Incautious accusations of racism and analytical assessments of race relations in the United States seem to have proliferated lately — and, consequently, it’s sometimes a struggle to remember both what the historical facts have been and what type of a society we ultimately aspire to be. So easy — for someone who has neither witnessed nor lived any of it — to forget the ugliness of attitudes of racial supremacy, the injustice of segregation, the horror of slavery. Equally easy to assume a post-racial society is one in which formerly oppressed minorities are accorded penitential, preferential advantages to futilely attempt to erase a past that can never be erased rather than one in which all people are accorded simple human dignity and judged by the content of their character not the color of their skin.
This was all brought forcibly to my mind last night when, sitting in an almost-empty theater weeks after its release, I at last watched “The Help.” How historically accurate the movie is, I’m not sure, but it certainly served as a potent portrayal of a South I’ve never known. I grew up below the Mason-Dixon line, but my extended family is from Kansas. None of my direct family members could afford the luxury of hired help of any color whatsoever. In fact, like one of the protagonists in the movie, my grandmother left home and school at age 14 to become a housemaid. Her paycheck helped to pay her own family’s expenses. She was one of 10 children; life wasn’t cheap.
All of this is to say, a race-based worldview is so foreign to me — and a self-reliant attitude that opposes government intervention and favors fiscal responsibility so natural to me — that I’ve had a difficult time understanding how it is that anyone could accuse Tea Partiers of racism, let alone (as AP put it) an actor I’ve loved in every role he’s ever played. How can Maxine Waters, Frederica Wilson, Andre Carson, Morgan Freeman, et. al fail to see that the vast majority of Tea Partiers just want to unleash economic opportunity for all; to restore the freedom to work for the benefit of their own families, their own health care and their own retirement; in short, to enjoy basic God-given inalienable rights without trampling the rights of others? Why is it so hard to see Tea Partiers oppose Obama for no more and no less a reason than that he’s implemented ineffective policies?
It must be — surely it must be — that they’ve never taken the time to truly understand the Tea Party movement. That’s why I was heartened to read this letter from national Tea Party activist Ali Akbar to Morgan Freeman, in which Akbar invites the actor to actually attend a Tea Party rally. What I like best about it is that Akbar pays tribute to the inevitable, complex and important way in which past experiences shape a person’s worldview, sometimes serving as safe and reliable touchstones of reality, sometimes arousing unreasonable suspicions. Lived experiences blind as well as illuminate, and we are none of us immune to unfounded prejudices — in favor of this type of toothpaste or cake mix, this church or that political party. Yet we have little choice but to live according to the truths that we know based on the evidence of our own lives — unless life brings us experiences that alter our understanding. Experiences like oh, say, attending a rally for a cause we’ve never considered.
Below, excerpts from Akbar’s “Tea Party Invitation to Morgan Freeman” — but I encourage you to follow the link to catch the whole thing. Well worth a read.
Dear Mr. Freeman,
My name is Ali Akbar. I’m a 26 year-old African-American small business owner and a tea party activist. I’m not writing to rake you over the coals in the way that many conservatives have done in the last 48 hours. Heck, I wrote a passionate open-letter refuting many of your claims already, but this is not that. This is an honest and standing invitation. I do believe that you are wrong in what you said about the tea party, but I would rather prove it to you than castigate you for your comments.
I also understand that your reflexive comments came from experience. You grew up in a different America than the one that I was blessed to be born into. We both grew up in the south, but I never saw ‘White Only’ signs. I’ve been called a name or two in my three decades, but racism has always been the exception in my life, not the rule, as it probably was in your youth. I understand your suspicion of conservative political movements. It is rooted in pain and fear and memory, and though I never saw the horrors of segregation that you did, we share that cultural heritage. …
I’ve attended dozens of tea party events. I’ve helped organize them, and I’ve even spoken at a few. The tea party is not what is often depicted in the news. It is people of all colors who are terribly concerned about the direction that America is heading. We don’t trust big government to make decisions for us. And we fear that the present administration’s spending is going to lead our country down a path to insolvency, much like what Greece is currently facing.
Mr. Freeman, I’m not asking you to adopt my political views. You’re in your seventies, and a political shift is not in your future. I’m reaching out to you because I want you to think better of your fellow countrymen. Barack Obama is in the White House, and Herman Cain just won the Florida straw poll. America is the land of opportunity for black Americans like never before.
I’m hoping that you’ll come to a tea party in Tennessee — the place of your birth. Really anywhere in the country that works for you; I’ll set it up with the one of the thousands of activists I know around our great country. I’d be delighted to introduce you to good people who will welcome you with open arms, disagree with you, and then feed you some of the best barbecue you’ve ever tasted. …