A dapper fellow with a baritone ambled to a hotel bar in Fayetteville and chose a stool three or four removed from mine. I nursed a red wine and reviewed notes for a presentation I would make in a few minutes next door.
The fellow engaged the bartender and, before long, was talking in an effortlessly self-amplifying way that penetrated the room. You couldn't help hearing him.
He held forth on what a "hellhole" Little Rock had become.
I took a sip and kept my head down. Soon I paid and walked out.
As I left the bar and entered the hotel lobby, I heard the dapper man ask people at a nearby table if they were going next door to hear me speak. I heard them tell him that, yes, they were, and that, in fact, they could have just talked to me considering that I had been sitting at the bar until a moment before.
The dapper man said, oh, no, that wasn't "Big John." He said "Big John" knew that you wait to do your drinking until after you speak.
Imagine: The man who called Little Rock a "hellhole" turned out to be full of it.
I told that story years later at a lunch table at the Political Animals Club. I remember that it seemed to especially offend Rex Nelson.
Rex is an Arkadelphia boy and a loving chronicler of the state's rural wonder. I hadn't thought of him as a defender of Little Rock.
Alas, I might have stereotyped him by place. There seems to be some of that going on.
Defending Little Rock from slanderous blowhards--and the state from division by place prejudice--was partly what Rex's notable column was about on the opposite page last Sunday.
It's important to understand what he didn't write. That's where all constructive discussion must start, by excising misconception.
He did not write that students from Benton and Bryant ran in panic from the Salt Bowl at War Memorial Stadium because they were racists fearing black people in the high-crime urban center.
He wrote that they ran because someone yelled "gun" and youth these days are conditioned, understandably and tragically, to fear mass shootings.
What he did write was that he wondered why someone yelled "gun" in the first place when there wasn't one, and whether somebody born of a white-flight culture might have yelled it from predisposition and fear.
It's also important to put oneself in another's shoes. Saline Countians object to invoking race as a factor with the same kind of offensiveness many Little Rockians properly took to the opening anecdote involving the dapper blowhard in Fayetteville.
Saline Countians scoffed sincerely at the notion that they or their kids panicked because of racism or could have reacted any other sane way once somebody yelled "gun."
But it's helpful to become less defensive about such things, and to become more uncomfortably introspective.
So, I'll ask you, and myself: When you first heard of the mass panic at War Memorial that night, did you envision black gang youth from inner-city Little Rock introducing guns and violence to a happy white suburban occasion?
If so, then you and I are classically prejudiced. We classically pre-judged. We should be ashamed. We must do better.
An official of the Conway Chamber of Commerce wrote on Twitter--insightfully, I thought--that the student reaction at the game was fear of a mass shooter but that the social media comments afterward tended to be racial. He said the difference probably was generational: Kids fear mass shooters and weren't the white-flight originals. Older folks fear blacks and were the white-flight originals.
I write as an old white man whose family was in the white-flight first wave. In 1958, when I was 4, we moved from downtown Little Rock to south of town to the Pulaski County "special" school district.
I carry that generational influence with me. I shouldn't be defensive about it. Instead I should work every day to evolve, as presumably the youth in Saline County have evolved.
If you live in Little Rock and hear a blowhard in Fayetteville calling your town a "hellhole," you should accept two things: He's obnoxious and it's not all backyard tranquility down here.
If you have long lived in Saline County and get accused of having made that choice in order to flee black people, then you should consider whether that's so and work to evolve, like your kids.
And may I stipulate that it's always possible you live where you live because you like it and for no reason containing any broader social-justice implication?
I recommend for all of us, in all places: Evolve generationally on race, eschew stereotype by place, trade in defensiveness for honest introspection, and run when you hear "gun" but not because you see black.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.
Editorial on 09/09/2018
Print Headline: On honest introspection