Through the “Anti-Racism” Looking Glass

I wrote about a racial issue the wrong way on the Facebook page of the anti-racism group in our small town in central New Jersey a couple of weeks ago, and I was expelled from the group, without warning or explanation. Here’s what I did wrong, and thoughts about the lessons I may have learned.

For background, our community has two independent pharmacies. About two months ago, the owner’s son at one of the drugstores posted memes on Instagram including “Who wants to Lynch some Ni**ers?” and “[Name of fellow high school student] is a monkey.” This was all widely reported in our local newspapers. According to the father of the Black student named in the second meme, the white boy’s father called him, offering no apology, but rather asked him to stop referring to his son as a racist.

So here’s what got me expelled.  A prominent local citizen (former elected official, “melanin-deprived” as she would call it, and member of our local anti-racism Facebook group) posted on the town’s main FB page that she couldn’t bring herself ever to go back to the pharmacy in question; 30–40 others, many from the anti-racism group, chimed in saying they wouldn’t patronize this store either, and would still “shop local” but at the other fine drugstore in town.I wasn’t sure I agreed with this conclusion, so I wrote a post asking some questions. Had the owner’s husband escalated his victim-blaming? If not, why were we hurting the parents for the words of a nearly-adult son? What about the effect of not shopping there on the pharmacy’s employees, who as far as we knew were fine people? Were the memes really all that bad, since no physical violence occurred? Why can’t we all just get along in our wonderful town in which there is no strife?Immediately, members of our “Race and Diversity” group commented en masse that racism can never be tolerated, that the parents must have raised their son to have these hateful ideas, that every dollar not spent at one store could go to the other, and that I was just a relic, a cheerleader for a local business where I probably liked the owners personally and probably shared their toxic views. Before I could explain, I was gone — “greyed out with extreme prejudice.” That’s what happens to racists, and enablers of racists, when they pretend to be allies to people of color and their social-justice-warriors-in-tow. I deserved it, I suppose; end of story.

“End of story” EXCEPT for one thing: everything in the opening two paragraphs of this essay is completely true, but everything I wrote in the three paragraphs in the “box” above happened in precisely the opposite way. *I* didn’t make all these excuses for racism; the “anti-racists” did.

Here’s what really happened. The original post in fact urged all the townspeople to shop at the pharmacy with the racist son, because they were nice people who gave good service at reasonable prices, and they rush-ordered some pills for her sick cat. Neither she nor any of the dozens of commenters even mentioned the recent racial incident. [For example, the post or any of the comments could have said “despite what happened, I believe we should still shop there, because [reasons]…”] Just a tone-deaf unpaid advertisement, echoed by many “allies” of the small African-American minority in our lily-white town.

My actual questions were precise mirror-images to the false narrative in the box above. I actually asked: Had I missed some apology that would make it OK to shop there again? Do people not realize that we can still “shop local” and not compromise (what we say are) our values? Do we think that engaging (well, spending our money there, probably silently…) is more likely to change hearts and minds than taking our business elsewhere? I was expelled for writing THAT.

So I was driven out of an anti-racism group for asking whether we should be nodding approvingly at a pep rally for the very store that was in the news mere weeks before. I was branded “a bully with a pitchfork” (by one self-proclaimed “woke” white person, but joined by a multi-hued chorus) for asking whether the leaders of the group, some of whom live with racism that I can only observe, might have been made uncomfortable by the original post and its comments. No doubt I could have been more diplomatic, or could have waited to ask the questions when someone other than the controversial former local official had made an off-putting post.

And maybe I was being too hard on the pharmacy owners — although I certainly didn’t suggest that there be any organized response whatsoever, or even that any individual might want to shop elsewhere. But I didn’t (and don’t) understand why “allies” wouldn’t be just a teeny bit circumspect about shopping there — maybe just give them their business but not preen so loudly about it. And I especially don’t understand why presumed victims of racism and their “allies” would go after me, rather than the racists and the privileged locals who were cheering them on.

(credit: newopticalillusions.com)

I’m frankly baffled by what happened. I can’t bring myself to imagine that this is some kind of Stockholm Syndrome, where people of color are so determined to be voices of cheer and calm that they have to blame the messenger for trying to start a conversation. Perhaps the real explanation is simpler: it’s easy to denounce racism in the abstract, but harder when it gets in the way of garden-variety small-town psychodrama. In other words, the clique is more powerful than the cause. But that’s just what I see, and there could be other and better explanations.

Two years ago, I was also banned from a very-thinly-veiled pro-racism page in our area (I joined, of course, to infiltrate), for objecting to some awful racist memes posted as “humor.” So I am now a man without a country, as it were, though I certainly don’t need to have a local Facebook home in a town where the enemy of my enemy might just be his co-dependent. Fortunately, I have been vehemently against racism for far longer than our local rubes and local “warriors of convenience” have been closing their ears. I admire groups like these for trying to do what people like me (who work on national legislation, regulation, and philanthropy) aren’t necessarily good at: grass-roots discussion with neighbors about lessening distrust and prejudice. But that can’t happen in a self-congratulatory re-education camp.

My dad’s souvenir of the 1963 March on Washington

One of my most valued possessions is a program I got from my father (1916–2014); he brought it home to Philadelphia from the 1963 March on Washington, where he stood in the crowd and witnessed “I Have a Dream,” not on some grainy newsreel, but as it happened. All my life (I was 3 when Dad made the trip) I’ve believed we should indeed judge people “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” and I try hard never to do the former. But it does seem that in some places, people don’t like to be judged by the content of their character either.

Our town has been back in the news just last week, over a lawsuit by a member of the local police force alleging widespread racial harassment in the ranks. We could really benefit from a sincere group organized to jump-start actual dialogue about racism and to discuss actual, you know, actions against it — but that would mean treating the local and national issue as more important than personality.

Risk assessment expert, former federal government regulator (OSHA), choral singer and conductor

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