“The first kick I took was when I hit the ground.”
— Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.”
So now, Jonah has received a lesson in How Things Are. He is 19 months old.
Sitting on his mother’s lap on a recent Delta Air Lines flight on approach to Atlanta, he was doing what babies tend to do on airplanes, particularly airplanes that are changing altitude.
He was crying his little head off.
Shut that “nigger baby” up.
Those were the alleged words of the alleged man in the next seat just before he allegedly slapped the baby with an open palm, leaving a scratch below his right eye.
The alleged man, 60-year-old Joe Rickey Hundley of Hayden, Idaho, denies this sequence of events and pleaded not guilty last week to a charge of simple assault. But at least one witness corroborates the story, as told by Jonah’s mother, 33-year-old Jessica Bennett. She and her husband are white. Their adopted son is African-American.
Hundley’s attorney, Marcia Shein, promises her client is no racist. In so doing, she embraces the cognitive dissonance that so often afflicts Americans when they are confronted with the ponderous idiocy of tribal hatred.
Michael Richards, you will recall, said the same thing after a “comedy” routine in which he hurled the N-word at a heckler and suggested the man should be lynched. Mel Gibson swore he wasn’t an anti-Semite shortly after he cursed the Jews and accused them of starting all the world’s wars.
Shein also says she has received hate mail for defending Hundley.
Which is troubling, but not unexpected. Shein’s client is among the more reviled men in the country just now.
The aerospace company for which he was an executive has denounced and dumped him.
The Internet rings with condemnation of him. Someone called him a monster. More than one person spoke of wringing Hundley’s neck had it been their child.
There is something visceral and immediate in what he is said to have done.
Who hits a baby? Who looks at a baby and sees an object of loathing?
Still, all that notwithstanding, something about the response to this act of violence feels faintly facile and self-deluding.
After all, Hundley’s alleged animus toward black people, if not his expression thereof, is as American as monster trucks, woven through the fabric of our law, economics, health care, education, news media and culture.
We tend to forget that not every slap is physical – nor is every injury they inflict.
There is violence and there is violence – emotional, verbal, intellectual, monetary.
We are rightfully outraged that someone would call a baby by a racial slur and then strike him.
But it is a matter of statistical fact that Jonah, from the moment he was born, stood an excellent chance of being struck in other ways.
Of being failed by his school.
Of being steered into the criminal injustice system as if prison was his natural habitat.
Of being denied housing.
Of being denied health care.
Of being denied loans.
Of being denied work.
Of being denied his very individuality.
There is also an excellent chance – indeed, a virtual certainty – most of us will respond to this with a collective shrug, assuming we see it at all; such things tend to become sociocultural wallpaper when they are not happening to you.
It’s easier to get worked up about violence that is visceral and immediate, particularly when it is directed against a child.
We will be a better country, though, when we are willing to expend some of that outrage upon the violence we commit against African-American children every day, systemic blows that are at once more subtle, more pervasive and more damaging.
Because the truth of How Things Are is that, over the course of his life, Jonah is likely to be struck many times in many different ways.
This was just the first.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize winner and is a columnist for the Miami Herald.