By Bob Campbell
A typical evening, Max began hounding me for his daily walk around the block. The golden hour for him seems to fall around seven o’clock. That’s when he’s most persistent, following me from room to room or sitting at my feet primed while staring at me with those adorable ebony eyes, which have become somewhat clouded by cataracts as he nears 15. His hearing isn’t as sharp as it used to be either. Or maybe he’s just gotten more stubborn in his golden years.
Upon confirmation that our walk would begin soon, Max was instantly renewed, going from an elderly dog to an anxious puppy. Once out the door, the leash quickly became taut, with Max dragging me like he was training for the Iditarod. Who knows what goes through the mind of a dog? Maybe he recognizes that our 10-15-minute daily walks is good exercise for me, too, even on those days when I don’t want to do it.
Our walk on May 31, a Sunday, took quite a bit longer than usual. The route was the same but it was an altogether different experience. We were in the home stretch, having made it by the corner house without incident since the resident golden retriever and black German shepherd were apparently locked away inside, sparing me their running debate where Max reminds them that while he may be only a 17-pound cairn terrier, he’s still the “big dog” on the block.
It was about that time when a pickup truck eased up beside me. I recognized the driver instantly as my neighbor Scott (not his real name) whose house we were fast approaching. Perhaps similar to the way Max jaws back-and-forth with the retriever and shepherd, Scott and I often trade playful insults and verbal jabs about which college team in Michigan best represent the hopes and dreams for a football national championship someday.
Scott had just returned from the golf course where it had been a frustrating outing for him, I gathered as he spoke from the driver’s seat. We continued conversing after he pulled into the driveway and exited the vehicle. He stooped down to draw a disinterested Max near to pet him, even called him by name. I assured Scott that Max’s lack of response wasn’t personal; his hearing is fading. But Max finally decided to approach Scott’s outstretched hand.
As we continued to talk golf, I explained how I essentially gave it up more than 10 years ago, fed up with the cost, the number of lost balls and the time it took to play a round – all points that Scott and I seemed to agree upon. But the biggest reason had to do with my son. By then, he was playing travel baseball and basketball, and getting him to-and-from games and supporting his participation was far more important. It didn’t leave much time for trips to the range to work on my swing or hours on the course.
Scott’s words and expression then became earnest. He asked for my opinion about the protests and civil unrest spreading from city to city following the George Floyd’s homicide by Minneapolis police. Scott explained quickly that he felt the officers responsible should be arrested and prosecuted and supported peaceful demonstrations. But he was troubled by destruction arising out of some of the protests. Indeed, it seemed that that was what he was most interested in probing with me.
“Why would they destroy their own community?” Scott asked, as if I might have some special insight into the stages of civil unrest.
I pointed out that the vast majority of protesters were peaceful. And where things took a negative, destructive turn, it’s clear that a good portion was caused by people from outside the community who were intent on fomenting chaos, such as the white man in Minneapolis dressed in all-black, including a black hoodie, wearing a gas mask and carrying an open on umbrella on a rainless day (to further shield his identity presumably) who used a hammer to methodically smash windows at the neighborhood auto parts store. When confronted by peaceful protesters, who ordered him to stop and demanded to know his identity, the man fled quickly. These provocateurs and, in some cases, accelerators (a term with currency among white supremacists) weren’t seeking some kind of redress for racial injustice on full display in the killings of George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. Their goal is to inflame and destabilize the situation.
For reasons I can’t quite fathom, Scott proceeded to steer the conversation into the realm of politics. He seemed incredulous to learn that not only do I support Joe Biden but I find Donald Trump distasteful in multiple ways and a genuine threat to our Republic. He briefly questioned Biden’s mental capacity before abandoning that as a reason for his continued support for Trump. Moreover, his defense of the current president consisted of the usual refrain:
Yeah, he’s a moron, but …
Yeah, I don’t agree with some of the things he says, but …
Yeah, I wish he wouldn’t tweet, but …
And, no, he added (another common defense by his supporters), you can’t blame Trump for the devastating impact of COVID-19 in the U.S. and the ensuing economic destruction, even though he called the spreading virus a “hoax” at one point after he had already dismantled the public health council established by his predecessor to provide an early-warning mechanism for the spread of infectious diseases.
Of course, Scott’s positions were diametrically opposite of mine, though his remarks were punctuated periodically with assurances that our relationship was still solid (“Right?”). When I asserted that Trump is indeed racist and offered several examples in defense of my position, including how the president twisted Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest against police misconduct to sow racial division, he was astonished. (“Nooo. Really?”)
I sensed then that perhaps a different image was beginning to form in his mind’s eye along with a deeply personal question: If what he said is true, then what does that make me? But that’s not what came out. Instead, he said, “I don’t see color. Do you see color?”
[Quick tip: Never say “I don’t see color” to a black person. Ever.]
“Yes. I do see color,” I replied. “And so do a lot of other people. And you must see it, too, to understand how a situation like Floyd or Arbery could happen.”
There’s a critical point, I added, with too many white people when our sons transition from being cute little black boys to young black males to be feared, controlled and minimized. It’s usually happens overnight right around middle-school age. From there, it’s a fairly short distance to your son (or you) becoming the next Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Arbery, Floyd or Christian Cooper. I shared with him an experience from several years earlier when my then-15-year-old son and I were approached aggressively and questioned by a white man in an adjacent subdivision under construction. A near-perfect course to practice the rules of the road, I had taken my son there to hone his driving skills on the largely empty streets lined with mostly vacate lots. The white man, who felt he was empowered to know what business we had there, had no more claim to that public space than we did, a point made all the more egregious since he didn’t live there either. Scott winced.
As our conversation entered its closing moments, Scott said, “I just want to be able to relax and enjoy my home. And be left alone.”
“Scott, man, we want the same things. And we want to be left alone too.”
With Max tugging me home at last, his pace considerably slower now than when we began our little journey, I felt there was something oddly familiar, and wanting, about Scott’s disposition during our conversation that had just ended. The silent dissonance around his support for Trump, despite all his faults, failures and divisiveness, and the continuing racial discord laid bare by Floyd’s homicide was palpable. Upon further reflection, it reminded me of the final scene of “Saving Private Ryan,” where you see an old James Ryan standing at the gravesite of Capt. John Miller at the Normandy American Cemetery in France. Miller, along with most of his squad, had sacrifice their lives to bring home Ryan, the last surviving son after his three older brothers had all been killed in World War Two.
The elderly veteran turns to his wife and says: “Tell me I have led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.”
In a roundabout way, Scott seemed to be asking me to allay any doubts or questions he may have about himself on matters of racial equity. I don’t see color. … Tell me I’m a good man. Perhaps that’s why Trump’s support among white men, especially among those without a college degree, is etched in stone. Trump’s message to them is simple. “You don’t have to ‘earn this … (to) earn it’,” as a dying Capt. Miller told Pvt. Ryan in June 1944, especially when it comes to matters of policing, race and social order. It’s been taken care of by way of inheritance, not unlike the way Trump inherited his wealth. In Trump’s world, “earning it” is for losers, like being unable to dodge the draft or being captured on the battlefield; the real test of white American manhood today is being able to “keep it.”
Speaking to the Suffolk County Police Department in July 2017, Trump made his position clear:
When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just seen them thrown in, rough. I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’ … I have to tell you, you know, the laws are so horrendously stacked against us, because for years and years, they’ve been made to protect the criminal. Totally made to protect the criminal. Not the officers. You do something wrong, you’re in more jeopardy than they are.”
As for the black professional athletes who used their platforms to peacefully draw attention to a deeply troubling situation of police misconduct, Trump twisted it into an opportunity to sow division, claiming “That’s a total disrespect of our heritage. That’s a total disrespect of everything that we stand for.”
The hypocrisy of Trump accusing anyone of disrespecting “everything that we stand for” is almost too much to bear but here we are.
I believe the American experiment is in grave danger of failing. To its prevent collapse, we must “earn it” anew. To do so, my white brothers – and white sisters, too (53 percent for Trump in 2016?!) – must be willing to relinquish something for our common cause.
For some, maybe they feel their “courage” to broach the topic of racial equity and justice with a black person – one with whom they have developed some trust or who is merely a captive audience – shows that they have relinquished the safety of silence. But relinquishing the safety of silence must be genuine and not done simply to convince yourself of your own “colorblindness” or to be told you’re “a good man” or “a good woman.”
I think that 100 percent of voters – those who truly believe in the American experiment, colorblindness and all – should reject Trump and Trumpism. It was one of my final comments to Scott before we parted ways. But I realize the futility of such thinking, as Scott essentially confirmed in real-time by disagreeing with me one last time. Yes, it’s a question that each person must confront individually. However, as a collective, “we the people” must address the matter in the most direct and accessible way available. We must turn against this living symbol of discord and division. Trump must be defeated.
Max was pretty much exhausted by the time we made it back to our house. He’s beyond the day when we would do two blocks instead one. He paused at the base of the garage steps before revving up his energy once more to climb inside the house where there was a treat waiting for him.
I watched Max gobbled up his doggie treat, oblivious to my gentle strokes of his fur. I thought again how an evening walk around the block just wouldn’t be the same without him. Maybe it wouldn’t happen at all.
Photo by Joan Villalon on Unsplash