Today’s back-to-work schedule included the additional responsibilities of helping my daughter with dressing, bathing, and toileting. I’ve appreciated in recent years that she is becoming increasingly more independent, so it is hard to take several steps back. On the bright side, I see daily improvement in her ability and desire to do more for herself, and with her pain becoming more manageable, I know this situation is temporary. One advantage of all of us being home is that I don’t have to worry about her missing school, or trying to figure out how she would get around school in a cast.
The news outside our home is less optimistic. It’s surreal to see crowds of protesters on the news wearing masks to protect themselves from COVID-19. In places where they are maintaining social distance, that will help, but where there are thousands of people gathered together, even with masks on, there is a real risk of spreading the virus. This combination of a deadly virus and civil unrest is really toxic, and emblematic of so much that is horribly wrong in our society.
It is encouraging that most protesters have been peaceful, and really beautiful that police in some cities have stood (or kneeled) with them in solidarity. However, it is scary and maddening that there is also rioting in many places. Destruction of property and endangering the safety of others is wrong and counterproductive. It is painful to see these events unfolding, knowing that rioting only further hurts those who are already hurting deeply, and does nothing to advance the cause of the protests. (Often, it should be noted, the rioters are capitalizing on the distraction of the protests and are not part of the protests themselves.) We so badly need leadership now to give us comfort and restore calm, but at so many levels of government, the leadership is not there.
Today was a beautiful day in Pittsburgh. Clear skies, warm sun, cool breezes. I wasn’t able to be outside for very long, but I treasured a few minutes here and there in the sun and air, taking a short walk by myself, receiving a lesson in how to play football from my son in the backyard. It’s a beautiful time of spring meeting summer, with all the advantages of each — long days, low humidity, sunlight that warms without scorching. I might be exaggerating a bit, but it was the type of weather that you want to breathe in, and wish you could bottle for a cold, gray, rainy day.
If only the circumstances of our world could match the weather. In less than a week, the non-stop news coverage of COVID-19 has taken a backseat to protests, riots, and an infamous photo opp created by tear gassing peaceful demonstrators. I learned in my days of practicing newspaper journalism that it is difficult to accurately portray public events because one reporter’s perception is limited. In times like these, there are not only events themselves, but events created to augment or detract from the main events. There are politicians spinning the news for their own purposes, and inciting passionate feelings and actions. At a time in which truth itself is challenged daily, it is more challenging than ever to portray unfolding history in a balanced way. And so, in my limited consumption of television news, I remind myself that the flashy events get the most coverage, even if they are not the most representative of reality. I say this more in sympathy with, rather than criticism of, those who have the incredibly difficult task of contextualizing these events. Historians will spill considerable ink in the decades to come as they analyze what we are seeing happen before our eyes. It may be decades before we know what all this means.
We don’t know yet what all of this will bring, but there are some important things my family is trying to remember. COVID-19 is still here, presenting all of the same challenges that it did last week. As we rightly grapple with how to make our society more just and equitable, we need to continue taking care of our health while taking measured steps to return to some of the activities we have been missing for nearly three months. And also, just as COVID-19 brought us together, and showed us our capacity for sacrificing and changing behavior in the name of protecting ourselves and others, perhaps we can approach the racial divisions in our society with the knowledge that change is possible, even though it may be inconvenient or painful. It is, in fact, necessary.
It’s complicated. Everything that we are living through now is complicated. I realized as I sat to reflect this evening that, among the opinions I bristle at the most on social media are the ones that try to oversimplify what we are living through. The ones that get worked up about the protests because they feel that criticizing bad policing negates the appreciation most of us feel for good policing. Or the ones who assume that their personal experience with law enforcement or race relations is emblematic of everyone else’s experience. Or the ones that apply a purity test to everyone’s opinions and actions, forgetting that all of us are frequently mistaken and sometimes change our minds.
It makes me sad when people interpret empathy for the experience of people of color with apathy for whites who are struggling. That’s like saying you shouldn’t help one of your children learn to read because his brother is reading below grade level. One person’s struggle doesn’t negate the other’s. Efforts to help one don’t automatically determine that the other will receive less support. In our fractured culture, we see our struggles in opposition to each other, whereas we are all affected by the same trends. Those with the fewest protections, whether of wealth, education, or race, are the first to suffer in a broken system, but they are not the last to suffer, and efforts to help them, if done correctly, don’t impoverish the rest of us. Systemic improvements have the potential to help all of us.
One of my Facebook friends shared a Venn diagram showing that it is possible for us to entertain complex thoughts at this time. You can believe most police are good, while also advocating for reform. You can support peaceful protest while opposing rioting and looting. You can mourn the death of George Floyd and also recognize that he was a flawed person. You can oppose police brutality while also recognizing that force is sometimes needed to contain violence and protect our communities. You can advocate for the rights of minorities while acknowledging that you may feel unsafe in certain neighborhoods. You can acknowledge that there are high rates of violence and incarceration in some communities, while also questioning if laws are fairly applied based on race.
You can be glad you can afford to live in a neighborhood where you feel safe while being troubled that others don’t have the option of living somewhere they feel safe.
On a more positive note, you can be fearful about the unrest, the disease, and the division in our country, while being hopeful that things can and will get better.
First, a positive personal note: my daughter’s cast came off today, and was replaced by a leg brace. She still has many weeks of healing ahead, and we’re not sure what that will look like, but the brace is lighter and cooler, and makes daily life easier.
In recent weeks, I have been surprised by some of my friends’ opinions about the black lives matter protests. Race and attitudes about race are not things most people typically discuss during social gatherings (or at least not up until now). When we like people and identify with them in other ways, we may assume that we and they also share attitudes about race. And so, when we find that’s not the case, it can be surprising and unsettling.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what has molded my attitudes about race, and I feel very fortunate to note that my elementary school education was significant, in a positive way, in shaping my opinions. I attended Piedmont Elementary School in Charleston, West Virginia. My family lived a short walk from the school in Charleston’s East End. We were a middle class, multigenerational family. My parents divorced when I was very young, and my mom, sister and I lived with my grandparents in the house where my mom grew up. One of my aunts also lived with us.
Piedmont had quite a few kids like me from families in the neighborhood around the school — diverse in both race and income — but a significant portion of the student body lived in a public housing project that was a short bus ride away. These students, and many others in the school, truly lived in poverty. The student body was also approximately 50% black.
Among the elementary schools in Kanawha County, Piedmont frequently placed at or near the bottom on standardized test scores. This had nothing to do with the quality of the teaching, which was stellar, and everything to do with the poverty and instability that students faced at home. From early elementary school, it was clear that the students from homes with educated parents and stable income, like mine, were more likely to be successful with academic subjects.
I wasn’t necessarily close friends with any of the kids from “City Park,” as the housing project was known, but through playground conversations and other interactions I learned a lot about kids whose lives were very different from mine. There were kids whose families couldn’t afford home phones (decades before cell phones made landlines less common), there were those whose clothes were visibly worn out or dirty, and there was lots of talk about feeling unsafe playing outside in the public housing complex.
A lot of these kids were tough, and many had little interest in being in school. The Piedmont teachers were amazing in their ability to create a positive learning environment and meeting students where they were, which meant dividing grade levels into different tracks to offer everything the students needed. Kids like me were in “advanced” classes, and others were in average or remedial classes.
I loved Piedmont as a student, and I look back with profound gratitude that I learned at an early age about the realities of living in poverty, and of living as a minority. Those two factors aren’t always correlated — not in general society and not among my elementary school peers, where there were some middle class black kids and plenty of poor white kids — but there is definitely overlap, often caused by generations of discrimination and limited opportunities to make life better.
Most of all, my teachers modeled for me the importance of treating everyone with dignity, and of understanding that life is not an even playing field where everyone has the same opportunities. Even though many of my classmates came from disadvantaged homes, I knew them as real people, not stereotypes on the news. They were just kids like me. For all of my life, I will never question the reality of the burdens of being disadvantaged, because I saw them first-hand.
I’ve realized in recent years that a lot of my friends, who perhaps grew up in posh suburbs, or attended private schools with little diversity, don’t have this experience to draw on. That may be why some of them are less sympathetic to the rage that has bubbled over in recent weeks. If they had seen what I saw as an elementary school student, I bet they would think about things differently.