Several weeks ago I was fortunate to see the Broadway play To Kill A Mockingbird, the Aaron Sorkin adaption of the 1960 novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Harper Lee, starring Michigan native Jeff Daniels.
For those not familiar with either the novel or the stage adaptation, the story is based loosely on Lee's recollection of an event that took place near her Alabama small hometown in 1936, involving the trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman. Although Daniels, playing attorney Atticus Finch, is able to demonstrate to the all-white jury of farmers that the charges are false, the accused is convicted anyway.
There are many parallels that can be drawn from the play to the modern-day political and racial turmoil engulfing this country. Daniels himself, in a television interview with Nicolle Wallace on MSNBC in May of this year, offered up a moving explanation that the play was his opportunity to go in front of an audience each night of the week during the play's one-year run and “pin the ears back, basically, of white America” with a theatrical performance that focuses on the theme of race, racial injustice and the cowardice of the mob as exemplified by the jury in the play and the Ku Klux Klan group that shows up on stage at one point.
As Daniels explained back in May, the current leader of our country, and his enablers in Congress, in both the 2016 election and now their reelection effort, determined they could prey on the dark side of humanity to strengthen the party base and win an election – appealing to the fear of some white voters that their majority in this country is being challenged by people who look and think differently than they do.
What was even more disappointing, however, was to return home only to be confronted with the real-life drama of racism on full display in the Birmingham-Bloomfield area with the recently planned, and then cancelled, anti-Muslim event in mid-September at the Bloomfield Hills Baptist Church at 3600 Telegraph Road in Bloomfield Township, timed around the anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy. Tragic, but it says a lot about how we, as a society, have not evolved much in recent years.
As detailed in a story in this edition of Downtown, the pastor of the church, Donald McKay, told Fox 2 TV that his announced two-day event involving speakers addressing a perceived threat to Christians and national security from the Islam religion was not an indication that he hated Muslims, just the “ideology they are identified with.” Sorry, pastor, no matter how you attempt to spin it, if it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck...as the saying goes.
At the risk of unleashing the anti-Muslim, anti-Islam and anti-Shariah members of the public who have written to me in recent years, this cancelled event is just one more example of where we have arrived in the current political climate in which our national political leaders have basically given the high sign that it is now acceptable for the long-hidden views to rise to the surface relative to race and ethnicity. Much of this sentiment is out of fear that those who look different or think differently than the eroding white majority pose a threat to the dominant race in the country.
In this particular area of Oakland County – with one of the highest educational and income levels in the state – one might think that things would be much different. But we are only deceiving ourselves, unfortunately.
There's a certain comfort, I suspect, when we read from a long distance about a recent incident involving a Booneville, Mississippi event hall refusing to host an interracial couple's wedding celebration. Likewise, it's easy to dismiss the Macomb County municipal candidate in recent months who pulled out of an election after blowback to her comments about how she wanted her community to remain “white” as opposed to encouraging a more diverse population.
But Oakland County by far is not immune from these same views among our residents.
I took time for this column to write down incidents I have personally observed in my over four decades in Oakland.
I think back to my time in the western Oakland County lakes area in the 1970's with the start of an increased Chaldean population and the unspoken and sometimes verbalized resentment when that industrious group starting acquiring businesses in the local area. Or the physical confrontations that took place occasionally between white/black students in the after school hours in some school districts in that area. Or how malcontents set fire to a new home under construction in Commerce Township when it was learned that the owners were African Americans. Or the often whispered comments as West Bloomfield attracted a growing Jewish population and their places of worship, let alone when African Americans starting buying homes in the community.
And let's not forget that we have seen racial conflict raise its ugly head in more than one incident in our local school districts here, showing us that we are faced in the Birmingham-Bloomfield area with the same threats to the principles of Democracy which this country has strived to uphold post-slavery and the Civil War.
How we break this cycle of racism becomes another question. In the Wallace-Daniels interview this spring, Wallace crystalized the issue when she shared with the actor that her concern was “our children are watching.” In other words, attitudes on race and a diversified society are shaped in the home, so that has to be the starting point.
Even more important, we have to reverse the trend we see in public discourse where it has become acceptable to target groups – by race, religion, gender and sexual orientation – for purposes of political gain.
We must eradicate this undercurrent because Democracy is at stake. Or, as Atticus Finch tells us in the play, “We have to heal this wound or we will never stop bleeding.”