Race and Response
Building the America of tomorrow
By Michael Copperman
A couple weeks ago a gray-haired man in plaid wove up to me at the bar where I was having drinks with a female friend. He had poorly groomed mutton-chops, dark wells under his gray eyes, and his breath reeked of old meat and cigarettes as he leaned close and started to speak in a low, gravely voice.
He told me I was Jackie Chan. He told me I did the karate, and he cut a couple demonstrative chops through the air. He told me he liked my fried rice and was sorry about the death of my cousin, Bruce Lee. He said I should not talk to the blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl beside me, that the races are best left to themselves.
He delivered these missives in monotone, fish eyes fixed on my face. I imagined his horror if he recognized I was a product of the miscegenation he warned against. I thought about telling him that for a living, I educate students of color. But I was also well aware that I live in a state where my parent’s marriage was illegal until 1967. I was aware that perhaps stirred by local Tea Party furor or Pacifica Forum foofaraw, he was likely looking for a fight. I looked into his dead eyes and smiled and nodded, searching for an adequate response.
During the 2009 elections, there were many racially charged incidents in Eugene — the beating of an elderly black man by two teenagers that left the man in critical condition, the spray-painted swastikas on highway overpasses, the broken windows of a black-owned business, the Jewish family’s house vandalized with anti-Semitic slurs. Those incidents seemed connected to the campaign and the way the white supremacist movement was angered by Mr. Obama’s background.
Though I’ve run in Eugene for years, in 2008 I was frequently harassed when I jogged, men throwing rocks and sodas at me from jacked-up trucks and hollering about how I should go back to Mexico (an unusual destination for a half-Jewish, half-Japanese fellow born and raised in this community). While racists worked themselves to a froth, the election showed there had already been a shift in American attitudes toward race: President Obama was possible only because a majority of Americans were willing to consider him on his merits — an invisible, generational shift, as children growing up in an MTV-internet age of hip-hop stars and sports heroes have emerged, if not enlightened, at least conditioned differently. I wrote an op-ed saying as much in Eugene’s Register-Guard.
I never anticipated the call waking me the next morning. The UO Department of Public Safety was investigating a message left for me there, and they thought I should hear it. I took a breath, still half asleep. A beep, static, then a drawled slurring: “Mr. Copperman, we heard what you said … look to yourself, the problem is you … it’s written about hate and the thing is, Michael, Michael, you better watch what you say.”
It was chilling. It’s one thing to evaluate the news from an exculpatory distance and another to become the news. We speak of sit-ins and rallies, and forget what it must have felt like to be there, knowing that desperate people depend on violent reprisal. When I spoke of the black man who was attacked, I didn’t consider him on the hospital bed, head swathed in bandages, or walking that cold, dark street, then sound of footsteps behind, the judgment of those first blows from the club, knocking him to the pavement, the steel-toed boots hammering down and him realizing, finally, that here was no mercy or reprieve.
I don’t know what it was like for that man, anymore than I know what it was like to sit in a Southern diner or the front of a bus and feel the eyes, the mounting rage. All I “suffered” was an incoherent phone call from a fellow who didn’t like the idea that most people in his community are better than hate and thuggery. And now, with the Pacifica Forum a local flashpoint and the Teabaggers making threats, calling elected representatives ni**** and f** and calling for armed revolution, it still doesn’t take much courage to say that America is better than its racist past, better than those who would savage the vulnerable in the cowardly dark.
Every spray-painted swastika, every shouted slur reminds us what we reject — and in turning from such ugliness, we create the America of tomorrow. Today we have health care reform, which has been a long time coming; soon, we will have educational reform, an end to these endless wars, an economy less afflicted. Change will come.
At the bar, I waited patiently for the man to finish, finally clapped him on the shoulder. “Your time is past,” I said. “Your world is gone. I pity you. Goodnight.”
I turned my back to him and resumed my conversation with my friend. I was tense, expectant of a strike, but nothing came. When I finally allowed myself to look he was gone, and the ensuing hours of the evening confirmed it: Racism persists, but there is no honor in unnecessary violence. I would have been in my rights to deck him, the reaction most of my white friends have when they hear this story. At last, racism to stand against, like in the movies! A chance to strike a blow for tolerance! They want a world that never existed at all. Angry, confused men are best left to find darker corners to nurse their hate. They cannot stand in the light.
Michael Copperman is a graduate of Stanford University and has a MFA in fiction from UO. He teaches writing to at-risk students of color at the UO. From 2002-04 he taught fourth grade in the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta, and he is currently seeking representation for his novel Gone, concerning that experience.