The Nineties were a different time, kids. It was the kind of era where, in the aftermath of horrifying riots in Los Angeles, David Alan Grier and Jim Carrey could appear in a sketch on the comedy program In Living Color as beating victims Rodney King and Reginald Denny, and declare, “Staying in school and staying off drugs is fine, but it ain’t gonna do you any good at all if you don’t have sense enough to stay in your car. See, we were stupid! We got out of our car. We didn’t use our heads and look what happened. We may have won the battle, but the early bird got the worm.”
You Millennials and Generation Z kids wonder why we in Generation X can be so tasteless and shocking in our humor and tastes? Try having your formulative years shaped by sketch comedy shows, National Lampoon’s, Gary Larson’s Far Side, and comedians like Sam Kinison, George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, and Richard Pryor, and see how many sacred cows emerge unscathed. I am sure that to the politically correct, my generation looks like it was raised by wolves.
I can’t find it online, but I recall another In Living Color sketch that depicted whites rioting after a jury acquitted the attackers of Reginald Denny. The sketch was funny because of the inherent absurdity: Wealthy, comfortable white people don’t burn down their own neighborhoods, no matter how angry they are about any particular event.
But every group feels anger at some point, even if they don’t express it in an easily visible way.
After the L.A. riots and the O. J. Simpson case, a few cultural observers argued that wealthy, comfortable white people “rioted” in a different way. The late history professor Roger Boesche wrote in the Los Angeles Times:
On a radio talk show shortly after the verdict in the O.J. Simpson case, a caller half-jokingly urged whites to riot. The talk show host and subsequent callers concluded that, of course, white people don’t riot. But in reality, if “to riot” means something like “to wreak havoc on others,” then white Americans have been rioting for some time. But when white people riot, they do it silently, almost invisibly, albeit painfully.
So how do white people riot? They riot by eliminating affirmative action so that jobs and education will be more readily available to whites; by voting to deny services like education and health care to illegal immigrants; by declaring English as the official language and attacking bilingual education; by leaving 38 million people in poverty — 30.6 percent of all African Americans and 30.7 percent of all Latinos.
White people riot by eliminating 50,000 children from Head Start; by cutting money allotted for summer jobs for inner-city youth; by slashing subsidies for the heating bills for the poor; by cutting homeless assistance by one-third; by cutting funds for low-income housing; by ignoring the 2 million children in California alone who go hungry at some time during any given year; by leaving the minimum wage at $4.25, which translates to supporting a family on $170 a week; by eliminating the earned-income tax credit and thereby raising taxes on the working poor; by decreasing taxes for the wealthy, especially by lowering taxes on capital gains; by allowing corporations to pay only 10 percent of all taxes compared to 33 percent of all taxes in the 1940s; by dumping 230 times more toxic waste near low-income and minority neighborhoods than near wealthy suburbs.
(I’m sure in 1995, some people thought, “Well, they’ll probably have all of these issues worked out in 25 years.”)
For the first few months of this year, the overwhelming majority of our political, social, cultural, and medical leaders — and seemingly every commercial featuring images of empty streets and a soft-piano soundtrack — reminded us, “we’re all in this together.” That wasn’t quite true; some people were much more vulnerable to the coronavirus than others. (As I joked on the pop-culture podcast, if celebrities are going to declare that this is a time of unity and shared experiences, they should at least try to make their spacious southern California estates behind them look a little less luxurious.) But just about everyone was at risk of catching the virus and perhaps facing a serious health issue because of it, and even if you weren’t in a high-risk category, you probably cared about someone who was.
“We’re all in this together” isn’t completely true, but it isn’t a complete lie, either. Our ability to live our lives depends upon the judgment and actions of others, and the pandemic illustrated that in surprising ways. Most Americans probably didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about meatpackers or the supply chain of potatoes until recently.
It’s hard to differentiate between cases when groups of Americans can’t hear each other and when we simply choose not to listen to each other. Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter Mike Sielski wrote a fascinating column about NFL veteran Benjamin Watson, who has been outspoken about the issue of police brutality for years and is the author of Under Our Skin: Getting Real about Race. Getting Free from the Fears and Frustrations that Divide Us.
[Cue many conservatives preparing to feel wariness, and many progressives preparing to nod in agreement.] Sielski writes:
Watson is an activist, all right, and his activism includes extensive work in the anti-abortion movement. He delivered a speech at the 2017 March for Life. He is producing and financing a documentary about abortion. He has taken a strong stand on a subject as fraught and explosive as any in this country, including the matters that have animated these recent protests.
[Cue many conservatives feeling a sudden burst of warm appreciation and kinship with Watson, and many progressives recoiling and worrying about Watson as some sort of dangerous misogynist religious extremist.]
Some Americans are so primed to pigeonhole each other, that learning one fact about someone is enough to define them entirely — even though every human being contains multitudes and contradictions.
We can’t resolve much of anything when we’re kept in a constant state of suspicion, fear, agitation, and anger. Maybe we shouldn’t have military bases named after Confederate generals. How many Americans even knew that Fort Benning, Fort Bragg, or Fort Hood were named after military leaders of the Confederacy? I’m sure if a new base was being built, few Americans would propose or support the honor of a base’s name going to someone who took up arms against the United States of America. (It’s not like American history lacks under-recognized heroes from the military and elsewhere.) But people are used to calling those bases Fort Benning, Fort Bragg, or Fort Hood, and many people are inherently resistant to changing anything they’ve always done. And many people are particularly resistant to someone else telling them they have to change something they’ve done their entire lives.
The discussion about renaming the bases is occurring at the same time as a lot of other arguments that are . . . well, pretty nonsensical: The children’s cartoon Paw Patrol is somehow an enabling force for police violence. Self-described anti-fascists defacing a statute of Winston Churchill.(“Wait until they learn about the guys he fought!”) The establishment of an “autonomous zone” in Seattle, complete with a demand for the abolition of police, retrials for all of those currently serving sentences, and “the abolition of imprisonment, generally speaking.”
It is difficult for an idea worth considering to stand out amongst the noise of nonsense; it’s like trying to find Waldo, or the one person wearing a face mask in President Trump’s entourage. (Hint: It’s Ivanka.)
There are probably quite a few Americans outraged by the sights of statues of Christopher Columbus or other figures from history being beheaded or pulled down, or the defacing of statutes of abolitionists in the name of racial equality. Whatever you think of Christopher Columbus or any other historical figure, we have a legal and democratic process to remove statues from public squares when a sufficient portion of the public deems them no longer acceptable. These communities have zoning boards and local elected officials who can make those choices and be held accountable to the public through elections. Nobody elected those angry mobs to a damn thing. This is rule by force, the strongest forcing their will upon those who are weaker than them. This will not end well for anyone.
There will be a backlash to these actions, but not in the form of the “white people’s riot” that In Living Color imagined. That backlash may come at the ballot box, or it may come in some other indirect form. Some people aren’t interested in direct confrontation in the streets. They may simply prefer to express their opposition in a way that these protesters expect it least — businesses moving out, reluctance to hire, reluctance to visit a neighborhood, effectively abandoning a community. Not every wall that is built is physical and visible. But one way or another, the reaction is coming.