I like Arlington, Texas. Always have. Arlington is like the middle daughter in the family where the two older siblings are scholarly, athletic and beautiful. No matter what the middle daughter achieves, she can't break free of the shadow cast by her other two sisters.
In late December, a black couple in North Arlington had the phrase, "Die Nig--er Die" spray painted onto the garage of their new house. The female owner was attacked by a neighbor with a 2x4. The injuries sent her to the hospital.
This story broke in the same week that a black man achieved the most impressive political victory in our Nation's history. A peculiar juxtaposition, one would think.
I thought about my experiences in Arlington. And lo, and behold, the last three times I've been a called a 'Nig--er' to my face was in Arlington, Texas. One of the occasions involved a personal assault near the intersection of Collins and Division; another was a reference made about my son during a high school basketball game.
I do not present my experiences as the norm. They represent my experiences alone.
Mississippi, probably, has the most troubled past--from a standpoint of racial terrorism-- of any State in the Nation. My father, a native of Mississippi, oft-said that if "Jesus returned to Earth and was in Mississippi, he'd wait for the third coming.'" But I like the Magnolia State-- and, ironically, what has been the biggest boon to improved race relations in Mississippi? Jobs. Stable, solid blue collar work that pays a livable wage. It's amazing how people are less inclined to want to lynch their neighbors when they've got a good job with health insurance.
Arlington is a city desperately looking for itself. It is a city...searching for an identity of what it can and should become. It is overshadowed by Dallas and Fort Worth…but, ironically, not in the same way that Irving is overshadowed. Irving is a bonafide U.S. border town-- it is neither Dallas, nor Fort Worth but a whole and distinct other entity separate from each. If one wants a front row seat to observe how our Nation is changing, spend time in Irving, Texas.
Arlington, however, is an enigma. It is home to a world-class university (UT-Arlington), critically acclaimed and zealously committed to higher education but completely eclipsed by the other UT-A (Austin), TCU (Fort Worth) and SMU (Dallas). It is home to a major league baseball team (Texas Rangers) and about to be the home for the Cowboys. But who, outside of a 100 mile radius know that Arlington is home to the Rangers.
The Cowboys will be good for the city financially, but won't help its image--for they are the 'Dallas' Cowboys.
Arlington has created its fortune, now it must create both its image and legacy. It's OK to be a small town when you really are a small town--but, when you're one of the 50 largest cities in the United States, you're in a different category. And it’s important to recognize this and act appropriately.
Jasper, Texas is immortalized by those who killed James Byrd, Jr. And, I'm sure there are many good people in Jasper--of all races-- who despised the killing. Yet, every resident of Jasper is tainted by, and linked to, the actions of their neighbors.
So back to the garage door incident.
The neighbors were angry because the homeowner --a Mr. Gamble-- refused to remove the "Die Nig-er Die” graffiti from the garage door. Some even suggested that if he failed to remove it, the Arlington authorities should cite him under a code violation regarding 'tagging.' Or, others complained because the building of the house has dragged on long past what they considered an appropriate length of time (Mr. Gamble's house is under construction), he bore some latent responsibility for what happened.
I found these responses insensitive and crude. But, my view of the world, as some readers of this blog will say, is slightly off-center. I asked four people what they thought --two blacks and two white. The blacks said, "I agree, he ought to leave it up." The whites said, "It's offensive, he needs to take it down. He's trying to make more out of this than it really is."
And I was back to where I started: still in a quandary! So, here is my take:
First, this isn't a hate crime. This incident, improperly labeled as such, sensitizes us to real hate crimes: (Emmit Louis Till, James Byrd, Jr., Matthew Shephard, et al). Yet, every black person over 40 who has lived in the South understands the following as part of our collective memory: The first step is a warning; the second step is burning and the third step normally involves a rope. This trifecta was an oft-repeated series of racial terrorism against persons of color in Texas and throughout the South.
So, I'm in a quandary. We want to look at Mr. Obama and say, "This is a different America in which we live." Then, we look at what happened in Arlington and the subsequent responses and think: "Hmmmm, maybe things aren't that different."
If someone tagged my garage door with, "Die Nig--er Die," I would move. There is power and peace in being part of a neighborhood and surrounded by folks who are, if not like-minded, are at least respectful. There is no way I'd ever fall asleep in a house --or move into a house-- that had been tagged with the above language. That logic is inexplicable. This isn't 1908 -- more options are available. I know this is America and one can live wherever they chose -- but just because one can 'afford' to do something doesn't mean they necessarily 'should' do it. I don't find it an act of 'courage and responsibility' to remain, nor do I find it an 'act of cowardice' to move. Some battles won are just Pyrrhic victories--and who needs that!
Former NBA great Bill Russell described how the vandals who'd broken into his house in a fashionable area of Boston turned back the covers of his bed and took a dump on the sheets. I don't know what his neighbors did or did not do, nor do I know how much longer he chose to live in that house, but I could feel the pain in his voice some forty years later.
Arlington, however, is not Boston. The legacy of Boston is such that no person will define Boston by what happened in Mr. Russell's bedroom. "Oh yeah, Boston. Damn Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics." "Oh yeah, Arlington. Isn't that the city where..." You know where I'm going.
The questions, I feel, are much larger: Are these actions an isolated and separate event perpetrated by someone requiring psychological help or do they represent an emerging flash-point of something else? We really don't know, do we? If Arlington isn't pragmatic, thoughtful and aggressive about this, the city may find itself defined by what happened to Mr. Gamble. And who wants that because Arlington really is a nice city.
One last point: When I was in Hong Kong, a shopkeeper told me this: 'for every one person who complains out loud, 84 people feel the same way and just boil inside." Those Hong Kong shopkeepers are usually right.