watchman” ends unsatisfactorily. Scout confronts her father’s racism with outrage, and then is slapped to her senses by a crabby uncle. She comes too easily to terms with Atticus. That’s just daddy, she seems to say, all the while asserting without self-consciousness or any sense of irony that she is “color blind.” Scout is neither lovable nor convincing.
Nowhere in “Mockingbird” is there a nuanced discussion of attitudes about race. Everyone is either a sinner or a saint. It’s all that was wrong with high school civics courses.
No so in “Watchman,” where Scout struggles, and fails, to come to terms with the color line. She gazes across the line at her father as though he were a stranger to her. Although now an adult, she is still a child. She is still unable to conceive of sin.
What I love about the publication of “Watchman” is the moral reckoning it will force on honest readers. “Oh, Atticus, how I love your purity” must now be replaced with a sense of something like dread: “Atticus, how could you?”
And that is the point about referring to slavery as this nation’s original sin. A nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal while simultaneously enslaving people of color has more than a little explaining to do. The City on Hill we boast about was built on a landfill.
Atticus has suddenly become robust, acquired a pulse, and is in need of grace. He found none in “Watchman.” Neither, yet, have we.
Atticus Finch is dead. Long live Atticus Finch.