Friday, November 2, 2012

1978 Roaring Back at Me

In 1978, my parents moved us into the house they still occupy on a relatively rural street in southern Rhode Island. I was five years old.

Shortly after our move, my parents attended some cocktail party where they met one of their new neighbors for the first time. The man, now deceased, was probably twenty years their senior and had grown up on the same plot of land he then occupied. He marched up to my father and said, "We don't want your kind on this street." ("Our kind," in his view, meant Italians.)

I heard the remark repeated because I was eavesdropping on my mom the next day. I knew something was up, because noise carried in our new house and I'd heard my parents come home, Dad in a major huff.

I remember vividly, that while I didn't totally understand the thrust of the comment, I grasped that this man didn't like us because we were different from him. My five-year-old brain also decided I shouldn't ask my parents about what I'd overheard. Clearly there was something shameful going on, something not meant for my kindergarten age ears.

And clearly, our grouchy neighbor was just going to have to deal, since we had no plans to move again, or change our ethnicity. I shrugged it off as "grown up stuff."

Nine years later, the old comment reared its ugly head when the man's brother, a class act nothing like his boorish sibling next door, flagged me down as I was traversing his largish farm on my pony, and sincerely apologized for "any unpleasantness my brother may have ever caused you or your folks."

I stampeded home and asked about that long ago party. Family legend now states that Dad told the guy to do something biologically impossible to himself. The guy then tried to regroup by telling my mom, who comes from Finland, that she was a "desirable immigrant."

I didn't know the word "bigot" in 1978, but I understood its gist: a bigot is anyone who discriminates against someone else based on a characteristic that person cannot control. Race. Ethnicity. Sex. Sexual orientation. Health/Disability.

I hadn't thought about the "your kind" comment for years, but the election season drew it back from the recesses of my memory. Why? Because it dawned on me, perhaps a month ago, that this election is about civil rights.  And a vote for the GOP ticket, however qualified with excuses about taxes or regulatory policy, is a vote for bigotry.

Most overtly against women and against gay citizens.

But also against racial minorities.

I'm lucky. In four decades, that's the only time I've been told to go away, that I don't belong somewhere, because of my ethnic background. Discrimination against Italians is not rampant in our society. Sadly, I cannot say the same for:

Women: Mitt Romney has yet to take a position on the Lilly Ledbetter Act: crucial legislation that guarantees equal pay for women in the workforce. In yesterday's endorsement of President Obama, Mike Bloomberg cited climate change, but also referred to "the kind of world I'd like to leave for my daughters." Anyone's daughter should have the same opportunities in America as my son. Period.

Romney is on the record saying he'd "get rid of" Planned Parenthood, which provides health services and family planning assistance to millions of women and families. He's promised to nominate justices in the mold of arch-conservative Antonin Scalia, a move that would imperil Roe v. Wade.  He's said he'd be "delighted" to sign legislation outlawing all abortions, and that he'd "absolutely" support a federal personhood statute, such as the failed attempt championed by his running mate, which would have banned abortions, IVF, and many forms of contraception. He may not come out and say he's against contraception, but his on-the-record remarks leave no doubt the Mitt has no issue with efforts to limit access to contraceptives.

"He wants to take women back to 1950's nun school," my friend M., a veteran of such an institution, said last week. "Back then, girls were told we were only fit for three careers: nursing, teaching or secretarial work. We were told we would leave work when we got married, because we'd be busy with babies."

Contraception is an economic issue. Every woman and every employer knows that if a woman cannot control her fertility, she cannot compete on equal footing with men in the workforce. Period.

And then there's rape. I cannot believe it's 2012 and we're discussing rape in national politics, but consider this: the ONLY candidate for Senate for whom the GOP nominee made a video endorsement is Richard Mourdock. Yup, Mourdock. The rapist's baby "is a gift from God" guy. This isn't the Moderate Mitt of so many swing voters' fantasies. This is Hard Right into Crazy Town Mitt. And frankly, if Mitt is going to run around saying he personally supports abortion access for rape victims, regardless of what his party thinks, I'd like to know how that exemption would work, in administrative terms.

Gay people: Romney's official website says the candidate supports a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Let's put aside the fact that constitutional amendments are very, very, very expensive. And the fact that it's hard to imagine anything less American than an amendment codifying bigotry.

I could keep going, but fellow author Kergan Edwards-Stout said everything that needed to be said (better than I could) in his bold and brilliant piece "Please De-Friend Me." Read it and share it.

Racial minorities: Anyone who thinks we live in a post-racial society, please Google racist attacks on the president and get back to me. Caution: not for the faint of heart. Romney is smart enough not to talk about race, but that hasn't stopped some of his surrogates from stooping into the gutter.

I ran into a woman my mom's age at the gym. She was wearing a Romney/Ryan T-shirt. I guess I did an inadvertent double take, as I've never seen one of those in real life before.

In response to my puzzled pause, she grinned like a criminally insane individual. So I went there.

Me, big smile, voice as neutral as possible: "Why do you like Romney?"

Her, without missing a beat: "Oh, I don't really like Romney, but anyone is better than Obama."

Me: "Why's that?"

Her: "I just don't like him."

Me, ignoring inner voice that is screaming, walk away: "What don't you like about him?"

Her, with less certainty: "I just don't like him. He doesn't look presidential."

Me: "I'm going to suggest that you consider the possibility that you might be a racist."

Her: Mouth opens, nothing comes out, mouth clamps shut.

Did I change her mind? Of course not. But in my mind, if you wear a campaign shirt, the public can reasonably conclude you have enthusiasm for your candidate. Maybe if you're going to wear the shirt, you could think of one thing you like about your guy.

It shouldn't be hard. I'll demonstrate. Here are some things I really like about President Obama:

President Obama believes in equal opportunity for all Americans. He will protect my right to choose, and my right to earn as much as a man. He'll appoint progressive judges who share my world view. He believes in marriage equality. He believes health care is a civil right (more on this later in the weekend), and that the Grape and I should not be denied coverage because we have pre-existing conditions.  He believes that folks like Mitt Romney (who happens to be in the top one percent of the top one percent) should pay more taxes than folks who work for a living. He believes FEMA plays a critical role in disaster relief and that climate change is real. He believes we need sensible regulation to protect us from Charlatans like the men who ran Enron, or  from fraudsters like Bernie Madoff, or from other shysters who smirk at us and say, "You people don't need the details. Just trust me."

I could keep going, but I think I've made my point regarding the wearing of campaign clothing. Which is why I'll feel confident about wearing it when I volunteer for Obama for America on Election Day.

And I'll be thinking of how far we've come since the reality of bigotry first crossed my radar in 1978, and how far we still have to go.

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