Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Peculiar Blindness, Part 4: Casual Contempt

Opelousas, Louisiana. May 2015.

"You never know when it's going to come up and slap you in the face,"  said one of my Louisiana acquaintances, an African-American man. "You've always got to be ready."

The "it" is an act, a gesture, a throw-away comment that shocks - not because of its size or its volume or because of physical harm, but because it is so casual in its delivery, and so careless about its effect. It feels very personal, like someone stepping into your intimate body space to slap you smartly across the face, without warning, stinging your skin, raising a flush of emotions to the surface.

Contempt: The feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn.

In this post, I share some experiences told to me by several Louisiana acquaintances of color. I've rolled the stories into a composite of a man I'll call "Lem."

What they have in common is a casual and knowing jab by one human being to another. They are not acts of misunderstanding or naiveté. They are intentional and cavalierly cruel.

The cafe

While working out of town one day, but still in Louisiana, Lem went to a cafe for lunch. And, listen, we're not talking about back in the day here; we're talking contemporary times. So anyway, Lem went into a cafe for lunch and ordered his meal. The server brought it. As Lem ate, his eyes wandered over the room, just looking around as one does when eating alone. And he stopped chewing suddenly because he saw. He saw that everyone in the restaurant ate off dinnerware and metal flatware, and drank from glasses. His meal had been served to him on a styrofoam plate, with plastic utensils and a paper cup. He was the only diner eating off of styrofoam and he was the only diner of color.

Too good

A few years back, Lem had an opportunity to buy some used work vehicles at a very good price. They needed mechanical and cosmetic work, and he fixed them up fine. They looked damn pretty when he finished, and Lem was pleased with his investment. He put them to work in his business.

And then he ran into an old, racist line of thinking that kicks in when a person of color possesses something that is "too good."

In Lem's case, while he performed a task in one office, he overhead a conversation of the organization's staff, all white, in an adjacent office. Which went something like this: "You see that vehicle of Lem's out there? If he's doing so good, he obviously doesn't need any work from us in the future."

The school bus driver

Now, this story does go back a bit to, say, 50 years and longer. At least in one parish, African-American children had to walk to school while their white neighbors took the school bus. Lem told me that his parents instructed him to take care that he didn't get his school clothes dirty while walking, by sticking as far over to the right shoulder of the road as possible. Especially on rainy days.

I heard this same experience from several acquaintances.

In fact, their parents' concern wasn't so much about protecting school clothes as it was to protect their children from white students who liked to throw stones at them from the school bus windows when it drove by.

And to protect their children from a school bus driver who, especially on rainy days, scooched over to the right edge of the road for the pleasure of splashing muddy water onto the walking children with his big school bus tires.

The mules

Lem shared a country saying with me: "Don't mind the mules, just load the wagon."

For a number of years, perhaps in the late 80s, Lem worked for a well-known, multi-national company. He often worked outdoors.

One day, a trench needed to be dug. The supervisor ordered the black employees, including Lem, to start digging same. It was a smothering hot day. The supervisor was a guy who liked to throw his weight around. Even so, this task wouldn't be particularly noteworthy in regard to my post today. Except that a white co-worker rolled up to the edge of the deepening trench in a backhoe.

He said to the supervisor: "It is too hot and too slow to have these men dig this hole by hand. It's also unnecessary. I can dig that trench right quick for you with the backhoe."

The supervisor replied, in effect:  "Don't you worry about the mules."

And while Lem and his co-workers continued to slug dirt in the heavy heat, the backhoe stood idle.

Note: This same company later got caught up in a scandalous racial discrimination lawsuit and subsequently settled out of court, agreeing to pay $172 million to the plaintiffs.

The wait

Lem is a business owner who submits competitive bids for work to companies and government agencies.

To write bids that are competitive, business owners must, of course, know what their supplies and equipment will cost them, so this information can be factored into the bids. In an area with a relatively small population such as South Louisiana, there are only a few suppliers who serve the needs of certain project types.

Lem informed a local supplier of the items he'd need for the project he hoped to win; the supplier would give him an estimate of the supply costs so Lem could complete his proposal and submit his bid by the deadline.

Time passed while Lem waited for the estimate and the bid deadline approached. Days, then weeks. Always there was some reason the supplier didn't have the estimate ready for Lem.

Finally, with the deadline almost nigh, Lem went to the supplier. The supplier's employee gave over the estimate. His honor, engaged at last, compelled the employee to tell Lem that his boss had instructed him to withhold the estimate from Lem until it was too late for Lem to submit a bid. But the employee couldn't bring himself to go quite that far.


In Purple Cane Road, Detective Dave Robicheaux relates a story of casual contempt from the 1960s:

The next morning I read the coroner's report ... It was signed by a retired pathologist named Ezra Cole, a wizened, part-time deacon in a fundamentalist congregation made up mostly of Texas oil people and North Louisiana transplants. He had worked for the parish only a short time eight or nine years ago. But I still remembered the pharmacy he had owned in the Lafayette Medical Center back in the 1960s. He would not allow people of color to even stand in line with whites, requiring them instead to wait in the concourse until no other customers were inside.

Related posts

The Peculiar blindness, Part 1: Introduction
The Peculiar Blindness, Part 2: The "Yes, But" Mask
The Peculiar Blindness, Part 3: You Don't See What I Don't See

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