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Day 17

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Rushing to Judgment

The Blaring Inhumanity of Racialism in America

by MISSY BEATTIE

We sat around the dining table in my new place, drinking Prosecco, eating, talking.

Sheila’s beautiful, commanding, elegant, a dynamic speaker with a passion for life and for her work, executive director of a nonprofit. She has three degrees. Her husband Nelson is a hair stylist. He’s low key, well read, wise. They’re good together—no, great. Family members gave them three months. They’ve been married 25 years.

We discussed Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.

Sheila told a story, circa 1992. She and Nelson were driving in Louisiana when they were pulled over by a “Bubba” sheriff.

Bubba said to Nelson, “Boy, do you know how fast you were going?”

They were not exceeding the speed limit.

Sheila looked at Nelson’s face, knew how and what he felt. She was terrified he’d say something that would end in an arrest, even injury. She made a decision to give Bubba what he wanted. Slapping her hand against Nelson’s arm, Sheila presented a stereotype: “Surr, I tole dis boy he’s goin’ too fast.”

Satisfied, Bubba allowed them to leave, and Sheila took the wheel. But he followed them to the county line before turning around. When he was out of sight, Sheila pulled to the side of the road and vomited.

***

Early September, I passed a sorority house. A gazillion rushees congregated on the front law—Greek Week. I glimpsed the past.

Years ago, I stood among the girls with Pappagallo Button Bags. I didn’t own one of these purses. But there I was, awaiting a welcome. Finally, the front door opened and we were herded in for scrutiny, appropriateness.

“Would you like punch, cookies?” I was asked.

“Yes, thank you.” Small talk. Mingle, mingle, mingle.

At three sorority houses, I small talked. And mingled.

Sorority house number four: “Would you like punch, cookies?” I looked at the questioner and said nothing, Just stared at her. She repeated the question. I repeated the silence. “Excuse me, I’m going to have someone else come talk with you.” I watched as she whispered to her “sister” and both looked my way. This was beginning to be fun. I sat there, expressionless, mute.

Sorority house number five: repeat.  I was in only one sorority house after that—to visit a friend.

This image wandered back to the shelf where old memories are stored. And reemerged when I read that all 16 sororities at the University of Alabama rejected a black student during this year’s rush. Alpha Gamma Delta member Melanie Gotz, said, “The reason was the color of her skin.”

Several sorority sisters wanted the black rushee “but were told by the chapter alumnae that it was not an option.” In protest, Gotz moved out of the house.

I thought about an absurd proclamation after Obama was elected president. That we live in a post-racial society.

Here are just a couple of facts:

According to the Pew Research Center, “…the median household income of a family of three in 2011 was $39,760 for blacks but $67,175 for whites. That’s a difference of about $27,000, up roughly $8,000 since 1967.”

And that white men with criminal records are more likely to be called back for job interviews than black men without criminal records.

Even when other qualifications are identical.

Ask Trayvon Martin’s parents if the US is post-racial. Or the young black woman who, despite being “gifted” and well connected, was rejected during rush week. Or the newly crowned Miss America, Nina Davuluri, of Indian descent, who received these insults: “Miss 9/11” and “terrorist”.

And check out Hollywood actors Cherie Johnson and Dennis White’s account of their harassment by police in South Carolina on September 22, 2013, 21 years after Sheila and Nelson’s frightening experience in Louisiana. Searched for drugs and handcuffed, Johnson and White claim the incident occurred because of their race.

Here’s another example of discrimination, reported on a wellness blog:

Black and Hispanic children who go to an emergency room with stomach pain are less likely than white children to receive pain medication . . . and more likely to spend long hours in the emergency room.

This is the blaring inhumanity of racialism. And it extends far and wide. Indeed, it is a pillar of US foreign policy. Ask anyone in the countries where intervention is pronounced necessary by America’s narcissists.

***

Last week, I had lunch with a friend. I asked if she knew about the sorority disgrace. That the old guard wanted to protect the purity of the clan. Admitting to knowing very little about sororities, I said, “I’m sure they support charitable activities and provide a sense of family.”

She said they do. Her daughter was a member.

Later, I thought of another story from years ago. My brother was in school with a Greek American student. The sorority of her choice excluded her. Why? Because she was Greek.  Ironic, huh?

Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Baltimore. Email: missybeat@gmail.com.