Friday, March 26, 2010

Post-Racial What?

By William Fisher

Just in case you've bought into the "post-racial" era of "Yes, We Can," consider the plight of Zachari Klawonn.

Klawonn is an Army Specialist, the son of an American father and a Moroccan mother. He is 20 years old.

As told by The Washington Post, Klawonn was sitting in his barrack room when he heard a THUD. THUD. THUD. Someone was mule-kicking the door of his room, leaving marks that weeks later -- long after Army investigators had come and gone -- would still be visible.

Tthe pounding had stopped by the time Klawonn got to the door. What he found was a note: "F--- YOU RAGHEAD BURN IN HELL" written with a black marker.

But Klawonn had been called worse in the military: Sand monkey. Carpet jockey. Raghead. Zachari bin Laden. Nidal Klawonn. "But the fact that someone had tracked him down in the dead of night to deliver this specific message sent a chill through his body," The Post wrote.

Klawonn had been told by Army recruiters in his home town of Bradenton, Fla.,just how desperate was the Army's need for Muslim soldiers like him to help win the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But he was ordered not to fast and pray. His Koran was torn up. Other soldiers jeered and threw water bottles at him. His platoon sergeant warned him to hide his faith to avoid getting a "beating" by fellow troops. But nothing changed, despite the formal complaints he lodged.

Then came the November shootings at Fort Hood and the arrest of a Muslim soldier he'd never met: Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, who is charged with killing 13 people and injuring more than 30 in a massacre that stunned the nation. And The Post says that from that point on, things only got worse.

Klawonn believed that Hasan's rampage had only added to his visibility.

Now rewind to 1950. The Korean War was being fought. Like millions of others, I was drafted and - because I has been a musician and a newspaper reporter in civilian life - I was assigned to a Military Police unit - the 800th Military Police Company stationed at First Army Headquarters on Governor's Island in scenic New York harbor. For reasons that remain mysteries to this day, almost everyone drafted into that unit had a college degree. And many were Jews.

But first came basic training, which took us to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey. During World War II, Kilmer had played a major role in shipping GIs out to fight in Europe and the Pacific - and I and my fellow conscripts lived in terror of finding ourselves on a slow boat to Korea.

There was, however, an item at Kilmer that was even scarier than the idea of shipping out. That item came in the form of our company's drill sergeant, let's call him Sgt. Duffy. Sgt. Duffy was a compact-looking Regular Army soldier, with the distinctive red nose of a guy who drinks too much.

But his nose wasn't the problem; his mouth was.

"OK, listen up you college Jewboys. Christ-killers. You Kikes can't be good soldiers, but it's my job to try, so I will."

And try he did. He subjected us to weeks of scurrilous religious and ethnic hate speech, even including homespun epithets from the South, which none of us Northeasterners had ever heard.

He called us "Ni**er-lovers," though the major civil rights battles had not yet been fought. He insulted our families by describing us simultaneously as "the money changers who own all the banks" and "the communists who will take over the world and take our money away."

He woke us up at three in the morning to send us out in the pouring rain carrying a full backpack and our M-1 rifles, to make us run around and around what seemed an endless parade ground track until we collapsed from exhaustion, and many of us did.

To Duffy's credit, sort of, he stayed out in the rain with his running charges until breakfast time, all the while raging at Jewboys, Kollege-Kikes, N***er-Lovers and Fa**ots.

Nor was this a case of subjecting new recruits to "tough love" to harden us for battle. This was a case of modifying the Army Basic Training Manual to accommodate a level of bigotry that would normally be ascribed to our military enemies.

And Duffy wasn't the only bigot. We learned from recruits in other units that they were hearing much of the same. It was almost like it was Standard Operating Procedure.

But it wasn't, of course. It just happened to be the kind of behavior about which the Army was comfortable turning a blind eye. Just as it did when the soldiers it shipped off to Korea just happened to be Africa-Americans.

Well, I was about to write that I was certain the Army has changed exponentially since those Dark Ages of the Korean 1950s. But what about Spec. Klawonn?

Is Islamophobia worse or better than anti-Semitism or homophobia or "Ni***r-Loving"? The point is largely rhetorical; they're all equally reprehensible.

But we need to acknowledge that this kind of stuff has been around in American society forever and, despite (or perhaps because of) our election of an African-American as our president, it shows few signs of going away any time soon. On the contrary, all the data suggests that hate-speech - and actions - are increasing.

Now, if you'd like to try to find solace in delusional thinking, you can pretend that the weekend's ugly racism, homophobia and generalized hate exhibited by the Tea Partiers -- egged on by Republican Congresspersons and staffers cheering from a second-floor balcony was not typical of how Americans think and feel.

You can pretend that this kind of garbage ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But, sorry to say, that law simply served to amp up the resistance of the White Supremacists. And it took many years for us to turn down their volume, though the craziness that sparked the volume is still with us.

So maybe it's not "typical" anymore, but it's there, still very much with us.

For me, the saddest part of this current saga is that the Republican Congressional leadership has been, shall we say, muted in its condemnation of the Tea Party protestors. GOP leaders have instead blamed Democrats for using the attacks fto gain political advantage -- to ginn up outrage and raise campaign contributions.

Even though most of the Tea Party folks self-identify as Republicans, this should have been a time when Democratic and Republican leaders decided to rise above partisanship and present a truly united front unequivocally condemning hate speech, incitement and violence.

Alas, to date only the Democrats seem to be able to muster the courage to call out the Tea Partiers. We can only hope that a belated coming together will happen now that all the health care legislation has become law.

But I'm not holding my breath.