They were racing to their car because of the cold, of course, but he was joking about another kind of race: the color of his skin (he was black). Assuming he could read this old white woman’s mind; assuming I suspected he was running from trouble because he was, after all, a young black male.
He was still an infant when the Klan marched in Lancaster and I counseled teens sitting on my South Queen Street doorstep not to resort to violence, not to sink to their level. One teenager sat on my step and called me “cracker.” His whole body twitched every time he repeated “Cracker! Cracker! Cracker!” First time I ever heard the word used in such a way. I didn’t know I was supposed to be insulted. I just figured he was scared like me.
People had told me how they wanted to live in a better neighborhood. Not to make our own neighborhood better -- an impossible dream, it seemed -- but to move out of the city.
The young man was still in diapers when I reported to the Lancaster County Human Relations Commission what two independent sources had verified: a minister at a committee meeting on building a Habitat house had said if a white family didn’t get the house, their group of southern Lancaster County churches would never sponsor another house. The minister, Rev. Jerry Lee Miller, worked at Mechanic Grove Church of the Brethren.
Lancaster Habitat’s executive director (my boss at the time) was one of the sources who’d confirmed what had said been at the meeting. My contact at the Human Relations Commission said he’d kept demanding to know who’d blown the whistle. The director had made it clear he was angry at me. “Someone couldn’t wait to sting us on this one,” he snarled at me.
Soon afterward I was summarily fired and evicted from the efficiency apartment in Habitat’s South Queen Street headquarters.
A white family did get the house.
Despite the grief, I still believe speaking up is important. Trusting in an ultimate good outcome is vital in order to have the courage to take a stand for the good of the whole.
“An individual has not started living until we can rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. One who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as one who helps to perpetrate it.”
Thank you, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Hannah Arendt wrote about the banality of evil in The Origins of Totalitarianism. What is evil? If we know it when we see it, are we heroic enough to call it out (in oneself first! In yourself above all)? And (perhaps most importantly) are we brave enough to respond with love (for ourselves and for each other), with the goal of reducing harm, instead of piling on inflammatory punishment until we snuff the Divine Spark. Not love of mockery or joking at another’s expense, or love of another’s suffering and punishment and the accompanying adrenaline rush, but love which uplifts all. Like the love of plants for water and sun, the love of atoms for electrons. Elemental.
It’s up to us to rise above our narrow confines. The reason we’re here is to transcend the need to build oneself up by putting another person down with jeering or a false sense of superiority or entitlement. Here to rise above the need to punish just because we can. Not in order to create a better world for as many people as possible, but just thrilling to our own misplaced sense of superiority. If we fail to overcome our will to power then we are nothing more than a sort of Fourth Reich, and we've come too far to sink so low.