Friday, August 6, 2010

The Killings in Connecticut

I have been thinking a lot about the black man who killed eight people and himself at the company in Conn. In response there have been the usual expressions of bewilderment and incomprehension that someone would do such a thing. There have been expressions of innocence by the company as well as the denials of racism by the family and friends of the eight white people who were murdered. Both the company and the union said that Omar Thornton had not filed a complaint about racism with either of them. I think I understand why he did not file a complaint and why he killed eight people. And I will add that to understand his actions is not to approve of them, because I do not.

More than half a century ago, Ralph Ellison wrote a novel called Invisible Man in which he described the status of blacks in this country as being invisible to the white majority. I don't think blacks are invisible any longer, especially after Obama's election.

However being black still carries with it an element of unreality, meaning that when we leave our homes and go into the white world - schools, jobs, shopping, etc., it is very hard for us to know what is real. I envy white people because they do not have to ask what is real. Let me give an example of something that happens to blacks daily. We are in the check out line at a store, and the cashier is rude. If I were white I would think, "She's having a bad day." But because I am black, I do not know if she is having a bad day or if she doesn't like black people.

That may sound foolish, but it isn't foolish if you've stood in the checkout lane and heard the cashier say hello and how are you to the person in front of me, but when you stand before the cashier you are not greeted or asked about your day. Or the variation on that experience: to take advantage of discounts and sales at many stores, you must have a store card to get the savings. What am I to believe when the cashier asks the person in front of me if he has a card, but doesn't ask me. Now perhaps I'm supposed to assume that I heard the cashier ask the person in front of me for her card so there's no necessity to ask me for mine. But what having to live with racism does to you is that when you're in public you question yourself about the impersonal contacts with whites. Was that person being racist? Did I imagine he looked at me in a certain way?

Many white people think racism is limited to using the n---- word, or as Thornton claimed, drawing that word and a noose on a bathroom wall. But racism is far, far more subtle than that. I believe that Omar Thornton had experiences as I've described above, but he did not have the words to articulate the unreality he was feeling trapped in. The incidents that he considered racist were so small, so insignificant to the white person who offended him that he knew he would appear as hypersensitive if he said something to the person, as looking for racism where none existed or was intended if he filed a complaint. He probably felt he would be laughed at if he filed a grievance against someone who never smiled at him but did so whites, who had an edge in her voice when she spoke to him but not when she spoke to a white co-worker. There was no one at the company he could talk to who would truly understand. And what could be done anyway? Tell someone to smile when she saw him? Tell someone to speak as pleasantly to him as this person did to whites?

The essential element in human interactions is to feel in the hearts of others an echo of our own heart, its yearnings and aspirations, its sorrows and its pains. If such does not happen often enough, we lose touch with the reality of ourselves and thus, the reality of others. And then it seems logical and morally right to pick up a gun and kill some of those you feel are responsible for your unreality.

I think I understand Omar Thornton because I've had more than one day when I have wanted to do what he did. But I know how to use words. Omar Thornton only knew how to use a gun.

© Julius Lester 2010