“He’s not going to get any scholarships. He might not even get in anywhere competitive because he’s not disadvantaged, he’s upper middle class and he’s white. He is a solid kid. It’s not fair.” My neighbor and I were talking about her high school senior son’s prospects for getting into a good college. He’s a B+ student – a really nice kid, an Eagle Scout, and he did pretty well on his SATs. But she’s worried that no college will see all the things that he is, that he will be defined based on demographics and numbers that do not fully define him. It’s a pretty competitive cycle in college acceptances, as I well know from being a high school teacher.
This, by the way, is Bigs’ rationale for having me consider that I should use his college fund to buy him a pick up truck and a backhoe. It’s a cop out, and I’m not buying it, but he does have a point, although I won’t admit it to him right now. He is a pretty advantaged kid, and we let him know it from time to time.
No one is going to feel sorry enough for him to affirm any action toward acceptance or funding toward higher education when they compare his demographics and the circumstances of his life to those who don’t share those same traits and opportunities. We encourage him to stop looking around him and keep looking ahead, to his own strengths and opportunities. College admissions officers may not see all the things he has to offer, but at least he will know.
He’s a lucky kid. If he works hard, he will end up doing exactly what he is meant to do with his life, and it will be a good life. But once in a while, I hear – whether it’s about someone getting a little more recognition or a leg up -that it’s not fair. And I know it’s a bit dramatic, but “It’s not fair” resonates differently for me after this summer.
After this summer, I keep thinking about four young men who I’ve never met. Because right before school let out for the summer, a young white man walked into a prayer meeting of the American Methodist Church of Charleston and killed nine people. They were all black, and that is why he killed them.
Well, that is not the only reason why he killed them. More on that later.
As the week wore on, America learned the names of the victims and just what kind of people they were. To the shooter, they were merely black people. That is what defined them to him.
From reports of one survivor of the massacre, the shooter said, “[Y]ou’ve raped our women, and you are taking over the country…I have to do what I have to do.” He then pulled out a semi-automatic weapon and killed the very people who welcomed him into their midst and prayed with them. He later said that he almost didn’t do it because they were so nice to him.
It looks as if he did it because they were black. And if you had to pick one reason why, it would be the obvious one. In talking to my children, I asked them what they think the lesson is here – if there can be a lesson from such a bitter piece of news. Little said, predictably, “Don’t be racist.” And Bigs said, “They shouldn’t let crazy people buy guns.” Yes, and yes, boys. But look deeper. What does it take to hate so much? What does it take to gun down peaceful, kind people who greet you and welcome you and pray with you, even as they sense that you are there to hurt them? After thinking about this for a long time, I’d say the shooter was motivated by hatred of himself, a deep, destructive form of poor self-esteem. And he rationalized his actions by telling himself that life wasn’t fair.
The shooter, 28 years old now, had to repeat ninth grade. He had a criminal record, most recently for illegal possession of narcotics. He had no job. He was an angry young man. He was a failure in his own eyes and probably in the eyes of almost everyone else. But in his own mind, he had one and only one thing going for him – his skin color. He once wrote that, since there were no Klansmen and no skinheads in Charleston to keep African Americans in check, “Well, someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world and I guess that has to be me.” This warped notion of heroism – based on a mere biological trait and not anything he had accomplished – became what defined him.
I keep thinking of two other young men who were involved in this situation and the type of unfairness that defined them.
One of them was a victim, Tywanza Sanders, 26, a college graduate, employed as a barber, whose dying act in his church was to reach out to his 87 year old great aunt and stroke her hair to comfort her even as he bled to death.
Another young man is Sharonda Coleman Singleton’s older son Chris, who forgave Dylann Roof at the arraignment. Ms. Coleman Singleton also leaves a daughter and another son who is Little’s age, and I can’t stop thinking about them either. Her children will forever be defined by the unfairness of what happened to their mother, and Chris will forever be defined by his forgiveness because, as he told reporters, “that is what my mother would have done.”
It wasn’t fair, what any of these young men did. On one hand, Dylann Roof defined himself by hating people he had never met. On the other hand, Tywanza and Chris defined themselves by love – impossible love in the face of unspeakable loss. It wasn’t fair. But each defined himself, despite how others did.
It is truly senseless to me, but it has been in my thoughts all summer. It has permeated much of what I’ve seen and read.
I just finished reading Harper Lee’s new release, Go Set A Watchman. The central conflict is that Scout (yes, Scout, the pre-pubescent heroine of To Kill A Mockingbird) is all grown up at the time of the novel’s setting in the 1960s and has to negotiate her recognition that her fiancé, Hank, and her father -her hero, her God -if you will believe what Harper Lee has to say about him in the voice of Uncle Jack, are on a town planning board with racists. And they seem to be getting along with them just fine.
I won’t go into the plot here, but suffice it to say that Scout is horrified. She also has a bit of an identity crisis, for herself and for her family and town. She can’t believe that Atticus and Hank would even sit at the same table and listen to racist ideology at such a crucial turning point in the Civil Rights Era. She has to decide how to define herself and she pushes back mightily against the idea that being white gives her an automatic privilege in her society.
Uncle Jack, who loves her and who loves his brother, tries to explain why progress is slow in coming in her community – why Atticus must pull up a chair to speak with those whose ideology is so different from his.
He tells Scout, “For years and years all that (white) man thought he had that made him any better than his black brothers was the color of his skin. He was just as dirty, he smelled just as bad, he was just as poor. Nowadays he’s got more than he ever had in this life, he has everything but breeding, he’s freed himself from every stigma, but he sits nursing his hangover of hatred” (197).
This reminds me of something else I read in June, right before the shooting happened. It is a historical note by Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow. Alexander writes, “In the antebellum South, the lowliest white person at least possessed his or her white skin – a badge of superiority over even the most skilled slave or prosperous free African American”(27). Alexander goes on to say that the post Civil War economic and political degradation – plus an overwhelming task of rebuilding the country – was most distressing to whites. This new reality did not mesh with the world view of the whites who had been successful, who believed that they were entitled to success because of their position in society – in short, because of their race.
This is, sadly, not a viewpoint relegated to the era of Reconstruction in the United States. It is the last vestige of self-esteem for racist white men and in some cases, it is becoming an excuse for their behavior. It is the warped rationale for a senseless act performed by a young man who couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t winning at life.
So I ask my children, when they are treated unfairly, when they are misunderstood, when they think they are missing out on some perceived advantage, such as acceptance or privilege based on athletic ability, social connections, or demographics, what kind of boy they’re going to be now, and how that will grow them into men.
And that has everything to do with what is inside of them, what other people might not see or even bother to look for. There may not be time for my sons to explain, quantify or negotiate it.
It will have to be enough that they know it themselves, no matter how unfair life can be.