Does America more resemble Heather Heyer or the man who murdered her, James Alex Fields, Jr.? Is the hatred and violence that darkens his heart eclipse everyday acceptance of racial and ethnic differences throughout the nation? If my post-Charlottesville experiences in the diverse, polyglot city of Los Angeles is any indication, racial tolerance is far more pervasive.
Now, few people would put LA forward as a microcosm of America, we of the Left Coast, much mocked as La La Land. But the easy, reflexive racial tolerance I witnessed in the past week would sicken the neo-Nazis and white nationalists of Charlottesville. Such casual ease among every shade of Angeleno is so commonplace that without the dark mirror of Charlottesville, we wouldn’t have even noticed it.
And LA is far from an outlier.
Yes, our species evolved to differentiate members of different clans as ingroup or not. Indeed, our tribal minds can’t help noticing racial differences.
My brain couldn’t avoid registering that the kind and extremely helpful local exploring the dry bed of the Rio Hondo at on our Sunday hike was Latino.
And Richard couldn’t help noticing that Keith and I weren’t Latinos. He spoke English with us but yelled out a greeting in Spanish to the Latino in a cowboy hat riding his horse among the concrete pillars under the summer-dry bridge.
My stranger-identifying brain also tagged the horse rider’s likely ethnic origin too.
While we couldn’t stop ourselves from recognizing external ethnic characteristics, the difference from the reaction of racists lay in our actions and interactions.
Richard said a friendly hi as we passed. After we returned his greeting, Richard noted that the area in which were were walking was filled with water only a couple of months before.
We chatted a bit before parting ways. But as we resignedly started out on a what turned out to be a far less interesting rehab hike than we thought it would be, we crossed paths with Richard yet again. He began telling us about some other nice local spots he loves to visit with his kids, sharing with us some of the pictures on his smartphone.
On a whim, we decided to drive to one of them. Richard was right, it was better.
This wasn’t a remarkable display of racial tolerance by any stretch of the imagination. It was the sort of genial interaction that happens every day in diverse communities. But for people like James Alex Fields, Jr., racial and ethnic differences are something to fear and hate. Racial tolerance itself is something to loath.
I’m not claiming there’s no racism in LA, of course. Yet in my experience the default mode in most interpersonal relations is friendliness and racial tolerance.
That’s modernity…and the very thing that drives racial separatists up their Confederate flagpoles.
The Ho-Hum, Everyday Face of Racial Tolerance
Another experience of racial tolerance was again completely unremarkable. But I had a lot of time to contemplate it as Keith and I watched the solar eclipse gradually unfold amidst people of every shade and ethnicity. In this hilly park, we were gathered together in an impromptu moment of common humanity.
While the moon edged over the face of the sun — in LA we “only” saw a partial eclipse — Keith and I slathered on the sunscreen. An African-American woman sat nearby on a beach towel, wearing her natural sunscreen — the very adaptation that drives ignorant racists to hate people of color. While evolution shielded the woman’s skin from the damaging rays of the still-bright sun, it did nothing to protect her from the ants slowly eating her alive.
She asked us if she could sit at the picnic table where our post-eclipse picnic awaited.
Of course! But Keith offered her something even more inviting. He walked back to our car to fetch a spare beach chair. We didn’t notice the couple sitting on the grass didn’t have eclipse glasses, but the woman walked over and offered them a couple of her spares.
We never got her name, but sometime after the peak of the eclipse, she thanked us for the use of our chair and left. Soon, a man of unknown ethnicity — perhaps of Armenian heritage — walked up and asked if we had any extra eclipse glasses.
Help yourself, we said, offering it to his girlfriend if she managed to get to the park in time. He never returned. But as the eclipse waned — with “only” a corner of the sun still obscured — an interracial walked by us as the woman commented that we had the special eclipse glasses.
Would you like to borrow our spares? I asked.
This couple would’ve inflamed the hatred of the Unite the Right hordes, their minds still mired in the pre-Loving-decision South. But the future lies with the interracial and multiracial.
Get used it.
The next day, as I hobble with my cam walker boot through the sprawling Kaiser Permanente hospital campus, people across the potpourri of LA ethnicities went out of their way to help me. I, in turn, held an elevator door with my cane (dusted off because the cam boot puts me off balance).
Later, I pass an elderly white woman chatting with an African-American her age. “Your bag’s about to blow away again!” she warns.
And there’s nothing remarkable about any of this.
As I ride an elevator, I try to imagine Richard Spencer sharing the space with the gray-haired interracial couple beside me. What did they go through in their younger days? Spencer would no doubt like to turn back the clock for them.
Spring back for Hitler and Germany.
Am I describing a racial paradise? Hardly. Hatred lies in the heart of even the most seemingly tolerant. But over the decades something has invisibly shifted under the noses of white nationalists and antifa alike.
You probably experience these moments every day without taking notice.
Yet even the haters know that their days are numbered. They fight all the harder because they realize the Heather Heyers are winning. A week after Charlottesville, peaceful counter-demonstrators (included Laughing in Disbelief‘s Andrew Hall) vastly outnumbered white nationalists attending the so-called “Free speech rally” in Boston, forcing them to disband early.
Charlottesville — and the martyrdom of Heather Heyer — may have seemed like a return to the bleak days of widespread racial conflict. But like the Great American Eclipse, the light of racial tolerance has proven to be far stronger than the retreating darkness of hate.
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