Guest Opinion | Take a Knee – Pride and Shame on Resistance to Racism

Published : Tuesday, October 10, 2017 | 12:10 PM

We feel pride when we resist racism, and we rightly feel shame when we fail to do so.

My first direct resistance to racism was as a college senior in 1959 with my professor in a History of Illinois class. In one of our class periods, we each gave oral presentations. When the only African-American student in the class gave her presentation, the professor was rude and abusive, repeatedly interrupting her – quite different treatment from what the rest of us received. She left the classroom crying when she finished. It seemed clearly racist to me.

I wasn’t a shrinking violet; I was comfortable intellectually dialoguing with my professors. But I’d never made a face-to-face challenge to any teacher’s conduct. It was not an easy decision to make, but I picked up my books, walked out of the classroom in solidarity, caught up with my classmate, and tried to comfort her by letting her know I stood with her. The next day, our professor apologized to both of us (although not to the full class).

I can look my wife, my daughter, and my grand-daughter in the eye, tell the story of that encounter, and feel pride.

But there is another encounter with racism that I have never talked about with anyone because I feel shame about failing the test.

In 1962 while in the Army, my battalion commander in a training division at Fort Knox, Kentucky, was an officer whose name I don’t remember. I derisively referred to as Major Major after the hapless officer in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22. My Major Major, however, did not resemble Henry Fonda (as did the Catch 22 Major Major). Rather, he had a sinister visage that was appropriate for his predominantly evil essence. At the time, I was a clerk in my company when Major Major came to the company headquarters to encounter an African-American trainee brought to the headquarters under guard by two military policemen. He had been absent without leave and just returned. Major Major spewed out to the African-American trainee the worst race-baiting I have ever heard – a racist rant that used practically every negative stereotype of African-Americans to insult, denigrate, and debase the trainee. What Major Major was trying to do was to provoke the young African-American man. Successfully inducing him to hit an officer would have enabled Major Major to lock him up for a long time; the Army doesn’t welcome non-commissioned troops assaulting officers. The trainee stoically listened but was not provoked during a 10-minute tirade. Major Major recognized he wasn’t going to succeed, directed the guard to take away the trainee, and left.

I was stunned. When everyone left, I immediately felt regret that I had neither objected nor somehow communicated to the Major Major’s victim that I objected to his racism. The young African-American man was entitled to know that he was not alone in his disgust at this racist assault, but I failed him. I was deeply troubled by the encounter, thought about it for days, and considered reporting it. But I never did anything about it because I feared Major Major’s power to retaliate and doubted that the Army would protect me from it. Failing to resist racism that time has always been a source of shame for me. I’ve never told the story of that incident to my wife, my daughter, nor my granddaughter.

None of us is entirely courageous nor cowardly; we are not simply angels nor devils. Rather we all have angelic/devilish potentials and courageous/ cowardly potentials in our ambivalent beings. But as sure as night follows day, we are rightly proud when we resist what we know to be wrong and shamed when we do not stand up against what we know is wrong. We are challenged now to resist a national administration headed by an impulsive narcissist with his finger on the nuclear trigger who is trying to suppress the vote of African-Americans, to deport the Brown workers who tend our gardens and cook our food, to roll back police reform, and to deny climate change.

Resistance to wrong can take many forms. African-American NFL players are taking a knee when the national anthem plays to show their solidarity with the fight against racist policing. Jasmine Abdullah and other Black Lives Matters activists have refused at Pasadena City Council meetings to put their hand over their heart and repeat the pledge of allegiance in protest to the racist scabs of our nation. Their resistance mode hasn’t been my mode of resisting racism, but the times demand more from each of us. So next time, I’m going to take a knee when our City fathers recite the pledge of allegiance. If you’re there, I hope you’ll consider doing the same thing. If not, I hope you’ll find another way more suitable for you to heighten your resistance. You’ll feel pride when you do.
Dale Gronemeier is a Pasadena-area civil rights attorney. He will be one of the Pasadena Branch of the NAACP President’s Award recipients on October 12.

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