Monday, June 26, 2006

Lynching Words

Perhaps it was the Washington Post story on Sunday about a DWB ("driving while black") horror that primed me, but I was appalled during a taxi ride today to hear a woman recount with alacrity that her son, obviously white, had applied to college describing himself as "African-American."

Let me paint the scene for you.

I have overslept and in a vain attempt to "win the day" and make it in to the office first, I flag down a cabbie whizzing by my building. The female cabbie, one of relatively few in this city, seems a little gruff, but I later discover that what I attribute to personality is merely a choppy foreign accent. Another detail important to this story: she's black, I'm not.

I give her my destination, she starts driving. I take out a novel I am reading and ignore the vehicle until we come to a stop a few blocks later.

In Washington cab drivers can pick up as many as five passengers, so long as no one is taken more than five blocks out of their way. It's common, on the leafy avenue on which I live, for cabbies to cruise their way downtown and slowly fill up their cab. For them it spells the difference between making merely $11 for a 25-minute drive and making up to $55 for more less the same effort.

About five blocks from where I am picked up, a tall, spindly, graying and very pale middle-aged white woman flags my cabbie. She stops, my destination is cited as the priority (first come, first served), the new passenger agrees. She gets in, smelling of mothballs; it is clear that she is not going to work. She seems chatty; I leave the chatting to the two women and dive back into my book.

Before the driver has time to roll up all the windows and turn on the air-conditioning to accommodate the new passenger, the new rider has found the flimsiest of excuses to announce that she once lived in Africa. It turns out the driver is from Liberia and the passenger lived in that West African nation and met every minister and president while she lived there.

There is no question in my mind that Memsahib (the title Indians used for British colonial officers' wives) has no idea how outrageously patronizing she sounds. She quizzes the driver about her family name and origins, just so she can show off that she somehow can identify the driver's tribal origins. Meanwhile she mourns the loss, in the aftermath of a military coup, of what was obviously a mansion in an august neighborhood whose name the driver apparently recognizes.

Then she spouts the detail that arouses my ire.

"My son was born in Africa," she says, "and he applied to college identifying himself as, you'll never guess, ha, ha, 'African-American.' "

I count to ten and decide to ignore this. But the woman won't let it rest. She goes on to blather about how American blacks are not African-American, not like her surely very pale, very white son.

I can resist no longer.

I point out that by identifying himself as "African-American" in college applications her son has taken the place of a descendant of slaves; surely her son has no American slaves among his ancestors. Affirmative action, which I wholeheartedly applaud, exists to redress the deleterious effect of three centuries of slavery and one century of discrimination -- not as the source of amusement of Memsahib.

The uneasy driver, trying to find a middle ground between her passengers, comes to her aid, saying, "of course, the father is black."

"No," says my fellow passenger.

"But you were a missionary," the cabbie adds helpfully, galloping once more unto the breach.

"No," she declared, "we were doing aid work."

I ask with which agency and out tumbles "USAID."

An "aha!" moment dawns. USAID is the Agency for International Development, an agency of the State Department, ostensibly the benign side of U.S. foreign policy in the Third World.

Part of what it really does was depicted in the Costa-Gavras film State of Siege, in which Yves Montand plays the role of USAID agent Dan Mitrione (who is given another name in the movie). Mitrione, a cop and FBI bully, was sent to Brazil (1960-67) and Uruguay (1967-70) as a USAID official, ostensibly to deliver the latest techniques in city traffic control.

Known for saying that torture should inflict "The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect," Mitrione made the torture of political prisoners under the military regimes with which he worked a routine and coldly scientific practice until he himself was kidnapped and killed in 1970 by the now-extinct Tupamaro guerrillas.

Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

USAID ... you name it, they've done it: union-smashing, bribing, covert torture-training. Their least harmful works have been to subsidize the export of unneeded and expensive U.S. goods that have ended up ruining local manufacturing and local farmers in developing countries.

All this and more comes cascading through my brain and I realize it is way too much for what remains of the cab ride. Besides, my putative student, the USAID Memsahib, lacks the pre-requisites for U.S. Imperialism 101.

So I try a more direct, personal approach.

"You were a representative of the U.S. government, living at the highest level, far above everyone else. Your son didn't have an iota of the experience of what a real average African lives through," I say. "When he calls himself 'African-American' he is essentially lying and obtaining for himself an opportunity set aside for those much needier than himself whose opportunity was stolen 400 years ago."

To which the woman has two things to say, the relevancy of which the reader will judge: (a) she is Jewish; (b) I am "a pig."

I smile. When the insults spew out, they have no argument to make.

Still, this woman is not alone in this very cosmopolitan Washington, in which so many lead or have led affluent lives abroad (not all for groups as awful as USAID) and now bask in the self-satisfaction that they have bestowed what they conceive of as their superior way of life to people of whom they think fondly, but never quite as equals.

Tucked under the "joke" that her son is "African-American" is the active negation of an identity asserted by American blacks as a part of their communal regeneration. Very much like all the humor about "political correctness" made popular by the neocons, it's a cover for attempting to turn back the clock -- in this case, to the days of Jim Crow.

The net effect is that since lynching black people is not merely illegal but also socially frowned upon, some whites are reduced to lynching words, black words that might give non-whites the idea that maybe they're entitled to a share of power and wealth.

I find it appalling and wrong, precisely because I am white and I am an American.

(This post is retroactively part of Julie Pippert's Hump Day Hmm and BlogRhet's "Let's Talk About Race, Baby" week long initiative.)
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