Bahai News -- Portsmouth Herald - America still very much ‘Condition White’

America still very much ‘Condition White’

By John F.J. Sullivan
Talking to Strangers Archive

It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Hope you have the day off from work or school and can tuck into the profuse roster of activities scheduled across the Seacoast area. Oh, you’re not going to any of them, either?

By now, countless volumes of newsprint, broadcast airwaves and public space have been spent on discussing the significance of the man who bears the de facto, newspaper-generated cognomen "slain civil rights leader."

Probably no one needs another history lesson, African-drumming workshop or art exhibit to underscore the lunacy of hating others because of the color of their skin. However, what’s that axiom about those who don’t learn the lessons of history? Recent events across the country, even in northern New England, illustrate that even the most well-meaning, presumably colorblind citizens have grown complacent about the state of race relations and civil rights in this country.

Despite the hand-wringing and political correctness, America is very much in a state of "Condition White" when it comes to these matters.

For those not familiar with the phrase, Condition White is among the color codes used by defensive-tactics experts to describe levels of combat preparedness. Condition White is when you are oblivious to anything going on around you. In this state of mind, one is obviously most vulnerable to attack or other danger.

America is in Condition White vis-à-vis race relations and civil rights. Disagree? Ask your kids.

Jessica Dangelmaier, an articulate Exeter High School senior, appeared before the local school board to alert its members to the growing dissatisfaction of the student body over her school’s failure to provide any Martin Luther King Jr. Day-specific content on the holiday, when the kids are expected to be in school. There, administrators are apparently "leaving it up to the classrooms" to observe the day in their own way, rather than scheduling any schoolwide assembly or other events.

"It’s rude and disrespectful," says Dangelmaier, of the administration’s willingness to essentially blow off the holiday and what it represents. Her peer outreach group, she explains, has been trying to work with school administrators since September to organize some bona fide civil rights-related activities for the holiday. The students have gotten nowhere, as administrators found excuses to dodge all but one of the meetings designed to address the topic.

"We actually do care," she says, adding that her message to administrators was, "‘You think you can get off at a school board meeting by saying, "We’re observing it"?’ The fact that they aren’t doing anything this year is unacceptable and really upsetting to students."

Last year wasn’t much better, she points out, when the school’s only Martin Luther King Jr. Day activity was bringing in an African drummer. Oh, many of the kids watched a tape of "Roots," a television miniseries about America’s heritage of slavery.

Needless to say, neither program is remotely connected to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, with which the Rev. King has become synonymous.

And as shown in a recent protest by white supremacists over Somali immigration in Lewiston, Maine, northern New England still hasn’t emerged from the shadows of race-based hatred.

"I don’t see how anyone could have the audacity to think we’re further along than we are," Dangelmaier says. "That could have been Exeter; Lewiston is not that far away. What if that happened in Exeter? What would the administration think?

"The Ku Klux Klan is very much a part of our history." Dangelmaier points out that the KKK, in fact, has found its way to Exeter, too, in recent years. "The fact that they’re still here, and we’re not doing anything about civil rights (in school), is unacceptable."

Still, even when something is done, and administrators and others are paying attention, they often miss the mark.

Portsmouth schools Superintendent Lyonel Tracy, the scheduled keynote speaker at today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Coalition Breakfast at Yoken’s, was quoted in Saturday’s issue of this paper referring to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" as a "total distortion of black history and how black Americans really lived."

Like those clamoring to remove Mark Twain’s "Huckleberry Finn" from the classroom because of the character name Nigger Jim - which, by the way, isn’t really the character’s name at all, but is a popular misconception prompted by Twain biographer Albert Bigelow Paine - the school superintendent appears to have missed the 1852 Stowe novel’s anti-slavery message.

And how many of the feel-good, multicultural Diversity Day" events rely on urbane, highly educated and mostly affluent speakers and facilitators? It may be one thing to find common ground on the lush expanse of the Green Acre Baha’i school in whiter-than-white Eliot, Maine, but does that truly reflect the sentiment of the streets?

Just up the road, York High School student activist Abe Henderson-Brown doesn’t think so. "Economic class fuels the negative stereotypes," says Henderson-Brown, a sophomore who in recent days has been handing out anti-war material to his peers and others. He explains that in ethnically and culturally diverse places that have been hit especially hard by hard times - like Springfield, Mass. - a criminal’s bad behavior often gets applied to the criminal’s race.

"Poverty breeds crime, and people become less tolerant because they associate that race with crime," he says. Closer to home, he says he’s not seeing any racial tension, though.

"Most kids in York are pretty tolerant, but it doesn’t really matter," he says, explaining that his peers’ tolerance of other races is rarely put to the test since he’s part of a predominantly white student body.

Nevertheless, like Dangelmaier, Henderson-Brown sees his society as committing, minimally, a sin of omission when it comes to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, though he at least has the day off from school.

"It seems like holidays are either commercialized or forgotten," he says, joking. "Wait until you see the cards, and everything."

Truly, if the images of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have been co-opted for use as Presidents Day automobile pitchmen, what’s to prevent the same fate from befalling the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.?

How far is society from its first MLK Day home-entertainment merchandise blowout, advertised with the ad slogan, "I have a dream - a dream of lower prices"?!

John F.J. Sullivan is a free-lance writer and copy editor for the Portsmouth Herald.

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