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Opinion

Opinion

Opinion: Cruel lesson likely first of many

February 24, 2013

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“The first kick I took was when I hit the ground.” Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.”

So now, Jonah has received a lesson in How Things Are. He is 19 months old.

Sitting on his mother’s lap on a recent Delta Airlines flight on approach to Atlanta, he was doing what babies tend to do on airplanes, particularly airplanes that are changing altitude. He was crying his little head off.

That’s when the man in the next seat allegedly told the mother to make the “nigger baby” shut up and slapped the baby with an open palm, leaving a scratch below his right eye. The man, 60-year-old Joe Rickey Hundley of Hayden, Idaho, denies this sequence of events and pleaded not guilty last week to a charge of simple assault. But at least one witness corroborates the story, as told by Jonah’s mother, 33-year-old Jessica Bennett. She and her husband are white. Their adopted son is African-American.

Hundley’s attorney, Marcia Shein, promises her client is no racist. In so doing, she embraces the cognitive dissonance that so often afflicts Americans when they are confronted with the ponderous idiocy of tribal hatred. Michael Richards, you will recall, said the same thing after a “comedy” routine in which he hurled the N-word at a heckler and suggested the man should be lynched. Mel Gibson swore he wasn’t an anti-Semite shortly after he cursed the Jews and accused them of starting all the world’s wars.

Shein also says she has received hate mail for defending Hundley. Which is troubling, but not unexpected. Shein’s client is among the more reviled men in the country just now. The aerospace company for which he was an executive has denounced and dumped him. The Internet rings with condemnation of him. Someone called him a monster. More than one person spoke of wringing Hundley’s neck had it been their child.

Small wonder. There is something visceral and immediate in what he is said to have done. Who hits a baby? Who looks at a baby and sees an object of loathing?

Still, all that notwithstanding, something about the response to this act of violence feels faintly facile and self-deluding. After all, Hundley’s alleged animus toward black people, if not his expression thereof, is as American as monster trucks, woven through the fabric of our law, economics, health care, education, news media and culture. We tend to forget that not every slap is physical — nor is every injury they inflict. There is violence and there is violence — emotional, verbal, intellectual, monetary.

We are rightfully outraged that someone would call a baby by a racial slur and then strike him.

But it is a matter of statistical fact that Jonah, from the moment he was born, stood an excellent chance of being struck in other ways. Of being failed by his school. Of being steered into the criminal injustice system as if prison was his natural habitat. Of being denied housing. Of being denied health care. Of being denied loans. Of being denied work. Of being denied his very individuality. There is also an excellent chance — indeed, a virtual certainty — most of us will respond to this with a collective shrug, assuming we see it at all; such things tend to become socio-cultural wallpaper when they are not happening to you.

It’s easier to get worked up about violence that is visceral and immediate, particularly when it is directed against a child. We will be a better country, though, when we are willing to expend some of that outrage upon the violence we commit against African-American children every day, systemic blows that are at once more subtle, more pervasive and more damaging.

Because the truth of How Things Are is that, over the course of his life, Jonah is likely to be struck many times in many different ways.

This was just the first.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CST each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.

Comments

50YearResident 1 year, 9 months ago

"But it is a matter of statistical fact that Jonah, from the moment he was born, stood an excellent chance of being struck in other ways. Of being failed by his school. Of being steered into the criminal injustice system as if prison was his natural habitat. Of being denied housing. Of being denied health care. Of being denied loans. Of being denied work. Of being denied his very individuality. There is also an excellent chance — indeed, a virtual certainty — most of us will respond to this with a collective shrug, assuming we see it at all; such things tend to become socio-cultural wallpaper when they are not happening to you".

Well Leonard, he could become the President of the United States. All he has to do is choose the right path. Black people today are reaching some very lofty positions in the World today, Doctors, Lawyers, Politicans and more, but first they need to get rid of the "poor me" role. There is no better time to be an Black American Citizen than now! Maybe it's time to drop the African prefix and just become an American..

tomatogrower 1 year, 9 months ago

And yet, they still have a hard time getting a taxi in the city. And yet, they are more often pulled over by police, followed in malls, and ignored in restaurants in certain parts of the city. This man is a racist and there are still plenty of them out there.

Abdu Omar 1 year, 9 months ago

I think the whole country needs to drop the African prefix and just be American. But we can't if we wanted to. Where would the Congresional Black Caucas get members? Where will the national Black organizations get funding and what cause would they have? We do need to get rid of all labels of "Black" "African" and call them Americans. But how can they really do that without losing the only label that makes them important? What would happen if we called the President just an American and not give him the important stature of being the first African American President? Is this his claim to fame? I hope not.

jayhawklawrence 1 year, 9 months ago

I couldn't hear the points Leonard was trying to make because the whining sound drowned him out.

Why do politicians and political writers have to try to exploit every single event?

Everybody agrees that this guy was an idiot.

End of story.

tomatogrower 1 year, 9 months ago

But he is a child abuser and a racist both. Quit trying to say there is no racism. Yes, he might have hit a white child too, but he probably wouldn't have shouted, Shut up that h-word baby. Or any other derogatory name for white people.

funkdog1 1 year, 9 months ago

None of you white dudes would last a day being black.

parrothead8 1 year, 9 months ago

Who would want to behave like what? Could you define with a little more specificity what you mean by "that"?

avarom 1 year, 9 months ago

Can't We All Just Get Along........If we had the ability to strip our skin off...who could tell what color anyone is and when we die.....we all turn the same color anyway......Dusty!!

mickeyrat 1 year, 9 months ago

To paraphrase so many of the above: "Fifty-three percent of us re-elected a (half) black President, therefore racism no longer exists, and should no longer be discussed." Yeah. It would be nice if it were true.

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