Sometimes a Dimwit Is Just a Dimwit, an Asshole Just an Asshole

When I grew up in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s, I attended an Episcopalian prep school that was pretty enlightened for its era. One of the first private schools in the D.C. area to integrate, St. Albans  School recruited a good number of black students. Having the opportunity to make friends with these kids challenged some of the prejudicial notions that I’d been raised with. Our headmaster preached inclusiveness and bridge-building to Washington’s minority community. He hired a community activist by the name of Brooks Johnson to teach a politics course for seniors and coach the track team. (He would go on to coach the American Olympic track team.) His politics course was a free-wheeling romp with lively discussions, which I enjoyed immensely. I’ll never forget, however, how Johnson asserted that if a black pedestrian were hit by a car on the streets of Washington, D.C, no white person would go to his aid. I did not want to think that such a thing was possible.

One day, I was walking down Wisconsin Avenue with two friends, when we encountered three young black fellows about our age. One of them carried a boom box. Filled with liberal earnestness (but no common sense) and seeking to demonstrate that white people could be friendly and non-prejudicial, I blurted out, “Hey, nice boom box you have there!”

The reaction was not what expected. The three black kids took immediate umbrage. The biggest one of the three asked in a hostile tone what I meant by the remark. I didn’t mean anything by it, I stammered. The black guys seemed so offended that, for a moment, I was scared that they would beat the crap out of us. They were strapping and strong, and we were skinny and nerdy. One of them fingered a pair of nunchucks. If they had wanted to rumble, it would have been no contest. Fortunately, after enough groveling and sniveling on our part, they went their way.

I learned an important lesson from that encounter — how easily an innocent remark can be misinterpreted.

As I look back, I slap my head for my stupidity. It seems obvious now that the black kids assumed that I was insinuating that they had stolen the boom box. If so, I can see why they were offended. Guilty as I might have been of youthful dimwittery, however, I was thinking no such thing. I was genuinely trying, in an awkward and inept way, to reach out.

Mutual racial understanding has not improved much in the past 50 years. In some ways, it has deteriorated. If you are a black person today, you are conditioned by the dominant cultural narrative to view every interaction with a white person through the prism of race. If there is any unpleasantness or ambiguity in the encounter, you are conditioned to assume the worst. Instead of forgiving minor slights borne of simple ignorance or misunderstanding (now termed “micro-aggressions”), many blacks assume racism. Sometimes they are right to do so. But often they are not.

An instructive example recently landed Virginia First Lady Pam Northam on the front page of the newspaper. As she conducted state Senate pages on a tour of the Governor’s Mansion, Mrs. Northam handed out cotton bolls and told the pages to imagine what it might have been like to be a slave. One of the pages, an African-American girl, was “deeply offended.”

To be sure, Mrs. Northam was guilty of historical inaccuracy. Virginia farms did not grow cotton — they grew tobacco and wheat — so no slave in the Governor’s Mansion was likely to have plucked a cotton boll. And she was likewise guilty of insipidness. How would the act of fingering a cotton boll provide the slightest insight into what it was like to live in a condition of race-based servitude? One could just as easily hold a cotton boll and imagine what it was like to be a plantation owner or a cotton broker!

Be that as it may, the gesture was earnest and well meaning. Mrs. Northam thought she was being politically correct by describing the behind-the-scenes role of African-Americans in the history of the Governor’s Mansion. But in the current environment, anything that can be misinterpreted will be misinterpreted.

This trend is dangerous in many ways. Because the rules of what constitutes acceptable discourse are constantly changing, white people never know what might cause offense. Rather than risk igniting outrage, some may be inclined to withdraw. I know how I reacted to my benighted behavior in the boom box encounter. For a time, I became more guarded and circumspect in my interactions with black people, especially black people I did not know well, for fear that I might commit another gaffe. (Admittedly, this phase did not last long. I subsequently committed other unwitting transgressions, which I might write about some day.)

Black people, it seems to me, carry a special burden in our society today — but not the one commonly talked about. If you are a white person, you will encounter other white people in the conduct of your daily business who are in a bad mood, or are having a bad hair day, or are, for a lack of better word, are just assholes. They might be abrupt. They might be rude. They might act in an inexplicable manner. And your reaction will likely be, “What a jerk. What’s his problem?” But if you are a black person in an identical encounter, you think, “They must be acting that way because they are racist.”

Sometimes an asshole is just an asshole.

Sometimes someone means well but expresses himself ineptly or awkwardly.

I find our current cultural trajectory to be dangerous. But as long as certain elected officials feel they can gain political advantage by appeals to racial grievance, and as long as the media can generate more clicks by blowing up trivial incidents into front-page news, I fear that things will only get worse. This trend cannot end well. People of good will must combat it.

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16 responses to “Sometimes a Dimwit Is Just a Dimwit, an Asshole Just an Asshole

  1. Jim, the problem you discuss is real, but it is going on every day in America among ever growing groups of people of all colors and classes, and all backgrounds and histories, who are being splintered apart by the political agendas of their leaders, and by an irresponsible media that is inflaming and living off the these increasing divisions among people whose real identity has become ever more fragile, and susceptible to demagogues, as their communities, families, faiths, stable jobs and cultures collapse around them. These institutions are what held them together in the past. Translated, at base, race got nothing to do with it. Corrupt leaders and false identity politics are collapsing our entire culture, most particularly our communities that people need to survive and thrive in a representative government.

    • Another words, Jim, if those kids with the boom-boxes had lived in the communities we all need to grow up in, then the conflict on the street you had with those kids would not have happened. But, without those communities that all kids need to grow up in, those conflicts between kids of different cultures will arise chronically, no matter the color of anyone’s skin. Thus, it is not the kids fault, or any one of the kids fault, it is our fault as a culture and place.

  2. Right. I bore no hard feelings to those three kids. They were products of their culture, just as I was of mine. We carried different life experiences with us, and had different assumptions about the world — and each other. One could say it was a case of mutual ignorance and misunderstanding.

    Trouble with the Narrative of Endemic Racism is that the onus is 100% on white people to show empathy and understanding. That won’t work between races any more than it would work in a marriage in which the onus fell 100% on one of the spouses to understand and empathize with the other.

    • We agree totally on that point.

      There must be mutual respect. And that means, in my view, no party can be deemed special. As soon as we do that, there arises resentment, born of the feeling, consciously or subconsciously, that one of those parties is innately inferior, and the other is superior. That is racism. Plus certain other folks in society, with their own version of grievance, resentment or insecurity, whether justified or not, feel left out in the cold altogether, or the need to show off unearned virtue. That’s what we got too much of right now, a growing stew pot of anger. Hopefully, our society is far better off then the national media wants us to believe. I hope so, and believe it to be so whenever I away from the media, out into real world.

  3. Jim,
    Whoa. There were no boom boxes in the late 1960s. I was in the DC area in the late 1960s at that time as well. They didn’t appear for 10 or so more years.

    • The event I describe happened around 1969 or 1970. Boombox History says, “The first ever boombox was the Norelco 22RL962 made in Holland in 1966, by Philips of the Netherlands. It has a 4-band radio, cassette recorder, carrying handle and is powered by 6 D-cell batteries or 9 volt power supply. It comes in a leather case and can record off the radio or from the mic. ”

      However, you may be right that they weren’t called boomboxes until later. I might have erred in quoting myself as saying, “Nice boombox you have there.”

      Maybe I said, “Nice radio you have there.” Whatever, it was something along those lines. Whatever the exact word, my comment was obtuse.

  4. so… did you socialize with black folks… get to know their families, etc?

    did you go off together or outings and trips, etc?

    did your black friends come to meet your family?

    My experience was different. I had no black friends in high school – it was segregated and I did not go to college right away – I went to work – and I remember problems in Fredericksburg like Sit-ins at lunch counters and the like and bad stuff happening when King got killed in 1968 – there were riots and cities burned and some of it in Washington DC.

    At some point, I got a better job working as a civilian for the Navy where they were recruiting blacks out of College – including a lady called Gladys West! The folks who recruited the blacks – I guess you’d call them “liberals” because back in those days most places didn’t hire them at al much less recruit them!

    At any rate – becoming “friends” with black folks at work did not translate into socializing with them other than work events and not meeting their families..

    I think when black kids on the “street” run into White folks who are obviously not folks from the same streets – there is potential for a clash .. black folks from the lower economic strata typically are not real “buddies” with white folks from private schools.. even if those private schools have “some” blacks attending… those blacks attending are not at all like blacks on the streets… they’re totally different.

  5. The burden that’s carried should be carried by white people as well. It’s not just a black person’s burden. As a white person from Tennessee I think Mrs. Northam’s ‘gesture’ was incredibly stupid and shallow. It also puts the black person in a box. And yes, anyone who knows Virginia history knows it was a tobacco colony. A more educational activity would have been a short film about Bacon’s Rebellion and how blacks and whites fought the English together. -And how, because of that, the English made slavery hereditary to prevent the races from teaming up to fight them again.

    • Acommentator. “A more educational activity would have been a short film about Bacon’s Rebellion and how blacks and whites fought the English together. -And how, because of that, the English made slavery hereditary to prevent the races from teaming up to fight them again.”

      This is a very good point. Some consider Bacon’s Rebellion among the earliest great steps toward an American Democracy, which, of course, is why certain of the elite powers then in Virginia (but not all) made such a fierce effort to discredit that rebellion and its diverse leaders, and to circumvent its results. And, within its broader historical context, Bacon’s Rebellion is one of many, many examples of how history is made and kept alive by exceptional people who find ways to take a step forward, and how even if the revolutionary step results in two steps back, how often its memory is the fuel we all need to gain two or three steps forward again in the future of many generations.

      So, one lesson here is that if we erase these painful steps, their successes and failures along the way from our memory, then we erase for all time our ability to learn from those painful steps and failures, and learn from those exceptional people who risked so much to take those steps, or were caught up in them, with their often horribly painful and/or lasting beneficial consequences.

      Here again, for another example, is the successful efforts by William Stone and Dr. Thomas Matthews to enact through the Maryland Assembly the Religious Toleration Act, granting what was then a rarity in the colonies, a liberty without prejudice to all Christians to practice their brand of the trinity. This could be said to push forward bravely the original grand vision of the 1st Baron Baltimore, the great Englishman George Calvert (1580-1632), a great and lasting vision of religious tolerance that has been reduced to shambles time and again over the ensuing centuries, up to today, only to keep rising again and again, as a essential cornerstone of human striving for meaning in modern civilization, despite today’s popular fads and ignorances to the contrary.

  6. I don’t think ANYONE “made” slavery “hereditary”.

    Slavery is a simple fact of history.

    and slavery and what followed it – has had generational consequences that have affected ALL of us – blacks directly and whites indirectly but make no mistake – those impacts are huge and still ongoing…..

    And what pisses off blacks is the white attitude that it’s “over” and now we’re all “equal” when the damage done to those who were slaves – continued with their children -after slavery ended but discrimination towards blacks continued for decades limiting their access to good education, to jobs and to the ability to better themselves and gain wealth and assets like white folks did over generations.

    When you look at the problems we still have in our schools with kids from low-income , one parent families and white folks are blaming the break-up of the “family” as the problem – and we kept dad from getting a good education and then when he made a living through “illegal” activities and got sent to jail – in far greater numbers for the same offense – the one-parent, Dad is gone … concept is not exactly one in which “dad” just turned out to be just “no good” – “Dad” as a race , was systematically discriminated against –

    * – denied access to a good education
    * – denied access to good jobs
    * – arrested and imprisoned far more often and far stricter sentences
    than the same crime for whites..

    then, right now, today, some white folks say that the problems with low income black kids in schools is because of one-parent black families… etc… as if somehow these problems are unique to blacks.

    don’t we have a problem here with acknowledging some realities?

    • LarryG,
      “As if this momentous shift were not enough, it was accompanied by another. Those who wrote the colonial laws not only moved to make slavery racial; they also made it hereditary. Under English common law, a child inherited the legal status of the father. As Virginia officials put it in 1655: “By the Comon Law the Child of a Woman slave begot by a freeman ought to bee free.”

      But within seven years that option had been removed. Faced with cases of “whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman should be slave or Free,” the Virginia Assembly in 1662 decided in favor of the master demanding service rather than the child claiming freedom. In this special circumstance, the Assembly ignored all English precedents that children inherited the name and status of their father. Instead, the men in the colonial legislature declared that all such children “borne in this country shal be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.” In Virginia, and soon elsewhere, the children of slave mothers would be slaves forever.”
      http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_history_of_american_slavery/2015/05/why_america_adopted_race_based_slavery.html

  7. Yes, we have a problem with acknowledging that the current zeitgeist of political rhetoric and intent to explain unacceptable economic, educational, and quality of life outcomes is solely the legacy of slavery is not only wrong but is also destructive to remedying the situation.

    The acknowledgment of the realities Larry appears to seek permeates every aspect of our culture from the billboards and advertising in every media sporting a rainbow of colors and cultures to an ever-growing myriad of Federal and State legislation creating a wide variety of protections and preferences, etc. etc. Curricula are being rewritten. Statues are being taken down. College and University acceptance criteria have been rewritten to provide preferences…

    The reality that is not being acknowledged is the damage of a hood/”rap”culture which celebrates misogyny, uncle-tom based rejection of education, rampant school violence and a wide variety of other destructive “norms” .

    The reality that is not being acknowledged is the destructive impact of well-meaning but totally wrong politicians, bureaucrats and educators who think the systemic dumbing down of all educational and legal requirements for participation in society will help to ameliorate the effects of the legacy of slavery.

    And some of the most self-destructive behavior is unique to blacks. For example, contrast the focus on education between Asian and Black culture today. Contrast the norms about authority and family between Asian and black culture today.

    It’s not politically correct but these are realities which will have to be recognized for real progress.

    • “And some of the most self-destructive behavior is unique to blacks.”

      Really? All blacks? What do you base this judgment on? All of the blacks you know personally? All of the blacks you’ve seen on television?

      Aren’t you just a little uncomfortable with your racial stereotyping?

      It might be useful to remember that there are twice as many poor whites as poor blacks, and that many of the social challenges faced among poor blacks are equally faced among poor whites. There is nothing unique about living in poverty that seems hopeless.

      My guess is that you have not read J.D. Vance’s ‘Hillbilly Elegy’. You might consider adding it to your reading list.

  8. Inthemiddle, I believe we are all creatures of culture. And those cultures can be described. All cultures also have positive and negative forces for their members. Do they have equal effect on everyone? Of course not.

    I have watched and listened to the apologists for the problems among certain segments of the black population muzzle their minds and their voices and anyone else with the notion that talking about the destructive elements in the black culture today is forbidden racial stereotyping. That, I think, is even more destructive.

    If the conversation were about white culture, or Southern white culture– Hillbilly Elegy would likely be a good source for one man’s perception of the power of culture. But my comments were about black inner-city culture.

    I am not the least but uncomfortable with what I wrote. In fact, I will double-down on it and assert that a further contributing factor is the apparent prohibition of middle and upper class blacks on calling out the destructive aspects of their culture lest they be accused, seen, and ostracized by the SJW twitter mobs as Uncle Tom’s and tools of whites — the left’s successful strategy to shut down exposure of the failings of 30 years of liberal theology in our schools and legislatures.

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