Eavesdropping on Middle America
In the safety and comfort of Middle America taverns, average men speak their mind about the ongoing rupture of racial tension in the US. Justin Glawe reflects on the deepening sense of discomfort, anger, and racism he witnessed while drinking beer.
The wide receiver caught the pass and stretched for an extra six yards.
“That’s a man who knows how far he has to go,” said the guy next to me, praising the football player on TV with a knowing smile.
“That’s the monkey in him,” the bartender replied, not ironically, not even really in a joking fashion. Dead serious. You see, the elite athlete skillfully doing his multi-million dollar job who we were watching while drinking beer is a black man. Get it?
That this exchange happened in a bar in Antioch, Ill. does not make it rare, I don’t think. For weeks I’ve been absorbing this abhorrent language, offered in person and online for anyone with the stomach for it. Most recently, I have heard these sinful whispers and shameful grievances aired in the safety and comfort of a few Antioch taverns, far outside earshot of anyone who might put up a fight.
“You’re safe here,” another patron rattled off that night.
“Here” isn’t just that bar – it can be anywhere if you know where to look, or if you have the ability to sit at a neighborhood dive and keep to yourself, something that’s a hell of a lot easier to do when your skin is white and your look unassuming.
Conversations like the one I heard in Antioch have been going on for months and years, but they become more malicious in times of great racial strife. Like now, when the country is reeling after the deaths of two New York City police officers, which happened after months of protests, following a summer of death.
“For all I know, I would have hit traffic from a bunch of them out there saying ‘I can’t breathe,’” one man said last week at another bar, mirroring the perceived injustices aired on social media as demonstrators protesting the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others sought to disrupt the flow of life, often by creating gridlock.
This rhetoric – jarring for most people living on the coasts – regularly occurs in barrooms and living rooms in the great middle of the country. It is unsettling, unnerving and unreasonable for everyone but those spewing such vitriol. For them, it is weekday banter and the agreed-upon thoughts of their peers. Normal. Settling. Safe. In the Antioch bar, and in comments on every news story regarding the tragic deaths of officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, you’ll find a fractured national psyche, split into the various camps of us and them.
The holidays, normally a time of unity, likely felt much different this year. Many of us were forced to choose sides at the Christmas dinner table – “Do black lives matter more than police ones? Should we as a society allow laws to be broken simply so men won’t die? Look what happens when you question the authority of police”, many an increasingly-angry uncle said after a few too many cocktails. “Chaos, death, lawlessness!”
And simmering beneath it all is a pervasive tenderness – an unwillingness on the part of many to acknowledge the sins of our history.
The conversation at the bar in Antioch eventually took a full-fledged dive into the issues. The sneering comment about the football player and others like it were just a primer, and the combination of approaching midnight and lubricated lips allowed it all to come out: The greatness of Ronald Reagan, the divisiveness and evil of the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Black Panthers, welfare, the “way it was when I grew up”. All the trappings of a Fox News focus group, stereotypes based on a reality that many in liberal academic and media circles don’t want to acknowledge: if not the majority, white anger is a cultural standpoint that is far from a minority one.
Racist violence and racial tension are constants throughout American history. Sometimes it flares up, like it did in 1992 following the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King. But the events unfolding since the steamy day in August when Michael Brown was killed seem to have struck a larger chord: It hasn’t just been in Ferguson where the unrest has taken place, but across the country as protesters have added other names to the list of those killed by police. Brown’s death – for reasons that historians will endlessly speculate upon – became a clarion call. And in the process, Ferguson became a Rorschach test for issues of race, class, and where we all stand on law and order. Whenever Ferguson comes up, I hold my breath in anticipation of what’s to come. Luckily my girlfriend is usually with me to soften the blow in these moments, and I’ve learned to keep my most incendiary thoughts to myself. But It’s always right there, on the edge: Discomfort, anger, racism. “You were there? So, what do you think about all that?”is always precursor to “Let me tell you what I think about that situation and those people.”
For whatever reason the average Joe – the average white person, in my experience – has an incredibly difficult time commiserating with the people of Ferguson, especially those who took to the streets in a rage following Brown’s death and who watched their own town burn after Darren Wilson’s non-indictment. It is simply impossible, it appears, for someone who has never dealt firsthand with the more shameful and discriminatory aspects of American life to come to grips with that situation. How can you understand the desire to burn shit down if you you have never experienced the desperate feeling that an entire system – the one we were all taught is the best in the world – is rigged against you? You can’t. And so many don’t.
But that isn’t what’s so disheartening about the comments I’ve heard since returning from what is likely my last trip to Ferguson. Instead, what I’ve found more disturbing is that many have morphed the despair on display there into their own war cry. The painful irony is that some have managed to turn the actions of an unruly minority in Ferguson into evidence that an entire people is to blame, while simultaneously justifying some of the more decidedly wrong aspects of white America’s obsession with and blind support for law enforcement.
I cannot think of a place where such comments would be less welcome than Lipsky’s, a smoke-filled bar in tiny Upson, Wisconsin. On a stretch of road that now sees more snowmobiles than heavy equipment, the dive sits either in anticipation of the return of iron mining or eventual death, depending on your point of view. There isn’t much else in Upson other than Lipsky’s, and there isn’t much to Lipsky’s other than the promise of a few quick drinks off the snowmobile trail on the way to other, more well-rounded establishments. Like a lot of other bars in a lot of other nothing towns, what Lipsky’s lacks in class it makes up for in authenticity. There are no frills at Lipsky’s, and there were no functioning filters on the thoughts or words of the men inside there on a recent -15 Fº day with their machines parked outside. The word Ferguson never came up, but it was there. Until the next watershed event in race relations, it always will be. Ferguson floats around the edge of conversations, sometimes prompting angry explosions not unlike the fiery storm that partly consumed the town just a few days before Thanksgiving. If one of the goals of protesters was to ensure Mike Brown and the town in which he lived were never forgotten, they succeeded. But keep in mind that everyone can remember things in their own way, and that’s exactly what the men in Lipsky’s proved.
In tiny Upson and elsewhere in far northern Wisconsin, some are hopeful that iron mining will return, bringing with it much needed jobs. But the guys in Lipsky’s weren’t having any of it. You’d be surprised, if you’ve never been in such environments, how quickly the tone of conversation can change. And even the most creative mind would struggle to come up with the ways people have concocted to blame Obama for the failures and inconsistencies of modern life.
“That’s what you get if you vote for that asshole,” said one on the perceived unlikely return of the mine.
“That’s our no-good nigger president,” said another. “Ought to be out there with all those protesters.”
And there you have it. Obama and the protesters are both very bad, and they are also one and the same. Not because the president has questioned the role that law enforcement plays in the black community, or what level of force is appropriate for myriad situations that claim an unknown number of lives each year – one that interested citizens continue to track – but because he shares a skin color with many of the demonstrators. In the dusk of this year, that is how easy it is to discount a person. And as a new year dawns it is clear that for many in this country, that is just how easy it will continue to be.