“Texas Friendly”

“Our mobile home court is very secure,” the thin retired woman with coiffured gray hair told me. “As you can see, we have a high chain link fence and are a gated community. The crime rate in here is nearly non-existent. I know outside it’s not the same.” She smiled and added, “ We’re mostly from the Midwest.” She stood behind a counter in the office entrance to the park. The sign announced,“Texas Friendly Spoken Here.”

I had entered one of the tidy walled-off resorts for recreational vehicles located in the Texas Valley near Brownsville, Texas, one of the poorest areas in the country. Right outside the gates were impoverished rural neighborhoods called colonias where Mexican Americans lived in cardboard shacks or little houses, often without plumbing or water. Fields of crops bordered many of the living spaces. Crop dusting airplanes regularly exposed residents to pesticide poisoning, and children ran and played near deep irrigation ditches.

The woman lived in one of the economically unequal states in the United States, which, next to Singapore, has the highest rate of inequality among nations of the developed world. I wrote an earlier essay describing the work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Their book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, talks about the relationship between income inequality and trust. They statistically show that “levels of trust between members of the public are lower in countries and states where income differences are higher.” They ask the reader to “imagine living somewhere where 90 per cent of the population mistrusts one another and what that must mean for the quality of everyday life–the interactions between people at work, on the street, in shops, in schools.” (54) How much that was the case for the people who lived in the walled-off mobile home courts?

Trust matters because it leads to cooperation. People cooperate by donating time and money to other people. “High levels of trust mean that people feel secure, they have less to worry about, they see others as co-operative rather than competitive.” Many studies have linked that trust to health. People with high trust live longer.

“Changes in inequality and trust go together over the years. With greater inequality, people are less caring of one another, there is less mutuality in relationships, people have to fend for themselves and get what they can–so, inevitably, there is less trust. Mistrust and inequality reinforce each other. . . material differences serve to divide us socially.”

In their book Wilkinson and Pickett talk about “dysfunctional societies.” They say that you can predict a country’s performance on one outcome from knowledge of others. If a country does badly on trust or health measurement, you can anticipate that it will “also imprison a larger proportion of its population, have more teenage pregnancies, lower literacy scores, more obesity, worse mental health, and so on. Inequality seems to make countries socially dysfunctional across a wide range of outcomes.” (173) They conclude that the USA suffers from the highest rates of social and health problems in the developed world. The high average income in the USA does nothing to reduce these conditions relative to other countries. (21)

Their message was ultimately hopeful to me, however. They say that there is something we can do about these terrible social problems. The researchers’ careful studies show that by reducing inequality we can create a society that has a higher quality of life for all. They stress that the problems listed above are not part of human nature. The deterioration we experience in contemporary life is reversible. We can create a more equal and healthy society by working to lessen the terrible material inequalities of our culture. Wilkinson and Pickett have suggestions about how to do so. I will write more about their ideas later.

The experience of mistrust between those who lived in their recreational vehicles and those who lived outside was probably was exacerbated by fear of ethnic differences. But according to the researchers, inequality causes not only the poor of South Texas but also the middle-class northerners living in their midst to live diminished lives. I have never forgotten the contrasts between the mobile home court and the make-shift homes of the poor. “Texas Friendly,” the office declared.

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Minimum Wage

The divorced mother labors thirty-five weeks in a car wash for $7.65 an hour while her three children are cared for my an over-extended day care worker. At nights she cares for her sister’s two kids as well as her own. She does not see her child support which goes to pay the state for her “costs.” Rising at 4:00 AM, Anna walks to work, then stands on her feet all day in the Arizona sun, rushing to wipe remaining water of newly cleaned autos.

At least once a week, Anna and her children travel by bus to the social welfare office, adding a bus ride and filling out forms to her long hours. Being on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Anna discovers, is itself nearly a full time job. She sleeps less than five hours a night, and feels embittered, wondering how her schedule, lack of quality time with her children, and the car wash can possibly be giving her the “dignity of work.”

Alexander Cockburn, writing in The Nation, 4-23-12, talks about the impossibility of about fifty million full time workers to earn enough for their families to rise out of poverty, which Andrew Hawker says is $23,050 for a family of four. Cockburn lists the following occupations and their average pay: Office and administrative support occupations (median wage of $31,200); sales and related occupations ($24,840); food preparation and serving occupations ($18,900); childcare workers ($19,430); personal care aides ($19,730); home health aides ($20,610); janitors and cleaners ($22,210); teaching assistants ($23,220); nonconstruction laborers ($23,460); security guards ($23,900) and construction laborers ($29,730). Even if Anna works full time at her minimum wage job, there is no way she can raise her family out of poverty.

Cockburn proposes that the greatest anti-poverty program would be to increase wages for the jobs already out there. He describes the suggestion of a coalition of economists who propose a minimum wage of $12 an hour as a long-term stimulus. If that happened, Anna would immediately spend the extra money on family necessities. The consequence would be the creation of jobs for other workers, a real stimulus package which would go to some of the hardest working people in our society.

It also would be a God-send to Anna. Adults on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families can only receive federally funded cash benefits for three years of their adult life. No wonder at night anxiety twists Anna’s stomach and she can not sleep, and during the day she sometimes snaps at her children.

In a new book by Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White American, 1960-2010, Murray accuses many poor whites like Anna of having lost the nation’s “founding virtues” of honesty, industriousness, marriage, and religion. (Quoted by Andrew Hacker in The New York Review of Books, 3-10-12) In the past, Murray says, poor whites applied themselves to their jobs at whatever their level of skill and took family responsibility seriously, as compared to now.

Likewise, Romney claims that all mothers work, as his wife did, but at the same time he wants the poorest women to also be employed by the time their children are two. He says it will give them dignity and meaning and states that it is worth it even if the costs of day care are higher than if the poor woman stayed at home. He has no vision about reality for Anna.

Stressed almost to the breaking point, often terrified for her children, and well aware of her image in the culture, Anna frantically rushes around, trying to please authorities. No wonder she feels nearly broken.

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Hunger

I waited on our front porch in Colorado everyday, willing the mailman to bring me my child support check. The trees where the starlings roosted hovered over the porch roof. I was a single mother with three young children, and my funds were rapidly being spent for food. Day after day, our food supply lessened, and the child support check didn’t come. I had tried everything to get support and nothing seemed to work. Finally, I was down to $1.75 and a few cans of food. The mailman walked past me. Hundreds of starlings took to the sky as he said, “Nothing for you today.” I knew I had to go back down to the food stamp office.

I had been on food stamps for several months earlier, then I found work that allowed me to go off them. Now I was sick and couldn’t work, and child support was essential. But it didn’t come. I was so ashamed. Somehow I had to communicate to the welfare office that not only did I not have money but also that I had let us get so bad.

Two of my kids stayed with friends and one daughter went with me. In the waiting room, I took a number and sat with other women and children. We avoided each other’s eyes. The same bouquet of faded beige flowers sat on the counter. My little girl read instructions from the pop machine. In the time between my two experiences with food stamps, she had learned to read. Finally, my name was called.

An hour later, my daughter and I skipped down the sidewalk on our way home. I was so happy, and she was happy with me. Food stamp officials were kind, had given me an emergency allotment of $64, and more would be coming. We were hungry and couldn’t wait to go to the grocery store.

Food stamps, what is now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has been an emergency source for similar families for the last five and a half decades, beginning under President Kennedy. According to Lisa Sharon Harper (Sojomail, e/22/12), “one of the reasons SNAP works so well right now is that its funding has the flexibility to fluctuate up and down when there is a change in need.” That made it extraordinarily helpful during the Great Recession. Not only has it fed millions of hungry families, but I know during my time of troubles, it kept me sane. I knew that if I proved how desperate we were, there would be at least minimal food for my children.

That source of help is in serious danger now. Senator Paul Ryan, the Republicans, and Mitt Romney have proposed a radical, reverse-Robin Hood plan that would cut funds from SNAP and give even larger tax breaks to the rich. It would block grant SNAP and send a fixed amount of money for it to the states. I live in Arizona now and certainly don’t trust it to fairly administer an inflexible amount of reduced funds.

Brad Plumer, in a blog from the Washington Post, says that over the next decade, Ryan plans to spend about 16 percent less than the White House on “income security,” which includes programs for the poor that range from food stamps to housing assistance to the earned-income tax credit. That means millions of people will go hungry.

Lee Sharon Harper declares, “Ryan, as a Catholic, has flagrantly disregarded the moral counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which released a statement on March 6 affirming the following:

Congress should base decisions on the federal budget on whether they protect or threaten human life and dignity, whether they put the needs of the hungry, the homeless and the unemployed first, and whether they reflect the shared responsibility of government and other institutions to promote the common good of all, especially workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in difficult times.”

We must fight against Ryan and other forces that would slash funding for the poor and those struggling to make it through this period of difficulty. We can write letters, we can raise our voices in public, and we can work on campaigns that oppose the Ryan budget. Why do we in the United States attempt to punish our poor? Is the fact of their existence so terrifying to us?

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On Justice, Part 2

Teresa, a undocumented immigrant working in the nurseries of Illinois, told me her story of crossing from Mexico into the United States. The trip took place before the border became as militarized as it is today:
“Diego, my husband, came first. We had five children in Mexico and were very poor. Life was hard, there wasn’t food, and for our children, we were afraid. Then I left the children with relatives and came to the United States to be with Diego. I also came to work and send home money to feed the kids. It hurt very much to leave my kids.
“I traveled with about twenty others, including my younger brother. We crossed the Rio Grande in an inflatable raft, and we were picked up by the people who were transporting us. They took us to San Juan, Texas. We were already hungry and tired, and we thought we were going to get a taco, some food, but they didn’t give us food, nothing, nothing. We got there about midnight, and they did not let us eat food or drink water for twenty-four hours because we were going to be locked in a crate. They didn’t want us to have to use a restroom.
“Then they took us out of the city in a car, to a far place, far away in the dark of the night. We stopped on a very dark road and then a truck came. They yelled, “Get in! Get in!” And we climbed in the crate real fast because anyone that’s left behind stays. Then they locked the crate. This was about twenty people, and they made a hole in the vegetables and locked us in and then covered us with potatoes, everybody together.
“We were terrified in the dark, all crushed together. We could hardly breathe. Then we heard them yell, ‘The Immigration! Stay quiet!’ We saw lights flashing around as immigration checked us. We had to stay there piled on top of each other, without no noise or nothing, for about forty minutes. There were elderly ladies that were crying in the quiet because they were on top of each other, and they couldn’t stand it anymore.
“From San Juan, Texas to Chicago we maintained that position, without drinking water, without going to the restroom, without eating any food. In that vegetable truck, suffocating because we couldn’t breathe. I passed out many times. Also, it was in the middle of a snow storm in the winter, and we only had summer clothes. There was ice on top and underneath. And those with feet in the ice, their shoes got stuck and they couldn’t move their feet. Their shoes came apart from them trying to move. There was ice, wind, and snow.
“We tried to signal the people up in the cab of the truck, to try to get their attention. But they’d say, ‘Be quiet, we can’t do nothing!’ We were so cold. They should have tried to do something to get us warm, maybe blankets.
“There was one lady who was very old, very drained, and she was coming to join her family. I thought she was going to die in the create. But she lived. We had a young boy, traveling without his parents. The whole trip lasted for six to seven days, with almost no food, but we were in the truck with vegetables, in the crate for two days.
“We finally got to Chicago where they took us out and gave us food. When they got me out I felt like I was suffocating. I thought I was dying. It was a nightmare, and I have nightmares about it all the time.
“When we came in a van to Onarga from Chicago, we saw all the ice and snow. There were trailers turned over and cars stuck along the road. I was very skinny and sick for about fifteen days, with dehydration and a cold. And my brother, who came with me, for about a month, he had his feet black from the cold. After that the feet started to peel.”

I believe Teresa’s story brings stark issues about justice to our consideration. What are basic rights that all people have? To whom do we as a nation owe obligations?
Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. The United States signed it. It includes our familiar rights, such as freedom of speech and religion, but it also says that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family. Among other conditions, this includes food, clothing, housing, and medical care. Under this principle, Teresa and her family deserve basic sustenance.
Michael J. Sandel, in Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do? (2009), talks about the ideas of philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre says struggles to do what is right come from our story telling nature. We are all tell part of greater stories, such as that of our family or nation, and we have obligations because of them.
Citizens of the United States share much common history with people living in Mexico and Central America, and we jointly participate in many stories. The U.S. and Mexico fought a war, after which Mexico ceded much of its northern territories to the U.S., including Texas, California, and much of New Mexico and Arizona. Likewise, the United States occupied and controlled much of Central America. We also entered NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994, which decimated poor farmers in Mexico and Central America. Because of basic human rights and a history of such shared actions, I believe we have some sort of obligation to the people of these countries.
Some citizens of the U.S. try to deny its history of imperialism in Mexico and Central America, but we don’t get to pick and choose what has already happened. We have to deal morally with Mexico and Central America, if for no other reason than our shared history. For example, we might change our trade agreements, give more extensive aid to Mexico and Central America, and reform our immigration polices. Under such conditions, people like Teresa would not have to make their harrowing trip north in the first place.
I have been haunted by Teresa’s trip. With her permission, I used the time in the crate for the first scene of Journey of the Sparrows, a young adult novel. Her story also inspired me to political actions. In standing with other undocumented workers, I can thank her.

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Justice, Part 1

Mary Tsukamoto, a small woman of sixty-six when I interviewed her in 1982, described to me the sufferings of her Japanese immigrant parents during the first decades of the twentieth century. She cried unself-consciously as she talked about the life of her family when she was a child.
“Then, on a Sunday morning on December 7, 1942, we heard over the radio the news of Pearl Harbor. Because we knew of the long, ugly background of anti-Oriental sentiment in which [my siblings and I] grew up, it was a frightening thing to realize that Japan was at war with the United States. We sensed something very, very foreboding and frightening.”
Mary had short, softly waved black hair that was edged with streaks of white around her face. Her brown eyes revealed her kindness, and she spoke with a gentle, young voice that nevertheless expressed much emotion. I gradually realized that her left arm was totally immobile, stuck as a ninety-degree angle.
Shortly after the beginning of WW11, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 commanding Japanese and Japanese Americans to be evacuated into concentration camps for the duration of the war. Mary’s family were poor, strawberry and grape farmers in the rural community of Florin outside of Sacramento in California.
“. . . By the middle of May, the sign went on the telephone posts. The [sign] asked people to be ready to be evacuated.” The people, desperate to get their affairs in order, rushed around, trying to prepare their farms for their departure.
Mary continued, “The last day was on May 29. Strawberries were red in the fields; in the peak of our season, we left our berries to rot!” Mary cried hard. “And many farmers depended on that crop to pay back debts they had borrowed in the stores and shipping companies, because each year they had to borrow in advance to make it. That was the kind of life we were living; they were just poor farmers. And so they didn’t get to harvest their strawberries and their grapes that year and they had debts they left, and the stores and businesses had great losses they could never claim. . . Some families were in the middle of their lunch, eating, when the military came running and said, “You’ve got two hours to catch the train.”
During the rest of the interview Mary described the sufferings at the camps she and other they endured. Decades later, she and other Japanese Americans tried to get an apology and reparations from the government. Finally, in 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law an official apology and provided both compensation of $20,000 to each survivor of the camps and funds to promote Japanese American culture and history. By then, many of the survivors were dead.
In Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do, philosopher Michael J. Sandel (2009) gives insight into the questions of reparations. Sandel talks about three approaches to justice. The first is the view that whatever maximizes the welfare of the greatest number of people is just. For example, one might say that it was just for FDR to imprison Japanese Americans during WW11 because it might have kept the rest of the population safe. The second approach to justice emphasizes rights. Basic human rights are important to this understanding, and it was against their basic rights to imprison the Japanese Americans. The third idea says justice evolves around promoting goodness and reasoning about the common good. (260) In this understanding, imprisoning Japanese Americans did not contribute to the common good because there was no Japanese American sabotage.
Sandel also talks about questions of the claims of community and collective responsibility, the idea that members of a group are somehow responsible for the actions of other group members, even if these actions took place in the past. (210) For example, are white people in the United States somewhat responsible for what happened to African Americans during slavery and the era of Jim Crow, a time that ended only forty-seven years ago? What about the promises made to slaves during the Civil War that they would receive “forty acres and a mule?”
One approach to these questions is the idea of “moral individualism.” In this view an individual is only subject to obligations he or she voluntarily undertakes through some idea of consent.(212) It says that as moral agents we are free and independent selves. Thus, whites alive to day bear no responsibility to Japanese Americans or blacks for what happened in the past.
Sandel believes that the concept of moral individualism is flawed, and we have “obligations of solidarity and loyalty, historic memory, and religious faith–moral claims that arise from the communities and traditions that shape our identity.” (220) However, these encumbrances can be oppressive. The idea of moral individualism developed in response to the abuse of class, caste, custom, station of life, and traditions of inherited status. He asks, “how is it possible to acknowledge the moral weight of community while still giving scope to human freedom?”
Sandel presents the arguments of Alasdair MacIntyre. He says that we humans are storytelling beings. People need to ask: “‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part? . . I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations, and obligations. . . [These are] my moral starting point. . .I am born with a past.” (221-223)
According to Sandel, both pride and shame are moral feelings that assume we have a shared identity. “You can’t really take pride in your country and its past if you’re unwilling to acknowledge any responsibility for carrying its story into the present, and discharging the moral burdens that may come with it.” With belonging comes responsibility.(235) It’s more than human rights.
Mary Tsukamoto’s story and the story of her Japanese American companions warns that justice is not what is good for the greatest number. Also, just thinking of human rights is often inadequate. We must concern ourselves with our obligations to communities with whom we share a past. They are part of our narrative, a story that continues into the present.

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BluesFor six ye…

Blues

For six years, I have run what we call “meaning groups” for a program that works with young, drug addicted women in trouble with child welfare. Because of confidentiality, I can’t write about the women in it, but I keep thinking of a New Mexican woman from my past who experienced similar issues. She would have qualified for our programing if we’d had it then thirty-six years ago.

 

The woman rode into our town in New Mexico in the back of a truck, holding her baby on her lap. She was overweight, dressed in overalls, and wore her long red hair in braids. The baby had a mass of red hair. Over the next months I got to know the woman in the community outreach program my husband and I ran. She called herself “Blues” and I never learned her real name. She came to my women’s group one night and told us her story.

 

Her mother, a drug abuser, raised her in the mountains near Estes Park, Colorado. One day her mother overdosed. Blues lived alone in a cabin with her mother’s body for days. Eventually, neighbors found her and placed her with her father. He used her for sex and sold her to his buddies. When she was old enough, she ran away from home. She made her way to the mountains of New Mexico where an older woman took her into her extended family outside of Taos. The woman was kind to her, but Blues got pregnant. The old woman helped her give birth, and Blues could have stayed living with her, but the old woman developed cancer. When she died, the family broke up. Blues and the baby wandered from place to place. Finally, she found another temporary home with a family living in the mountains around our town. The baby soon became a toddler who clung to the leg of his mother’s overalls.

 

Eventually, the funding for our job ended, and we planed to move to Wisconsin. As we prepared to go, I noticed that Blues was rapidly losing weight. I asked her about it. “Just dieting hard,” she said.

 

“Speed,” someone else whispered.

 

I do not know what happened to Blues. Perhaps she evaded a descent into addiction and is living a healthy life somewhere, but I do know that women with backgrounds similar to hers make up the population of those in the program where I work. Their stories make my knees quake when I hear them.

 

They are also casualties in the “War on Drugs,” which was first named in 1971, then proclaimed to the world during the Reagan administration. Many of the women I work with have been in and out of jail, arrested for minor drug possession or petty crimes as they try to maintain what had been their habits. Most have lost their children, although they are in drug treatment as they attempt to get their children back.

 

Gabor Mate, MD, in his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, 2008, writes about the people he serves in his Canadian street clinic. He also declares his objection to the way the War on Drugs, which he believes is fruitless and actually injures people. Mate asks the following questions about it. “Are its aims valid and attainable? Are the means employed likely to achieve the desired goals? What are the human and economic costs of carrying it out?” (287)

He answers his questions when he says, “The War on Drugs fails–and is doomed to perpetual failure–because it is directed not against the root causes of drug addiction or of the international black market in drugs, but only against some drug producers, traffickers, and users. More fundamentally, the war is doomed because neither the methods of war nor the war metaphor itself is appropriate to a complex social problem that calls for compassion, self-searching insight, and factually researched scientific understanding.” (298-299)

The kinds of circumstances Blues experienced growing up generally make such people vulnerable to all sorts of social problems, including addiction and child abuse or neglect, although I have no evidence that Blues’ behavior toward her child fit in these categories.

In 2001, the King County Bar Association in Washington State adopted a statement asserting that the War on Drugs is fundamentally flawed. Mate quotes their conclusions. Among others, they list:

* the failure to reduce problematic drug use, particularly among children

* skyrocketing public costs arising from both increased drug abuse and increased crime.

* erosion of public health from the spread of disease, from the concealment and inadequate treatment of addiction, and from undue restriction on proper medical treatment of pain

* disproportionately adverse effects of drug law enforcement on the poor and persons of color (298)

Instead of prosecuting people with backgrounds similar to those of Blues,

we must treat them with great respect and compassion. We did not protect them as children, and they deserve the best resources of our society.

 

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Earl Varner’s Mother

The tragic death of Trayvon Martin has triggered memories of a similar incident that occurred about twenty-five years ago. Mary Robinson, an African American social activist born in 1943, and I were working on a book about her home community in rural Alabama. She was raised there as part of a sharecropping family during the time of segregation. In the process of writing the book, we uncovered several old crimes committed by whites against the African Americans they kept in virtual slavery. The findings resulted in our book, Moisture of the Earth: Mary Robinson, Civil Rights and Textile Union Activist. (2009)

Late one afternoon in August 1998, we talked to a retired African American deputy sheriff in Wetumpka, Alabama, the largest community near Mary’s childhood home. He talked about the electrocution of a fifteen year boy because of a suspected rape, then said, “Earl Varner’s mother’s still alive. Somebody should talk to her.” Earl Varner, he explained, died after being stopped and questioned by Sheriff Holley, the feared white sheriff from Mary’s childhood.

He told us how to find Earl Varner’s mother’s house, and we drove through Wetumpka’s African American neighborhood, down side streets lined with trees and broken sidewalks. Finally, we came to a small, white framed house with a front porch. It was late evening and insects hummed. African American children with bikes stood in the street watching us, and Mary asked them where Mrs. Varner lived. They pointed to the house.

We went to the front porch, and Mary knocked on the door but no one came. The children said Mrs. Varner was at home so Mary went around to the side door and knocked on it. “Miss Varner, are you in there? We’d like to see you for a minute.” No one came. I knocked on the front door again as Mary looked in a window. A graceful wooden rocking chair and potted plants sat on the front porch.

Finally, the side porch light was turned on, and an old African American woman opened the screen door. Mary said, “Mrs. Varner, don’t be frightened. My name is Mary Robinson and this is Fran Buss. I grew up here and Willie Townsend gave us your name. We’ve been trying to figure out some things that happened when I was a child, and we’d like to ask you about your son Earl.”

The old woman was large boned, but not heavy; her face was broad and strong; she had few teeth; and she wore a hair net and a loose fitting, stripped dress. She was barefooted.

“Come on in. I’ve been sick,” she said and motioned us inside. She left the door open and night insects buzzed outside.

I looked around the room. A bust of a cement angel with delicate hair and wings was centered on a chest on the wall to the left, and photos of young people in military uniforms were arranged around the angel. Mary established connections with Mrs. Varner. Mary had been in Mrs. Varner’s daughter’s class in school; her dad’s girlfriend lived a few blocks over. “If you’ve been sick, we don’t want to make you feel bad,” Mary said, “but we’re writing a book and wondered if you could tell us what happened to Earl.”

The old woman silently started to cry, then spoke a sentence or two, sniffed and wiped her hands across her face, spoke another few sentences, and did the same again. She repeated this as long as we spoke. “He was my oldest boy and he was so sweet. He kept saying, ‘Mama, you work so hard. I’m gonna take care of you.’ But the sheriff and his people in Wetumpka was upset with Earl because he be dating a girl who was half-white and looked white. Then Earl be coming home one night from work in Montgomery, and he was stopped by Sheriff Holley. Holley accused him of drinking. Earl said he didn’t have but one, and according to the story, Holley bashed him ‘cross the head. He crushed my Earl’s skull.” Mrs. Varner told us that Sheriff Holley then transported Earl to jail, charged him with resisting arrest, and gave him no medical care. Earl died in jail that night and Mrs. Varner knew nothing about the arrest until someone came to inform her that Earl was dead.

As we spoke the dark seemed to envelop the rest of the world until it seemed only the still grieving mother, Mary, the angel, circling moths, and I existed. A little later Mrs Varner’s other adult son came home and confirmed the story. He stated that he was only fourteen when it happened so he does not remember the details clearly, but after Earl’s death, civil rights groups attempted to prosecute Sheriff Holley with mixed results. Holley and his supporters continued in power.

I think now about Mrs. Varner’s grief, which lasted decades. What part was the despair of loss of a child and what part the impotent frustration of living in a culture where whites regularly got by committing crimes against their black neighbors? Surely, the civil rights groups’ protest must have given her some sense of solidarity, but she must have felt so outraged and impotent when Holley was ultimately sentenced to one year’s probation.

Now what will happen with Trayvon’s killer? Will the South get away with its old habits of covering up white-on-African American crime? His mother will grieve for the rest of her life, like Earl Varner’s mother. Will the rest of us stand by?

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