As I write this column, I am keeping an eye on my 17-month-old great niece, Gabriella. The child has an infectious smile, and she bestows kisses on my cheek, a distraction technique, I soon realize, as she reaches across my face to snatch off the first of my gold clip-on earrings.
Gabby’s eyes appear blue one minute and gray the next, an unusual combination with her light brown complexion. As she talks her gibberish to me and my little border collie who endures pokes from the child, I wonder if I could ever love Gabby more than I do at this moment.
I also wonder what I would do if an intoxicated stranger on an airplane were to slap her across her face, leaving a scratch below one eye, because she was crying loudly as the plane went into its final descent.
This actually happened in February to 19-month-old Jonah Bennett of Minneapolis on a flight landing in Atlanta. A 60-year-old Idaho man reportedly told Jonah’s mother, 33-year-old Jessica Bennett, to “shut that n****r baby up,” then slapped the child, much to the horror of witnesses. Days later, Joe Hundley, then the president of an aircraft parts manufacturer in Idaho, was out of a job.
Bennett and her husband, who are white, adopted Jonah, who is black, as a newborn. I suspect that had Hundley not been outright drunk as witnesses contend that he was, he would not have attacked a defenseless toddler. But the liquor only brought out what was apparently an abiding sentiment inside the man and, sadly, countless others like him.
Ever since the airline incident was reported, people have shared their own disturbing experiences of racism that is very much alive and well in America despite the election and re-election of the nation’s first black president.
How did Hundley become as he is? Babies do not come into the world hating other people on the basis of race. That condition has to be taught, ingrained by others’ words and deeds.
As I think of Hundley, I also recall another disturbing race-related incident in the news recently. It involves a father, who is white, who told the staff of a Michigan hospital that no African-American nurse was to care for his newborn. The child was in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit for a month-long stay.
Initially, staff complied after the baby’s father showed a nurse supervisor his swastika tattoo on his arm. Later, the hospital refused to continue honoring his request.
But the reversal did not come in time to head off a lawsuit against the hospital for punitive damages that was filed recently by 49-year-old Tonya Battle, the veteran African-American nurse whom the father had met and rejected.
I shudder to think what it will mean for the Michigan newborn to have an openly racist father, a man in place to be the architect of the child’s outlook on others who are different from himself.
There was a time when I believed that racism would end only when the most hardened of racists of any nationality died off, leaving their children and grandchildren to form friendships regardless of race — or because of it.
But racism, like any other sin, will prevail as long as there are people to embrace it.
And we wonder why such people end up on airplanes, out of control with a hatred that is stoked by alcohol, or that some proudly brandish their swastika tattoo, intoxicated by their own presumptions of superiority.