YOUR VIEW | On civility and civil rights

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I recently had occasion to be at the Fairfax County Courthouse to do some filing for clients. Familiar with the drill, I brought nothing metallic into the building with me so I was directed to the quicker, “coats open, hats off” line. As I approached the conveyor belt, a woman, sans any outerwear, literally swooped in front of me and many others and placed her purse on the tray with my belongings. 

But what I found most curious was this woman’s fixed gaze; she did not engage anyone with her eyes or otherwise. She behaved robotically as if she saw no one. I am sure she was an attorney as am I, however, that day, I came dressed for the weather in a thick, quilted jacket, striped knit cap and heavy, red sweatpants tucked into more than one pair of long, bulky socks. I wasn’t going to court. I suspect that she assumed I was with the hoards headed to traffic or criminal court as a defendant. She judged me by my dress, felt superior, and disrespected accordingly.

A few days later, I went grocery shopping. As I was checking out, the clerk had a problem scanning the two coupons I had given her. After she left her station to consult with another cashier, the woman in line behind me decided to move into my space. I got pushed further down the lane, close to the end, and politely asked her to move back, at which point she launched into a tirade and alluded to punching me. I stayed silent until the cashier returned and then scurried out to my car as fast as my sneakered feet could carry me. The hot air was still spewing from her mouth as walked through the automatic doors.

One more thing: She was black. She screamed for all to hear that I would not have done what I did (and just what was that?!) if she was not black. I was embarrassed … for her.

As I was pulling out of the parking lot, the store manager, another black woman, chased me down and apologized. I assured her that I knew the incident was not her nor the company’s fault.

Both of these incidents got me thinking. This month we celebrate Martin Luther King’s Birthday for the 25th time as a federal holiday. It has been almost twice that long since the inception of the social movements of the 1960s. Dr. King espoused non-violence and personal dignity. Freedom, not perpetual victimization. 

Roughly a year ago, we inaugurated a black president. Whites will, in the not-so-distant-future, become a minority in this country. So, why, in 2010, did a black woman immediately play the race card and act like asking her to step out of my way was akin to sending Rosa Parks to the back of the bus? And why did that white and “better” woman at the courthouse so readily disregard me and others by jumping to the front of the line? Because race and social pecking order based on all that appearance conveys is still a problem.

We still judge; we still all want to be top banana, or at least feel that in some respect we are. Over 150 years later, we are still fighting or clinging to the legacy of the Civil War. Something to think about on January 18, because based on just these two encounters, there is still much work to be done and things have gotten far afield from the original intent. It’s time to put some civility back in civil rights. It would be a breath of fresh air.

Karen Ann DeLuca
Alexandria

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