Stopping Traffic

This past summer, I described my experience with an overzealous TSA officer at the Detroit airport. It seems someone has decided that soft goat cheese is a dangerous substance that cannot be allowed on board an aircraft, and the officer had been on the verge of confiscating the stuff in my carry-on bag. Fortunately, after my explanation of its origin (and a chat with his supervisor), they agreed to make an exception. By way of update: My cousins thoroughly enjoyed the cheese when I shared it at our family gathering in Seattle, and we all got a good laugh from the story.

I had a different, and probably more memorable, encounter with a TSA officer last weekend. This one had nothing to do with cheese, goat or otherwise.

My son (almost ten) and I had traveled to Arizona for a few days, to visit my folks. It’s getting more challenging for them to come out to see us, so bringing the grandkid to them seemed like a natural solution. He got to experience all kinds of things he doesn’t usually get to see and do here in Michigan, like a day at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (an attraction I cannot recommend highly enough, BTW), attending All Saints Day Mass at his grandparents’ parish, riding around in Grandpa’s golf cart, and swimming outdoors in November. (Not to mention riding on an airplane, with a window seat.) Most of all, I enjoyed watching him get to spend a lot of solid one-on-one with his grandparents (as his siblings had been able to do more often, when they were younger). We made some wonderful memories; he doesn’t know it yet, but he will carry these memories with him the rest of his life.

There is one detail, however, that I will probably remember for much longer than he will: our interaction with a TSA officer in the Phoenix airport on our way home. We’d just dropped our luggage, and were making our way to the security checkpoint. To my relief, it was wide open and virtually empty. (Early Saturday morning is a great time to travel.) I presented my ID and our boarding passes to the first agent, a youngish and friendly-looking woman, expecting the usual cursory inspection like we’d had at DTW.

To my surprise, the agent did more than just compare me to the photo and check the names. Turning to my son, she clutched the boarding passes and said, “Okay, I have a few questions for you. Alright?”

“Okay,” he replied.

“What is your name?” she asked.

My son smiled and told her.

“And what’s your dad’s name?”

He hesitated for a second, like sometimes happens when you’re asked a question that is too obvious (and that no one has ever asked you before). My heart skipped a beat. Don’t screw this up, I thought. Then it came to him. “Chris Blunt,” he said, to my great relief.

“And where are you and your dad going?” she asked.

Again, a moment’s hesitation (or so it seemed to anxious me), before he told her “Detroit!”

The TSA agent returned my documents with a smile, saying something about how we can’t be too careful these days.

“Trafficking?” I asked.

She nodded, and related a couple of quick examples of terrible things that’d happened in the area recently. We were in no hurry, and the checkpoint was still empty, so she and I chatted for a moment. I asked if it was a special problem for Phoenix, perhaps due to their proximity to the border. She replied that, unfortunately, it was becoming a problem in every place.

I mentioned that the agent in Detroit hadn’t given us any extra attention on our way out. She shrugged and replied, “I always ask. You never know.”

I thanked her, and told her I appreciated her vigilance. My son and I sailed through the rest of the checkpoint, boarded our plane, and enjoyed a completely uneventful flight home.

The flight gave me a lot of time to think, however. Human trafficking is an issue I’d heard about and read about, but I hadn’t previously met anyone on the front lines of it. Was I a bit annoyed about being questioned, and treated (if only for a minute, and only by implication) with suspicion that I could be a trafficker? Of course. But this annoyance faded quickly. She had no way of knowing he was really my son, or if he was really the boy whose name appeared on the boarding pass. He doesn’t have a photo ID (but I’ll probably get him one before he takes his next flight). What if he, or one of my other kids, had been taken and moved somewhere against his or her will? Wouldn’t I be grateful for an alert officer, on the lookout for something that seemed out of place?

Which gets us to something obvious (but that hadn’t occurred to me immediately): my son does look out of place with me. We look absolutely nothing alike. Longtime readers know that Mrs. Yeoman Farmer is of African descent, so all five of our kids are melanin enhanced. Some more than others, but none more than Kid Number Four. It wouldn’t surprise me if this had something to do with why we were asked a few additional questions. Not to mention the fact that he and I were traveling alone.

But here’s the thing: the racial aspect doesn’t bother me in the least. MYF and I actually find this sort of confusion a bit amusing. We compare stories, and laugh. She used to get asked if she was Kid Number One’s nanny. I was once asked if Kid Number Two (almost as melanin enhanced as Kid Number Four) was my foster child. And so on. Families like ours are more common than they used to be, but still unusual enough for people to have questions. I get it. I simply choose to be understanding, and not to be surprised or taken aback when confusion arises. But I will say this: we actually draw a lot less attention than I initially thought we would. My classic car probably gets more “looks” and turned heads in one trip to the grocery store than our family has in all the years we’ve lived here.

Getting back to the Phoenix airport: I didn’t catch the name of the TSA officer, but I do want to give her a shout-out for being on the ball and bringing a sense of mission to her job. I’ve done my best not to think about human trafficking, or to worry that one of my kids could fall victim to it. It’s certainly never occurred to me that one of the adults on a flight with me might be trafficking a child. I’m just glad somebody is thinking about it, and doing something to interrupt it. If that means my son and I have our trip interrupted for a moment, to answer a few questions, I don’t mind the inconvenience.

Just leave my goat cheese out of it!

Driving the Yeomans

Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I were on our way home to Northern Virginia from the Tridentine High Mass at Old St. Mary’s in Washington, DC. It was the fall of 1996, and the future Homeschooled Farm Boy (then a baby) was napping in his car seat as we cruised through the District of Columbia on Interstate 395. I’d just pulled onto the freeway, and traffic was fairly heavy for a Sunday evening; I’d spent so much time wrenching my head around looking for an opening in traffic at the end of the on-ramp, I hadn’t noticed any speed limit signs. But this was a freeway, so I figured the speed limit would be at least 55 MPH — and that’s about what the other cars were moving at. So I settled in, and did my best to stay with the pack.

A moment or two later, we came around a bend and I spotted a police car on the right shoulder. Glancing at the speedometer, I confirmed I was still going 55, so didn’t bother getting nervous or slowing down. Until, that is, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw him pulling onto the roadway with his lights flashing. The next thing I knew, he was right behind me and chirping his siren. I began looking for a safe place to pull over, and soon both of our cars were on the right shoulder.

The officer, who happened to be black, approached my window and asked if I knew why I’d been stopped; I replied that I honestly had no idea. He informed me that I’d been driving 56 in a 45 MPH zone, and that he’d like my license and registration and proof of insurance.

Forty-five?” I asked, incredulous, as I dug around for the documentation. “I honestly thought it was 55, because it was a freeway. That’s why I didn’t slow down when I saw you.”

“Well, it was posted at 45,” he said, taking my documents and retreating to his patrol car.

As the officer did who-knows-what, I fumed aloud to MYF about how ridiculous the whole thing was. I was going 55 on a freeway and wasn’t passing anybody! And he pulls me over! She agreed, but there wasn’t much else she could say. HFB was waking up and fussing, and she soon had her hands full getting him calmed back down.

The cop eventually returned from his patrol car with my documents — and a ticket for some amount of money that was about to disrupt our fragile, tight-as-a-drum finances, especially once my insurance rates jumped as a result. I was irritated, but had enough presence of mind to suppress my irritation, take a deep breath, and wait until he’d left before saying anything negative. Even then, I simply muttered something to my wife about probably having been stopped because we had Virginia license plates. MYF made a comment about how unfair the whole thing was, and we were soon back in traffic making our way home. And, yes, I noticed that the first speed limit sign we passed read “45 MPH.” I kept the car in the right lane, the speedometer needle at 45, and fumed in silence as we drove.

The story does have a happy ending: I mailed in the ticket with a written explanation/appeal, but no payment. We moved across the country a few weeks later, and I managed to keep my mail correspondence with the DC Metro Police going long enough for my ticket to get totally lost in the District’s bureaucracy. We never paid the fine, and the ticket was never reported to our insurance company.

The incident eventually faded from my mind, and I didn’t think about it for years — until last week’s story about Professor Henry Gates’ run-in with the Cambridge (MA) police. When officers showed up at his house investigating a reported break-in, all he had to do was give a calm explanation as to why he and his limo driver had had to force the front door open, and produce picture identification with his home address. Instead, he followed the officers outside and began ranting to the whole neighborhood about “this is what happens to black men in America.”

Actually, I thought, this is what happens when you have a chip on your shoulder, lose your temper, and taunt the police.

From everything we’ve read and seen about the incident, it seems clear to both MYF and myself that the individual with the “racial narrative” in his head was the Harvard professor; Officer Crowley seems to have conducted himself with the utmost professionalism. Our only complaint about the arrest is that the Cambridge police dismissed the disorderly conduct charges.

Let’s return to 1996, and the shoulder of I-395. As upset as I was about a perceived injustice, the fact remains that the officer had a good reason for pulling me over. I didn’t agree, and was understandably angry about the traffic stop, but had the self-control to remain calm and wait for my opportunity to “tell it to the judge” and let the system work. But let’s suppose that instead, I’d had the same sort of “racial narrative” in my head that Professor Gates evidently carries around with him. I most likely would have jumped from my car and accused the D.C. cop of having pulled me over because I was a white guy with out-of-state plates in a heavily black city — and that he was giving me a ticket only because he was angry that I’d married a black woman. That he was probably trying to prove he had some power over me.

Those of you who know me know that I don’t see the world through the prism I just described. But had I said and done those things, and had I refused the officer’s instructions to return to my vehicle, the cop would’ve been completely within his rights to have arrested me for disorderly conduct. And my wife would’ve been completely within her rights to have not spoken with me for the next six weeks.

That seems clear enough to us. What MYF and I find particularly troubling about the Gates story is the sharp divide in the way most blacks and whites have reacted to the basic details of the case — and in the way black and white perceptions of and assumptions about the police diverge so sharply. As a recent Rasmussen poll finds:

Seventy-three percent (73%) of African-American voters believe that most blacks receive unfair treatment from the police. Just 21% of white voters share that view. Thirty-two percent (32%) of black voters say that most policemen are racist, but 52% disagree. Among white voters, just seven percent (7%) believe that most policemen are racist and 71% say they are not.

I’m not so naive as to pretend that race doesn’t play a role in police work. As recently as this year, my father-in-law was visiting my brother-in-law’s family in a large East Coast city with a history of ethnic tension. On two separate occasions, while out for a walk on the streets of his son’s upper-middle-class, heavily white neighborhood, my father-in-law was stopped and questioned by the local police about what he was doing. My father-in-law knew perfectly well that he was being questioned because he was black, and therefore looked out of place in that neighborhood. But he was friendly and cooperative, answered the officers’ questions politely, and came away reporting that he’d had “a really nice conversation” with one of the cops. He didn’t point fingers, didn’t make accusations about how “black men in America” are treated, and didn’t raise his voice. He treated the officer with respect, and was treated with respect in return.

Treating people with respect, and not constantly looking at the world through the prism of race, are pretty simple lessons, really, and ones that MYF and I have been teaching our kids. Too bad the President of the United States passed up an opportunity to be truly “post racial” and to have made this same point when asked about the incident in his recent press conference.

As for MYF, this is what she told me:

“I am incensed at Gates’ behavior toward the police, I’m infuriated by the President’s and the professor’s race-baiting, and I’m embarrassed that both of them are giving blacks a bad name.”

And there is nothing more I can add to that.

Good Out of Evil

Mrs Yeoman Farmer came across the following story the other day and asked me to share it:

NAIROBI (Reuters) – A Kenyan man bit a python who wrapped him in its coils and hauled him up a tree in a struggle that lasted hours, local media said Wednesday.

Farm manager Ben Nyaumbe was working at the weekend when the serpent, apparently hunting for livestock, struck in the Malindi area of Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast.

“I stepped on a spongy thing on the ground and suddenly my leg was entangled with the body of a huge python,” he told the Daily Nation newspaper.

When the snake coiled itself round his upper body, Nyaumbe resorted to desperate measures: “I had to bite it.”

The python dragged him up a tree, but when it eased its grip, Nyaumbe said he was able to take a mobile phone out of his pocket and phone for help.

When his supervisor came with a policeman, Nyaumbe smothered the snake’s head with his shirt, while the rescuers tied it with a rope and pulled.

“We both came down, landing with a thud,” said Nyaumbe, who survived with damaged lips and bruising.

The snake escaped from the three sacks it was bundled into.

MYF’s comment: “Thank God my ancestors came here on boats 300 years ago, so my kids and I don’t have to live some place where giant snakes drag people into trees!”

When I finished laughing, she added: “I’m serious! You can quote me on that. Put it in your blog!”

Slavery, particularly the way it was practiced in the Americas, was a horrendous affront to human dignity; MYF and I would be the last people in the world to wish it on anyone. But it’s interesting the way such tremendous good can be drawn even from such a tremendous evil. Beyond freedom from giant serpents, MYF and other descendants of African slaves enjoy liberties and opportunities that are unthinkable on the African continent today — and we are deeply grateful for that.

With everything in the news these days, it’s easy to forget how blessed we are to live in this country — no matter how our ancestors got here. Sometimes it takes a truly odd news story (“man bites snake”) to remind us of that. And to remind us of all the ways in which God can draw good out of the evil that men commit.

I fully expect that, ten years from now, we will all be marveling at the unexpected goods that emerge from these present social and economic difficulties.

More Hate

All readers know that the election didn’t turn out the way I would have liked. I’ve thus far put up a couple of posts referencing the results; once I’ve caught my breath from the campaign season, I intend to put up a longer post with my thoughts about the outcome and what it means for the country. (As many of you are aware, my day job involves political polling and microtargeting on behalf of GOP candidates.)

Though I have strong partisan and ideological convictions, I am not a confrontational person by nature. As such, in addition to work for Republican candidates, I’ve been able to develop a strong “secondary” client base among left-leaning nonprofit organizations and foundations; they appreciate my insights, and the balance I bring to their research. In return, I have enjoyed the relationships I have built with them, and the opportunity to work on some important causes (not all of which I have agreed with).

Two months ago, I put up a post describing my first excursion into the fever swamps of the Far Left “net roots.” Not a few readers of this blog are themselves left-of-center, and I appreciate the respectful tone they have always used in their comments and/or personal correspondence. But somehow or another, someone seems to have crawled out of those fever swamps and has taken it upon him/her self to tell me (and you) what they really think about this author. He/she seems to have gravitated toward my first post-election post, in which I jokingly speculated as to whether the liberals who had moved to Canada after the 2000 and 2004 elections might begin returning soon. I also joked about the rest of us trying to find Galt’s Gulch before January 20th — a literary allusion which seems to have gone over this person’s head (as Galt’s Gulch is decidedly not in Canada, but rather somewhere in the Rocky Mountains).

As this person did not leave an email or web address, it’s impossible to verify his/her identity. But I will preserve his/her comment for the rest of you to get a good look at what crawls out of the fever swamps from time to time.

If you wish to criticize me or my ideas, please do so. I ask only that you be respectful of me and of those who take the time to comment on my posts. And leave my wife out of it. It may infuriate some of you that Mrs. Yeoman Farmer is a black conservative and did not vote for our current President-elect. You may disagree with her and my belief that these election results are good for neither blacks nor the country as a whole. Despite the highly personal investment in and commitment to racial equality that Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and our children have, I understand that others may have a different point of view. I ask only that you be as considerate and thoughtful in your commentary as I have been — and always will be — in writing these posts.

Confederate States of America

I’m not usually one to watch documentaries on the Independent Film Channel, and particularly not documentaries under the direction of Spike Lee. But last night I stumbled upon the movie Confederate States of America, and it was both fascinating and thought-provoking.

The premise is that the South won the Civil War, thanks to foreign intervention by the French and British. Confederates took over the entire USA, sent Lincoln into exile in Canada, and then established slavery in the “reconstructed” North.

What’s fascinating is the way it’s framed: it’s a faux-documentary, supposedly produced by a British Broadcasting service, presented as if being shown for the first time on Confederate States of America (CSA) television. As we watch, we view it literally as a modern Confederate would: just like on any television broadcast, there are commercial breaks, where we see news updates, advertisements for slavery-related products, and plugs for other television shows (especially funny is the parody of “Cops,” which is instead called something like “Runaway,” and is about tracking down escaped slaves). The “documentary” traces the history and development of the nation since 1864, with some hilarious manufactured historical footage — often very cleverly doctored versions of actual materials. There is also a modern political candidate who’s an identical twin of David Duke; no idea where they found that actor, but he was cast perfectly.

The problem is that, being a Spike Lee film, it tries too hard to make us believe our modern racial tensions are really not much different from what they’d have been if the Civil War had turned out differently. As the film’s website tells us (in case we missed some of the more ham-handed rhetoric in the movie itself):

We arrive to a today that, in many ways, we recognize. Although a nation that is content and prosperous, there is a tremendous divide within and suspicious eye without. Current politicians refer to us as two countries and perhaps, other than geographically, there is no difference between Red and Blue or North and South states. We have always struggled as to whether we are the United or Confederate States of America.

And, as the the Director explains:
In many ways, the South did win The Civil War. Maybe not on the battlefield, but they won the peace. They won the fight for their way of life. The North changed, not the South. . . . Maybe the history of the “C.S.A.” would not be all that different from the one we have known – some differences, perhaps, but not a complete counter history.

I find this preposterous, and I had a very different reaction. I kept thinking, It is really remarkable how much better our country is than the CSA depicted in this movie. We are incredibly lucky that the Union won the Civil War. Particularly when watching the advertising for slave-related products and other television programs, the contrast with today’s America is striking. I also couldn’t help thinking about Jerimiah Wright’s “God Damn America” and “U.S. of KKK-A” sermons, and why so many Americans find them so deeply offensive: Wright is describing a country in which the South won the Civil War…a country like the one portrayed in this documentary — and that’s a country that does not now exist in reality.

I was also struck by the CSA leaders’ obsession with racial purity and identity, and that was probably the most personally thought-provoking. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, mixed-race marriages and children were extremely rare; I never would’ve dreamed that I’d marry a black woman. Up until 1967, our marriage would have been illegal in several southern states. That may sound like a long time ago, but it was only a year or two before Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I were born. Who could have imagined that less than thirty years later (literally just a generation), we’d be spending the first year of our marriage in one of those states…and welcoming our first child just a stone’s throw from where some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War took place? And getting only a few funny looks the whole time we lived there?

My sense is that the increasing number of mixed-race marriages is both symptomatic and a cause of the underlying change in race relations that’s taken place over the last generation in this country. Symptomatic because such an intimate relationship cannot take place unless individuals are willing to look past outward appearances and get to know each other deeply as co-equal human beings. The increasing numbers of mixed-race unions indicates, I think, that increasing numbers of people are getting past skin color in just that way. And families like ours are in turn causes of improved race relations in two ways: (1) as an outward sign and signal to others, particularly within families (think of how many people have come into close contact or friendship with members of another racial group as a result of a family member’s marriage); and (2) we’re muddying the gene pool so thoroughly, the practical distinctions between racial groups are dissolving at a rapid pace. Eventually, as one former pastor told us, so many people will be carrying so many traits from so many different groups, we won’t have race hatred because we won’t have races and therefore won’t have racism. That may be overstating things (and, to be fair, I’m paraphrasing his words), but I think the general sentiment is on target. And though we’re far from a completely mixed-race society, the process is clearly underway and already bearing fruit.

To all those who think race relations are unchanged from the 1950s, or that our nation’s history would not be “all that different” if the South had won the Civil War, or that this is “the U.S. of KKK-A”: please stop by our farm, and stay for dinner and some conversation. We’re living in a very different country from the one you’re imagining, and would like the chance to share that perspective with you.

Never Comprehending the Race had Long Gone By

I’ve had that line, from a song by the group Modern English, going through my head for awhile now. It’s something I think about whenever I read some kind of rant about contemporary American race relations that implies the country is still stuck in the 1950s. This is something we seem to hear a lot during February, which is Black History Month. It amazes me that so many think that in terms of race relations, 2007 America is essentially indistinguishable from 1957 America.

And speaking of prejudices and preconceptions, a widely-accepted one that I seldom hear questioned is that rural people are filled with racial bigotry. This is something I’ve been wanting to address for some time.

Although I am white, my wife is black. I admit that when we were first contemplating moving to the country, the notion of “rural bigotry” was an important concern and something we discussed at some length. In the end, we determined that we would rather deal with whatever racial hostility we may encounter in rural Illinois than continue putting up with the urbanization of Los Angeles. Besides, Los Angeles had plenty of racial tension of its own.

So, what happened when we moved here? The community welcomed us with open arms…and that includes the guy around the corner who has an enormous Confederate flag decal filling the rear window of his pickup truck. The first month or so we were here, we got exactly one hostile look (from a woman in the crowd at a farm auction we were attending). But other than that? Absolutely nothing, unless you count curious looks from small children.

What got me thinking and stewing about this was a recent (uncritical) book review in our diocesan newspaper. The book in question is self-published, by a priest from Nigeria doing graduate studies in St. Louis. The review is reproduced verbatim on the book’s Amazon page, in case you’re curious.

The book claims that racial bigotry and prejudice are widespread in America, including within the Catholic Church. The author details all kinds of slights that he has endured, and derides this country (which, I would point out, he chose to come to and chooses to stay in) for its intolerance toward people with his skin color. And he singles out American Catholics as being no less bigoted than anyone else in this country.

I found myself asking “what country is this guy living in?” and “what decade is this guy living in?” The country he describes is entirely different from the one our family has experienced. We and our children have lived in rural communities, suburbs, and large cities, in a variety of regions, including the old Confederacy. Our first child, much to my wife’s chagrin, was born south of Mason-Dixon. Our parishes have ranged from traditional to contemporary. In more than eleven years of marriage, we can count on one hand the number of prejudiced reactions we have experienced—and one of these was from another black. Only one of these incidents occurred in a Catholic church.

I suppose this is ultimately a question of perspective; I don’t doubt that the author has encountered hostility in this country, and I don’t doubt that he chalks that up to American bigotry. But I suspect (and this is purely supposition – I haven’t read his book) that much of that hostility is based as much on cultural differences and misunderstandings as it is on race per se. For example, apparently he once tried to give a dying person the Anointing of the Sick, and the person asked for some other priest to give it instead. Could racism have caused the person’s reaction? Sure. But might it also have been based on the priest’s heavy accent and manner of interacting with with the dying person? Might the dying person have felt more comfortable with a priest of his own culture? And might the same thing have happened if the priest was from, say, Poland or Romania? I don’t know, but I think it’s worth considering.

I don’t mean to single out one particular book, or to bash one particular author. I’m hoping to make a more general point about the evolution of race relations in this country. As you hear others, in this month of February, deride the USA for its faults of racial justice, please keep our family and our experiences in mind as a counterpoint.

And for those who might be thinking about moving to the country, but have been hesitant because you’ve been told that rural people are intolerant: it’s not necessarily true. Different regions and different communities might have different kinds of people. But at least here in Ford County, Illinois, race has “long gone by” as an issue. The future is open wide, and getting better all the time.