Monday, June 15, 2020

Literary Racism

As a reaction to the closure of libraries during the COVID-19 pandemic, I've been re-reading some of my extensive collection of classic detective stories, collected over most of my adult life.  Specifically, I've been re-reading Ellery Queen novels, which I've read off and on for most of my adult life.  In recent years I've been exploring new mystery writers at the local library, but that stopped with the shutdown, so I returned to what I had.

The Ellery Queen novels debuted in 1929 with The Roman Hat Mystery and continued into the early 1960s, after which the authors, Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, also allowed other writers to create Ellery Queen novels which didn't feature their detective, Ellery Queen, as a character.  Most of the novels and stories I've been reading were written in the 1930s.

Given the Black Lives Matter protests over the last few weeks, I'm unusually sensitive to racism.  I didn't think of Ellery Queen novels as racist, but I notice that while the Ellery Queen character almost never uses racial slurs, the New York City cops who feature in many stories do.  This includes the character Inspector Richard Queen, Ellery's father.  I especially noticed the use of the phrase "the shine" to refer to what a more educated person would probably have called "the Negro."  This was well before the use of phrases like black, African American, or people of color.  I also noticed that even when not using racist slang, descriptions of Negro characters, such as hotel maids, were condescending at best.

You can't go back and change history, or classic novels.  In fact I've seen much worse racism in "tough guy" detective novels by Raymond Chandler and  Mickey Spillane.  I think the explanation has to be that some people in the 1930s talked that way, and the authors put it in for realistic effects.  I still think the Ellery Queen novels are worth reading for the amazing logical puzzles they present.  I've always preferred puzzle mysteries to the shoot-em-up types.

Monday, June 01, 2020

And now we have to admit...

One week ago, a man named George Floyd died at the hands of four policemen in Minneapolis.  On camera. 

On the same day, May 25, 2020, in Central Park, New York City, Christian Cooper, a birder, asked a woman with an unleashed dog to leash her dog.  This was in an area clearly marked "dogs must be leashed."  The woman refused to comply and became abusive, so Mr. Cooper began recording the incident, during which the woman called the police and told them she was being "threatened" by an African-American man - who had done nothing worse than ask her to obey the park rules.

Christian Cooper and George Floyd were both African-American.  The policemen, and the woman with the dog, were white.  That's the point. 

These two incidents, on top of a series of other incidents in various states where black people were killed by police, have set off a firestorm of largely peaceful protests, unfortunately sometimes accompanied by violence and looting, in major cities all over the country.  For the last 6 nights.  My county (Alameda) in California was put under curfew last night because of disturbances all over the county, including such largely white towns as Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill.  In my entire life I've never been aware of so many large public protests, in so many different places all over the country, all at once.

I attended public school, and a public university, in the United States (California, specifically).  Apart from being told about slavery in the South and about the civil war generally, I don't recall any emphasis on the fact that the U.S. is a racist society.  I came out of my schooling believing the legends of a free, democratic society, where everyone had a chance to succeed.  This despite the fact that I got into a major fight with my father when I was in high school, because I signed an Open Housing petition circulated by the local Methodist minister.  My father was from southern Missouri, but had never really talked about his attitude toward African-Americans.  But we had the Open Housing petition because Napa, CA in the 1950s was "redlined."  Black people couldn't buy there.  I'll never know, because Dad is gone; but I've recently wondered if that was why we moved from Vallejo (very racially mixed) to Napa in 1950, when I was 4. 

I've always been a student of history, and the more I've learned about American history in the years since I left university, the clearer it is that the basic assumption of our social arrangements is that people of color are inferior to white people.  Even, occasionally, when they are well educated and well-to-do.  And this is still so.

I think we all have to admit now that the society we live in is racist, and values or devalues its members based on the color of their skin.  It saddens me; I thought we were better than that.  I was wrong.  I don't think I'll detail here all the reasons this is so; as an aging white woman, I have no direct experience of them, and there are memes all over social media which include them in excruciating detail.  They start with inferior education and go on to low paying job opportunities, lack of access to health care, and housing options in food deserts, but the real issue is the treatment of people of color by the police.

I don't know what we do to fix this.  But it's becoming clear that we have to do something, probably starting with major changes in policing attitudes and approaches.

It's also becoming clear that white people are realizing we must do something.  The policeman who knelt on George Floyd's neck has been fired, and arrested for 3rd degree murder (whatever that is).  The woman in the park has lost her job (she was fired when the story went viral) and the dog (the rescue operation where she got it took it back). 

There were times when nothing would have happened to either white person; in fact the policeman had a record of 18 complaints, none of which had ever led even to a reprimand.

Ironically, I think we owe the last week of demonstrations to social media.  If those incidents hadn't been recorded, and shared widely on social media, it's possible that nothing would have happened, again. But they were, and there were consequences.  We've complained a lot about social media the last few years.  But in this case it may be the driving force pushing us to look at our racisim - and fix it.  So we don't have to look at any more terrible videos.