Above The Timberline
by Wayne Mergler
Author’s Note: I wrote this column a couple of years ago, but now I feel it is important to recycle it. Another summer is here. The “club members” are back at our airports in full force, and I think maybe this all needs to be said again.
ANCHORAGE Alaska—(Weekly Hubris)—6/27/11—Recently, when former President Jimmy Carter said that he believed the vicious attacks on President Obama from the political Right were racially motivated, the television pundits (and others) began a rash of debates and discussions on the subject. Few seemed to agree with President Carter.
Most of the talking heads I heard claimed that, no, they didn’t believe the critics of the current president were racists, but merely people who opposed his policies and sometimes made outrageous and unwarranted statements in order to vent their frustration. Even President Obama seemed to dismiss the racist claims with his now-famous and delightful comment on “The David Letterman Show”: “I was Black before the election.” Charming and funny (and true) though that statement was, it nevertheless does not fully address the issue. The people who are slandering and maligning the president are not people who voted for him, are not people who have ever liked him or supported him, so they may well have been racists even before the election. I have to confess, sadly, that I am of the opinion that Jimmy Carter is correct.
Jimmy Carter lives in Georgia, was born there and has lived there for a large part of his life. I can assure you that he knows racism when he sees and hears it. I live in Alaska, about as far away from the South as you can get, yet I am a Southerner born (Virginia) and bred (Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia), and I, too, have learned to identify a racist when I see one.
I am not talking about those of us who occasionally say stupid and unintended things, who sometimes stereotype people of other races, largely out of ignorance, who sometimes tell a joke or make a comment that we think might be funny without realizing that it may be sensitive material to some people. I am not talking about us. I am talking about blatant, in-your-face, mean-spirited, ugly, evil racism.
I think most of us in this country want to believe that we have come a long way since the civil rights upheavals of the 1960s. We argue, with justifiable pride, that we have reached, in our society, an amazing degree of progress in the American battles of race. We have, after all, elected our first African-American president, something that many of us never thought we would ever see in our lifetimes. I, for example, always thought that I might live long enough to see a woman president, but an African-American president? That was a long shot. So I suspect that there are some of us in this country who are patting ourselves on our backs for all the wonderful “strides” we have made. And rightly so, I guess. Up to a point. But it is naïve and probably even dangerous for us to deny that blatant racism doesn’t still exist and that electing a Black man into the nation’s highest office hasn’t led to racism rearing its very ugly head once again.
Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer/historian and columnist for Newsweek, wrote a brilliant essay on this very subject. He, too, seems to doubt President Carter’s message. He reminds us that in many previous administrations, notably those of Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, the same sort of vitriolic abuse was frequently hurled at the sitting president.
Terrible things were said about Lincoln, comparing him to apes and monkeys. Certainly, the political Left was often brutal to George W. Bush. FDR was called a Communist and a Socialist and all kinds of things. It was with some degree of comfort that I read Meacham’s piece. I realized that, yes, all this ugliness is sometimes just part of the political game. But, yet, I cannot shake the feeling that somehow this is different. The differences are subtle, maybe even inexplicable, but they are there. I see the ugliest kind of racism behind a great many of the Right-wing attacks on the current president.
How do I know this? Well, because I seem to be a reluctant and somewhat surprised member of a very select and exclusive and secret club. I never wanted to join this club. I never even knew this club existed (but it is a secret club, after all), and I have stumbled into it unwittingly. It is a kind of “good-ol’-boy” club, but is more refined, perhaps a cadet branch, with more emphasis on the “old” than on the “good.”
I am a 65-year-old, White male, somewhat paunchy, white-haired, bald, and, apparently, resemble many other old white guys in my demographic. Almost every day, someone stops me on the street or in the mall and says, “Bob! How are you? Haven’t seen you in ages!” Or, “Dave! How the hell have you been?” And I have to, somewhat embarrassingly, reveal to them that I am sorry but I am not Bob, I am not Dave, to which they inevitably respond that I look exactly like him, that I could be his twin brother. Apparently, all old bald White guys look just alike, sort of like babies all tend to look alike. Maybe we start and end our lives in a kind of common blur, only achieving individuality in the middle years. I dunno. I do know that I am always somewhat irritated by these encounters, because I have always considered myself so unique, only to find out now, in my seventh decade, that I am really pretty ordinary. What a blow to my ego!
But I digress somewhat. You may wonder what this has to do with the secret club that I have inadvertently fallen into. Let me explain.
I work part-time in the book store at the Anchorage airport. A benign enough job, I would have thought. I mainly sell magazines and quick paperback reads to travelers needing something to pass the time on the plane. But lately, there seems to be a lot more cloak-and-daggery lurking about. In the summertime, when we have many tourists passing through the airport, there is a change in the atmosphere of the place. Many of these tourists are older people—and we seem to have a preponderance of people from places like Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, South Carolina, and Texas. Middle America, I guess you’d say. The Heartland. The Backbone of the Nation. The Real America.
I am the only old White guy who works in my store. The other employees are a middle-aged White woman, three young Filipino women, and a teenage boy. When the other employees are on duty, people are quick to browse and shop and make their purchases; the usual “thank you’s” and “have a nice day’s” are dispensed with. When I am on duty, there is a difference of mood. Maybe some of it has to do with my propensity to chatter, to be friendly and open and sometimes funny, but I swear that men of my race and age (or older) take one look at me and decide that I am like them, I am one of them and, therefore, they can be their real selves around me.
I am inundated with anti-Obama, anti-government, anti-Feds, anti-immigrant, and anti-Black comments on a regular basis. I am, in other words, “in the club.” Older White men lean in close to me and make blatant racist statements, which I am not comfortable repeating here in this column; usually statements liberally peppered with the “N-word,” that word that most Americans seem to think we never use anymore. One man recently came up to the counter, looked me over, and said, “At last! A shop I can spend money in!”
“Oh, you mean because you are book lover?” I naïvely asked.
“No! Because this is the only store I’ve seen with a real American behind the counter!” he said.
What he meant, of course, as I knew and as he wanted me to know, was that it was the only store, at the moment, with a White man of a certain age behind the counter. The Filipino girls in the gift shop, the Asian women at Starbucks, the young guy with the piercings and the tattoos at the DVD and music store didn’t count as “real” Americans.
Most of the time, the older White gentlemen will seize upon a book we have on display by Ann Coulter or Glenn Beck (yes, we carry all kinds of books) and will then say to me, in quiet, intimate tones, that we are so lucky to have real Americans like them looking out for us. They cannot resist a negative, even hate-filled comment if Barack Obama or Ted Kennedy is on the cover of a weekly magazine. One week, when we had President Obama, Michelle Obama, and Michael Jackson on the covers of magazines in the store, the N-word flew about wildly and one old man grumbled to me that if you were a White man, you couldn’t get on the cover of a magazine anymore.
Wordy though I am, I cannot find enough words to express to you how offensive these remarks and these men are to me. And doubly offensive is the fact that they seem to say them only to me. They would never say such things to the women behind the counter, or to the Filipino girls, or to the Gay guy with his piercings and tattoos. No, they reserve their vitriol and their hatred as a treat for me, because they think I am like them. They look at me and they think that I am a member of their very private, very select club. It makes me want to scream! If I still had any hair on my head, I would pull it out by the roots.
I do not want to be in your club! I want out! I am not shy about expressing my opinions, but I have gotten in enough trouble in the past for doing so at work. My job is to be pleasant and non-judgmental, though sometimes it nearly kills me to do so.
But, this week, the final straw.
One older gentleman, with a heavy Southern accent, started telling me that that “N-word,” meaning our President, was no worry to him because he knew that he, the President, was going to get shot some day and then we would all be rid of him. And then he laughed.
I think I must have forgotten for a minute that I was at work. I went ballistic. I told him to get out of my store and that I would not tolerate such remarks from anyone and that he was clearly supporting and encouraging and joking about a terrorist act and a blatant act of treason. I also threatened to call airport security over and accuse the man of terrorism in the airport. He looked stunned; then he looked disappointed and disgusted—at me. I had let him down. He thought that I was in the club and I had, instead, proven myself to be, not only not in the club but, rather, the kind of person he most despises—a Commie-fag-pinko-Liberal. But he did hastily leave the bookstore. And when I finally calmed down, the young teenage boy who works with me grinned and said, “Wow! I hope you never get mad at me.”
“Don’t grow up to be a hate-filled, racist, Right-wing asshole, and I won’t,” I promised him.
My three adult children—wise and wonderful, all of them—have given me suggestions as to how I can change my image, so I won’t appear to be a member of the club. And their suggestions are so characteristically typical of each of them.
My oldest daughter suggested that I pierce an ear. Or maybe both ears. A guy with two pierced ears, no matter how old or how White, could never be in the club. But I can’t do any piercings or tattoos because that would involve a certain amount of pain, and I am so not into pain.
My younger daughter suggested that I dye my white hair and beard some wild shade of pink or orange or purple. Pink would probably be best. No pink-haired old guy is ever going to be in the club. But I don’t really look good in pink.
My son had the best suggestion. He thinks I should wear a T-shirt that says, proudly, “I may be old and White, but I ain’t no f***ing redneck!” I like that, but my employer would never go for it, I fear.
At any rate, I want out of the club.
But, at least I know the club exists and that its membership is thriving, even if our President and Mr. Meacham, wise though they are, will never admit it.