Patricia J. Williams is a graduate of Wellesley College and Harvard Law School. She began her career practicing law as a consumer advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, and as a Deputy City Attorney for the City of Los Angeles. Upon leaving practice, she served on the faculties of the University of Wisconsin School of Law, Harvard University Women’s Studies Program, and CUNY Law School at Queen’s College. Since 1992, she has been the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University School of Law.
She is the recipient of honorary doctorates from Northeastern University School of Law, John Jay College of the City University of New York, the College of Wooster, Smith College, and Old Dominion University. She has received numerous awards, including from from her alma maters—an Outstanding Alumna Award from Latin School in Boston, an Alumnae Achievement Award from Wellesley College, and a Graduate Society Medal from Harvard.
Her book The Alchemy of Race and Rights was named one of the twenty-five best books of 1991 by the Voice Literary Supplement; one of the “feminist classics of the last twenty years” that “literally changed women’s lives” by Ms. magazine; and one of the ten best non-fiction books of the decade by Amazon.com. Other books include The Rooster’s Egg (Harvard Press, 1995), Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1998), and Open House: On Family, Food, Piano Lessons, and The Search for a Room of My Own (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2004).
Professor Williams has appeared on radio and television shows around the world, and in 1997 delivered the annual Reith Lectures for the BBC, Radio Four. She has appeared in a number of documentary films, including “That Rush!” which she wrote and narrated. Directed by British film-maker Isaac Julien, this short study of American talk show hosts was featured as part of an installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London.
She has held fellowships at the School of Criticism and Theory at Dartmouth, the Humanities Research Institute of the University of California at Irvine, the Institute for Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. In 2000, she was named a MacArthur fellow.
It is hard to write a column like this under the present circumstances. It is hard to comment on what is happening in the world if the military regulates everything. And yet it is impossible not to write about this moment when civil rights and liberties seem under attack from both within and without. "Civil libertarians should not become Luddites," says Alan Dershowitz, who spent most of the past decade railing against identity politics. These days, he's suggesting that we loosen up and get national identity cards. Sure it's been used by repressive regimes the world over, he admits, but "the reasons for not having them don't really apply here."
The gently centered Quaker part of me is trying hard to calm the Help!-Flee!-We're-Going-to-Hell-in-a-Handbasket! part of me. I do that by settling down to the task of stringing random notes together, a scattered kind of witness.
First, we are at war. Although no one but the Pentagon admits to knowing what is happening, one sign is the dark whumpa-whumpa sound of the quiet, low-flying surveillance planes. Last night, when my son had finished practicing "Three Blind Mice" on his trombone, my ears were filled with a dull reverberation somewhat greater than that which ordinarily troubles the air in the wake of his prodigious renditions. We looked out the window and saw three large lights on a dark aircraft that was floating along only a little way above the treetops. It looked as though aliens were landing--it slid quietly overhead like something out of The Empire Strikes Back. "They're on the watch for submarines," said a friend whose father is in the military. So I know we are at war.
Even my son has been recruited. He came home from school and looked for ways to earn a dollar. "I need money to send to George Bush," he explained. "Come wha...?" I asked. It turned out he was answering the President's call for every child in America to donate a dollar to help feed refugee children. "I think this money is probably for UNICEF," I said. "No," insisted my son, who has heard a little about a lot. "George Bush is going to use it to give Afghan children some social security."
Second, our public health system is imploding. You can tell how panicked officials are by their bizarre yet perky incoherence in the face of emergency. "No cause for worry," they keep saying while trotting out the law of averages, like a schoolboy by the ear, to show how much more dangerous it is to drive a car. "Since 1975 there has been only one case...uh, make that two...uh, three...oops, a fourth...uh, maybe a fifth..." They spent the last week proclaiming that even though they had closed down Congress and the Capitol building, "no one should worry"--that phrase again--because there was no way that the bacterium "would present itself outside a sealed envelope."
They had to revise that assessment, of course, after four people at the Brentwood Postal Facility in Washington, DC, came down with the inhaled form. Since then, the government says it's going to set things right by mailing nearly every US household a postcard with reassuring words and information listing the characteristics of missives worthy of suspicion. They will be mailing this bit of reassurance, presumably, from a large central postal facility. I wake up in the middle of the night imagining spores hitching rides on the coattails of mailmen as they fan out from our nation's capital and spread across the homeland. I know that this is an irrational thought, but still--it wakes me up. A former student tells me that he was sitting around at his cigar club (doesn't it just beg for parody? But... another time) and everyone was puffing away and asking each other how many units of Cipro they had "scored." "It's the new Ecstasy," he marvels. I see it as more like the new Agony.
Third, the word "homeland" has burrowed its way into ordinary conversation and multiplied with astonishing rapidity. It is not just the curious name of an office merging police and intelligence functions. It is a lowercase reference to purple mountains' majesty and all those fruited plains. Suddenly, "America the Beautiful" has become some sort of bad translation from the German. Like "Fatherland" or "empire," labels channel unspoken allegiances. I wonder about the line-drawing such an odd term was calculated to evoke--it sounds at once intimate and abstract--like the good-guy quadrant in some strategic computer game? Like the Bush team's attempt to sound epic? Like some effort to denationalize and fuse enemy status with that of domestic criminality--as in home-wreckers, home invaders, domestic abusers? "Homeland Security" is the new office of what they keep calling "psy-ops," after all. There's gotta be an angle.
The thing that worries me most about this time is how hard it is to talk about anything but fear. The fight has been framed as a war with "terror," a battle against an unruly if deadly emotionalism, rather than a war against specific bodies, specific land, specific resources. A war against terrorism is the inverse of a war "for" courage. It is a war of the mind, so broadly defined that the enemy becomes anybody who makes you afraid.
National Public Radio broadcast a conversation with Dr. Jerrold Post, a professor of something called "political psychology." Dr. Post discussed passages from an Al Qaeda training handbook in which operatives are advised to "blend in," to stay clean-shaven, not to talk too much over coffee and to pay their parking tickets in a timely fashion. The conversation was a classic bind in which the implied message is to trust no one, just tell the authorities every move your suspiciously average neighbors make.
It seduces, this corrosive distrust. Call me a Luddite, but I think this is a formula for panic. There are, of course, perfectly rational reasons to be afraid just now, but our unalloyed ideology of efficiency combined with a traumatic amount of actual bureaucratic bumbling has left us poised at the gateway of an even more fearsome world in which the "comfort" and convenience of high-tech totalitarianism gleam temptingly, yet in which our American-ness endures only with hands up! so that our fingerprints can be scanned, and our nationalized identity scrutinized for militarily defined signs of abnormal normativity.
As I write, the world is filled with fear. I am having one of those reactions that psychologists describe as a stress response. I suppose I'm not alone, though. A friend calls and says, "You hung a flag yet? Anyone who's been to Cuba, you better hang a flag." "Cuba?" I ask, startled. "You don't mean that weeklong human rights trip seventeen years ago?"
"You poor naïve child. I'm sending you a big one. Hang it on your porch."
In the newspaper, I read of Muslims who are shaving their beards and removing their veils. I read of blacks who are embracing suspect profiling. There's an unsubstantiated rumor on the Internet of Barney Frank hugging Strom Thurmond just before he fainted.
"It's that list they'll be drawing up in the Office of Homeland Security," explains a fellow paranoid as we shop for bottled water. "Nobody wants to be on that." Then she points out the physical resemblance between Tom Ridge and J. Edgar Hoover. She believes in reincarnation. I do not, but...it really is uncanny.
Another friend calls to say she's been reading the Washington Post. "Sally Quinn's got gas masks for everyone in her family. Her doctor gave her a stock of antibiotics, enough for her and all the servants." The word "triage" begins to rise uncomfortably in my mind. Who gets to stockpile antibiotics in this new world order? If I went to a doctor for a little "extra" medication, he'd turn me in for drug dealing. If minorities suffer from unequal access to medical treatment now, what happens when panicked hordes make a run on hospitals for limited supplies of anthrax vaccine?
Not that any of this will do any good anyway, I suppose. My mother reminds me of the bomb shelters that sprang up during the 1950s. "I worried too," she said. "But you can't control this sort of thing on an individual level. Will you never go to the beach for fear of being too far from the shelter? Will you never take off the gas mask for fear of smelling the roses?" A friend of mine who's a psychologist says that it is precisely the terrifying lack of control that is sending so many people over the edge. She says that lots of fragile sorts have been showing up at Bellevue to apologize for having driven a plane into the World Trade Center. The less fragile ones have been busy actually hijacking Greyhound buses and rushing into cockpits in states of extreme agitation.
On the news, crusty old senators disclose that they have participated in various government war games, in which they role-played all sides of the conflict in the event of hypothetical disasters. The crusty old senators worry me; they move stiffly and are so relentlessly formal that they refer to themselves in the third person, like Bob Dole. I suspect them of playing these games in the groves of the Bohemian Club, with the expectation that whatever happens they will retire to the bar for whisky sours afterward. All this is a too glib way of saying that I simply don't see them coming up with quite the same strategies and outcomes that Al Qaeda might.
I think that if the Pentagon really wants to role-play doomsday scenarios here at home, they need to lock Jerry Falwell in a small room with Elián González's Miami relatives, G. Gordon Liddy, Louis Farrakhan, Jack Kevorkian, Charlton Heston, Al Sharpton, Kenneth Starr and a horde of neglected, riot-prone, inner-city kids who under the circumstances feel as though they have nothing left to lose. We get O.J. Simpson to keep a body count and Larry King to report what's happening. We give them $43 million worth of weaponry (the sum George Bush, as recently as August, thought would be a nice amount to send to the Taliban), an airdropped bundle of peanut butter sandwiches and ten minutes to reproduce Afghanistan's religiopolitical structure. Does anyone seriously doubt that this much of an experiment would end up destabilizing all of human history?
"People are screaming through the cracks," says a colleague. I had never heard that expression before. She says it means that people are too scared to say what they mean when you ask them to speak on the record. "But if you ride the buses, talk to truck drivers, go to church, hang out with teenagers in the pool hall, they're terrified of this war. No one knows why all this is happening."
It is true that everyone has a different conspiracy theory of this war. When I first heard of the bombing, I thought it was retribution for Timothy McVeigh's execution and that "the terrorists" had chosen New York because it's a city of miscegenated minorities. A Jewish friend was equally certain that New York was chosen because "it's a Jewish city." A stockbroker friend finds it obvious that "they" were out to destroy world trade and global economics. Pat Robertson blames Bill Clinton. A Christian evangelical friend says that it's all about "the rapture," which is apparently that moment just short of end-time when the sanctified will be transported directly to heaven and the rest of us will perish. Maureen Dowd, Washington's favorite material girl, flips mournfully through the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogue and concludes that it's because foreign agents don't want us to enjoy our "stuff." The White House blames "not all Muslims." And Ari Fleischer blames Bill Maher.
There's a brilliant trilogy by children's author Philip Pullman titled His Dark Materials. The tale features armored bears enlisted in the fight between good and evil--great clanking white bears who smash through enemy armies, clumsy but immense in their power. In my mind, I keep seeing those big armored bears as American warplanes bombing away, strong and accurate and deadly. But I am also visited by images of "the network" that they're fighting as more of a global spider web, very thin, fine lines of connection--tough, resilient and almost invisible. I keep worrying that armored bears aren't much use against a foe like that. The bears are entirely capable of wreaking havoc in a given spot, but the spider web is small, silent, hard to see--drawing strength from structure, not from size; from belief, not from force. And as long as we do not come to terms with the more subtle nature of that kind of adversary, I will not be able to visualize any good end in sight.
Nine times the Space that measures Day
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquisht, rolling in the fiery Gulf
Confounded though immortal: But his doom
Reserv'd him to more wrath...
--John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I
As a million impoverished Afghans flee toward the borders of Iran and Pakistan, as the reconfiguring of civil and human rights is debated in Congress, as the CIA considers reinstating the kinds of training camps in which Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein learned so much before they Fell From Grace, as rumor and disinformation swirl through our media and the Internet, and as the world readies itself for war against murkily located and confusingly defined enemies, I find no words for this great sadness. I offer instead cautionary notes from my clippings of the Gulf War ten years ago, during the presidency of George Bush the Elder.
January 8, 1991: The New York Times reports that the Defense Department, "in obtaining permission to give experimental drugs to American troops in the Persian Gulf, is about to violate the Nuremberg Code, one of the primary moral documents to emerge from World War II.... Since Nuremberg, no government has officially attempted to justify research on competent adults without their informed consent--that is, not until our government said exceptions would be permitted so that specific unapproved drugs and vaccines could be administered to the troops without their consent.... Under the new regulation, whatever experimental drug or vaccine military commanders and the FDA think is in the soldiers' best interest becomes obligatory 'treatment.'"
January 17, 1991: The airstrikes have numbered more than 1,000 in fourteen hours. No word about Iraqi casualties. On TV there are reports of massive anti-American demonstrations throughout the Middle East. A Washington expert on the Near East says that provided we look like the winner, he doesn't think the "Arab street" will matter. He says that these countries aren't democracies, so their leaders don't have to listen to popular opinion, though if it becomes drawn out, then the "Arab street" will be "more of a factor." This is followed by an interview with the publisher of something called Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, who explains the war from "an oil policy point of view."
On another channel, a newscaster describes the bombing of Baghdad as a "star-spangled reign of terror." A foreign policy expert hails Desert Storm as ushering in a new period in which "there will be no more wars," and in which it will be clear that "America's sword is the mightiest."
January 18, 1991: At least 2,000 sorties every day. In today's New York Times [p. A9], there is an interview with Colin Powell: "Q.: 'Do we have any estimate how many Iraqi soldiers might have been killed in the bombings?' Powell: 'No, I'm not able to answer that at this time. It is a comprehensive campaign with, as I've said many times, air, land and sea components. And we have thought it out. It will unfold over a period of time. But I can't answer your question directly...'" On TV, President Bush says war is "never cheap or easy." In response to concern about the protests in "the Arab world," Bush says that there is no single Arab world, and that most of the Arab world is behind the United States.
January 20, 1991: The Gulf War costs between $150 million and $1.6 billion a day, depending on the intensity of fighting. Dick Cheney is going to ask Congress for $20 billion more for next year's budget, in addition to the $295 billion already in next year's defense budget.
January 21, 1991: A press conference at the Defense Department. I guess the questions don't matter when the answers are: "You're into a delicate area." "I'd like to be more forthcoming." "I can't tell you." "I will absolutely not talk about submarines." "We can't say with certainty." "The answer to that is militarily insignificant." "I can't quantify that for you." "I would like to answer that for you, I truly would, but it would be inappropriate." "I can't confirm that." "All I can do is give you the official position." "It would lead one to believe..."
February 3, 1991: The New York Times reports that "after more than two weeks of war in the Persian Gulf involving the heaviest sustained bombing in history, the Pentagon is avoiding any estimate of Iraqi deaths so far.... The overall death toll could be as low as a few thousand or more than 10,000.... [According to Loren Thompson, deputy director of the national security program at Georgetown University] 'General Schwarzkopf's main concern is that when you get into the body-count business, you end up perverting the bomb damage assess.... You have a talisman, a single measure of success that really isn't related to whether you are winning the war.' At the same time, he said, when damage is listed in terms of tanks destroyed or airfields cratered, as the Pentagon has done, 'you avoid talking about lives lost, and that serves both an esthetic and a practical purpose.'"
March 15, 1991: The Washington Post reports 70 percent of the bombs dropped on Iraq and occupied Kuwait missed their target.
March 22, 1991: The Pentagon lists 148 American deaths (thirty-five of those from "friendly fire"), but omits any mention of Iraqi deaths. The Wall Street Journal reports that General Schwarzkopf has "privately given" President Bush estimates that "at least" 100,000 Iraqis lost their lives in six weeks of fighting.
In the hushed wake of all the luminous, precious lives snuffed out in the World Trade Center, I believe a so-called body count neither adds to nor subtracts from the greatness of our grief--nor will it always even be the only moral measure if our end is justice. On the other hand, ignoring altogether great human cost in deference to the "aesthetic" of efficient war--that is a great wrong, not easily forgiven, and one whose price could keep us spiraling in infinite bouts of vengeance and revenge with those who wonder, like Milton's Stygian Counsel: "Will he, so wise, let loose at once his ire,/Belike through impotence, or unaware,/ To give his Enemies their wish, and end/ Them in his anger, whom his anger saves/ To punish endless...."
At 5 o'clock in the morning, the radio alarm begins to blare the news. The United States is threatening to pull out of the World Conference Against Racism if the conversation includes tensions between Israel and the Palestinians. What a nightmare, I think as I sit up in bed. How can the most powerful and diverse country on earth refuse to go to the first global discussion of race? No one expected easy accord about what's racial and what's not, but to refuse to attend the discussion at all?
Perhaps I am unduly depressed because I am in a small motel somewhere in...South Dakota, is it? Or maybe San Diego? I made the terrible mistake of watching Planet of the Apes the night before, in this dim room whose walls are flocked in orange fuzz with silver trim. It is the end of a long week of speaking to organizations that have called me in because someone has done something like hang a big noose over a black person's work space, and they would like me--me!--to get everyone speaking again.
The last five days have involved flying into Pittsburgh or Salt Lake City or Tampa in order to take a shuttle to terminal Z, where militia members in camouflage or square dance teams in pouffy skirts or troupes of young missionaries take flights to and from small towns all over America in very small planes. I have been lining up behind them, boarding ancient Cessna prop planes seating ten--give or take carry-on weapons caches, guitars, extra Bibles and box of diversity pamphlets--and bounce low to the ground all the way to Saginaw or Elko or Huntsville or Dayton.
I get out of bed and look for coffee on the room service menu. There is no room service menu. There is no room service.
The gentleman who comes to greet me on behalf of the Better Business Through Multicultural Harmony Committee is from Bahrain and hails me like a long-lost sister. I can assure you from personal experience how dramatically America's demographics are changing; the smaller and more off the beaten track the American town, the more likely the confused little minority community will include representatives recently arrived from Bangladesh or Sudan or Cambodia or Cameroon.
The gentleman from Bahrain settles me into a large, all-American car and whisks me off into the cornfields and more cornfields. An hour later we hit a strip mall, turn left, a mile and a half of soybeans--et voilà! East-West Central Southern Industries (name changed to protect the innocent). The conference room at whose door he deposits me has coffee! muffins! and is really pretty pleasant, even given my yuppie pretensions.
The problem I have been asked to tackle is a new but essentially old-fashioned one. Someone with too much free time has created a list of all the employees, put it online and created the kind of cyberspatial graffiti that one hoped one never had to think about after tenth grade, when notebooks were passed around with a name on each page, and cruel anonymous comments were scrawled beneath. This particular list ranks everyone by sexiness, intelligence, dress and, perhaps most destructively, smell. The comments are racialized, sexually crude, almost pathologically immature but as hard to dismiss as a punch in the stomach. It is a bully's shopping list of strategies to humiliate, and it has created the intended havoc, spilling into the small town beyond. "Affirmative action bitch. Wears Payless shoes," is a typically bitter little entry.
It takes me all morning just to sort out who has injured whom. Virtually everyone in the company has hurled enough epithets to make everyone else on the planet hate them forever. I decide to speak to just a few people, those in the best position to try to make some systemic improvements.
The gentleman from Bahrain volunteers to organize a dinner. He makes a few phone calls on my behalf, and soon we are off to a Vietnamese restaurant in the mall, where we meet with an odd assortment of community organizers and spokesmen. The cast of characters includes a local black minister who (like a weird inverted image of George W. Bush's saying that the Nation of Islam was one of the world's great religions) is worried that his new Islamic Moroccan neighbors are followers of Louis Farrakhan. There's a white police officer who is sincerely trying to smooth the waters while dropping phrases like "outside agitators" and "stingy as a Jew." There's a Nigerian man with five sons who is worried about his children being called "gang members" every time they walk to school together. There's a Native-American man who shows up to protest that no one remembered to invite him.
There's the head of a local evangelical group trying to raise money to buy Sudanese slaves in order to set them free. There's a representative of a human rights agency who says that buying slaves is not a political solution but rather encourages traders to raise the price. "It's part of a larger global sex market," he says. "And it operates right here in America--you don't have to travel to Eastern Europe or Africa. Would you consider going to some big-time pimps, buying a few sex slaves, setting them free on a street corner and really think you'd accomplished much of anything in the way of eliminating the business?"
There is a genial Republican Party leader who wants me to meet a Mozambican woman who has been studying at the local university and who is miserably homesick. "We haven't done our job if she wants to go back to a country like that," he says, and introduces me as "an example of what can be achieved in the US." She is a charming person, with a degree from the Sorbonne. "Mozambique is my home," she sighs wearily. "Americans know nothing of Mozambique."
And there's a recently arrived Palestinian refugee and a Jewish teacher whose family migrated to this town seventy years ago. They are neighbors, and express overlapping concerns about events in the Middle East. "We might not get along at all if we were there. But here we are friends. Here," they add, "it is everybody else." As we gaze around the room, it does seem as if these two are the only ones on fully cordial terms.
"But," they conclude after a moment's reflection, "at least they all showed up."
There was a short note in the New York Times a few months ago reporting that Governor Jeb Bush wept while speaking to the Southern Regional Conference of the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education. He was crying, it turns out, for a press aide of his, a black woman who he said had been scorned by other blacks because she worked for him. "I'm not crying for me, I'm crying for you, Leslie, and others who have to make the ultimate sacrifice." The woman in question then mounted the podium and handed him "a tissue for his eyes." It was an affecting little story in its narrative elements, the strong but kindhearted white statesman who cries for the lost society of his black aide, while she, the brave moral soldier, risks all--race, face, culture, friends--for her beliefs.
I'd like to succumb to the feel-good sentimentality of it all, but when Republicans say they are going to reach out to the black community, as they have made such fuss about doing of late--well, frankly, I cringe. I remember George Bush the elder getting all choked up about Clarence Thomas's "ultimate sacrifice." I have awful recollections of the Republican Party courting Sammy Davis Jr. so that he could weep, or was it laugh, with Richard Nixon. Oh, the highs, the lows.
In any event, despite the Bush team's race to pose with black church ladies and black mayors and black children enrolled at failing inner-city schools, a recent Gallup poll shows African-American optimism about race relations is lower than it was thirty-five years ago. While seven out of ten whites say that blacks and whites are treated the same, a similar number of blacks say that blacks and whites are treated very differently. The poll also shows that since Bush's election, blacks have grown substantially more pessimistic about their political future, even as 70 percent felt positive about their personal lives. While some commentators found this contradictory, it was a statistic that struck home with me. I am a black person who feels personally content; I am grateful for what I have and work hard to protect my little status quo. But at the same time, I am just plain scared of what the future holds for dark-skinned people in the political arena.
Perhaps the Bush team will read of my dejection, perhaps they will read this much and weep. Then again, perhaps not: As David Bositis, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, has said, reaching out to African-Americans most likely wouldn't win many black votes but could help Bush expand his base. "I think the strategy has less to do with getting black support than with making Bush appear more moderate to swing voters, particularly white women in the suburbs, who have a sense that the GOP is an antiblack party."
It is interesting to compare how well the Gallup poll's documentation of divided racial perceptions corresponds to actual conditions. After all, a recent Harvard study shows that US schools grew more segregated during the 1990s for both blacks and Latinos. A study conducted by the Washington Post shows that blacks experience more discrimination than any other ethnic group by far. (The "ethnicities" specified in the study were black, white, Asian and Latino. Native Americans weren't mentioned, and the complicating factor that Latinos are sometimes categorized as either black or white was not addressed. Nevertheless, if one accepts that these labels reveal more about our society as a pigmentocracy rather than about ethnicity in the strict sense, then such data are still extremely interesting.)
This deep division is not a matter of whether we see the glass half-full or half-empty--a cliché that minimizes the irrationality of what is going on as just a matter of conflicting opinions. In the face of nationwide statistics that establish that dark-skinned people of whatever ethnicity are stopped, searched and arrested more frequently and sentenced more harshly; in the face of statistics showing that blacks across the socioeconomic spectrum get much less comprehensive medical treatment for illnesses ranging from asthma to AIDS to cancer to heart attacks; in the face of figures revealing that banks, employers, restaurants and real estate agents still routinely engage in redlining and other discriminatory lending and business practices; given the realities of environmental racism; given the gutting of civil rights laws to the point where Congress is now debating handing money to religious groups that "believe" in discrimination; given marginalization in the voting process and given fears of a recession... well, it's no wonder blacks are a little less positive. The only wonder is how deeply race rather than citizenship affects the ability to hear this bad news.
On a recent radio program, I heard a woman describing a reunion of family and friends that had been planned for a resort in South Carolina during a time when the NAACP had called for a tourism boycott until the Confederate flag was removed from state property. She said that the extended family had "never" discussed race before, and so they consulted with one another about what to do and whether to go. They did go, but passed the hat and contributed the money to the NAACP. I didn't hear the woman reveal her race, but it's a safe bet that group was white. How else do you go through life "never" thinking about race?
I thought about race when I found myself at Boston's South Station last week, at midnight, vainly trying to get a cab to the airport. The fact that black cabbies pass blacks by as often as white cabbies is no more comforting than, say, having Clarence Thomas joy ride the freedom train right on past black precincts with the same blithe blindness as Antonin Scalia.
But, hey. If it's any comfort to Jeb Bush, my sense is that black people don't revile his black press aide any more than they revile old Jeb himself. And if there's weeping to be done about lost black regard, common decency demands that big brother George should lead the doing of it.
As for Jeb's press aide, the one with Kleenex to spare, I do believe she was last heard trilling, to the tune of "Oh, Susannah": "Oh, young Jeb Bush/Oh, don't you weep for me/For I'm going to make some big bucks/As a black con-ser-va-teeeev!"
The United States has one of the highest rates of intrafamilial violence of any nation in the world. As a statistical composite, we Americans are a nation of grieving adults and idealized infants, grim cynics and lost innocents. Given our daily headlines, this should not come as a complete surprise, I suppose. But it is interesting nonetheless, our erstwhile obsession with the perfect child in the perfect family, yet our collective unwillingness to provide the kind of social safety net that other industrialized nations enjoy. From the Menendez brothers to Susan Smith, the media-projected national family dynamic sometimes makes one think of the Greek god Kronos devouring his children whole, ultimately forced to vomit them, kicking and vengeful, back out again.
For anyone seeking what's left of the stereotypical, honest-to-God-sanctified-by-marriage American household, the past few weeks have been particularly good for grim cynics, particularly bad for lost innocents. In Massachusetts, for example, Leo Felton, the Aryan supremacist son of a white mother and black father, was arrested for trying to ignite a race war. His wife, who took a sledgehammer to his computer so as to destroy evidence, claims to have been motivated only by a deep sense of wifely duty and a divinely mandated commitment to her marriage vows. The couple are converts to Greek Orthodoxy. Felton's girlfriend, on the other hand, who helped him stockpile a goodly amount of ammonium nitrate, appears to have been somewhat less devoutly faith-based in her initiative. (The race war was to have been waged against blacks or Jews, in case you're wondering. Freud would have been busy in contemporary America.)
In Idaho, meanwhile, where crazed Easterners seem to flock in order to pass as fierce mountain men and have standoffs with mustachioed local lawmen, there is the odd, sad tale of Michael McGuckin. McGuckin, a graduate of the exclusive Groton preparatory school and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was the less-than-perfect son (he didn't go to Harvard, he married beneath his station) of a Boston Brahmin family whose ancestors founded, among other institutions, the venerable firm of Shreve, Crump & Low. Over the years, McGuckin and his wife found religion, home-schooled their children and retreated further into the literal wilderness of Idaho's backwoods, as well as into the figurative thicket of their own fears. After he died of multiple sclerosis in May, the family's strange, impoverished living conditions came to the attention of outsiders, and McGuckin's wife was arrested for felony child neglect. When social service workers came to the house, six of his eight children held off local authorities at gunpoint for five days.
But the case generating most attention of late is undoubtedly that of Andrea Yates, the Houston housewife who drowned her five children in the bathtub. "Both of us really went into our marriage, you know, saying we'll just have as many kids as came along," said her husband, a computer programmer with deeply held evangelical Christian convictions, of her postpartum illness that had increased with the birth of each child.
In a mothers' Internet chat room I once logged onto, the site with the most hits belonged to a woman who had nine boys including two sets of twins, all of them under the age of 9. Any advice? she pleaded. Birth control! read the first reply. So how many girls do you have? read the second. Prozac, read the third.
Andrea Yates had been prescribed antipsychotic drugs much stronger than Prozac, and she clearly had longer-term mental health problems than just a lot of children. But the Yates case revealed a deep gender divide about the isolation and stress of family and motherhood in a society that extols self-sufficiency as its premiere human value. From Anna Quindlen to Marie Osmond, a remarkable range of women publicly confessed a kind of empathy for Yates--for what Quindlen called the forbidden understanding: "There is the unimaginable idea of the killings. And then there is the entirely imaginable idea of going quietly bonkers in the house with five kids under the age of 7."
On the other side of the gender divide were voices like those of Howie Carr, a shock jock with the harshly complex voice of a smashmouthed Puritan elder. "Whaddaya think?" railed Carr, challenging his viewers to call in. "Should she fry?" Seventy percent of Carr's viewers thought that yes, Andrea Yates should be fried at once. And indeed, Texas prosecutors--scrupulously avoiding the vulgarity of such words as "fry"--charged Mrs. Yates with capital murder, for which execution is a likely penalty.
In 1892 Charlotte Perkins Gilman published The Yellow Wallpaper, her fictional critique of the marital exemplars of the time: controlling martinet husband who nevertheless embodied civic virtue; genteel obedient wife, confined by the so-called cult of true womanhood to her duties in the nursery, slowly and surely going mad. If Gilman were writing today, I think her novella would not be so very different but for a few updates. It would feature a wife as the promise-kept prisoner of a divinely driven, hovering husband, as still home alone in the nursery but taking all kinds of prescription drugs to help keep things moving serenely. Perhaps she may even have attended (with her husband, of course) the fifth annual Smart Marriages, Happy Families convention in Orlando, Florida--"a grand bazaar for the growing relationship-building, marriage-promotion business," according to the Boston Globe. She would stay in her marriage with no thought of divorce, for fear of becoming one of those welfare recipients whose antithesis she supposedly represented, those women with no husbands whose street-schooled children are hooked on all those terrible, numbing nonprescription drugs.
Andrea Yates purportedly told police that she killed her children because she was a bad mother who had permanently damaged them. And so perfection chases intolerance chases cruelty, collapsing in a heap of tragic paradox. We are a nation of individualists, with little sense that, just beyond the back fence of our fear, we could be building the villages that might help us, if just a little bit.