There is a painting called Intent off the main lobby of Chicago’s Union League Club, which I like a great deal. It’s by Rene Romero Schuler, and it features a solitary, partially attenuated figure silhouetted against a mottled ivory background. I’ve seen it several times, and it usually reminds me of Giacometti–the painted wall fragments from his legendary studio at Rue Hippolyte-Mandron or even Tall Figure and Walking Man. But an unfortunate incident during my most recent three-day stay at ULC turned Schuler’s large square canvas into a symbol of race relations and a reminder of the uncertainties facing America during the presidency of Donald J. Trump.
Twenty-three years ago, my brother was selected to head up a citywide charitable campaign whose meetings he could not attend because they were held at the exclusive members-only ULC. A principal in the charitable organization said he could fix that and soon sponsored my brother for a membership in the prestigious club.
How prestigious? According to a 2013 article in Michigan Avenue magazine, the ULC is one of the top five private clubs in Chicago. Founded in 1879, its membership includes prominent attorneys, physicians, insurance executives, politicians and other professionals. As author Seth Putnam wrote, it was at the ULC that “Governor George Ryan announced a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois. In the President’s Room, where past club leaders are honored, Senator Dick Durban convinced a senator named Barack Obama to become a different sort of president.”
A PROGRESSIVE HISTORY
The Union League Club has a history of championing causes such as racial equality, women’s suffrage, labor reform, and civil rights. Depending on residency and age, membership runs between $150 and $750 per month after a not-terribly-exorbitant initiation fee. Its art collection includes Claude Monet’s Apple Trees in Bloom, purchased in 1895 for a mere $500. There is a dress code. The rooms are well-appointed and modernized to include state-of-the-art flat-screen TV, Wi-Fi, and glass-doored marble-tiled showers. It is lovely to stay there unless your suite is separated by a single locked door from rooms occupied by people you do not know. Then your visit can be marred by the cooing of strangers or whatever chatter they may be engaged in. Adjoining rooms are great when you have children in tow and everyone belongs to the same party. Otherwise, it’s best to ask during registration for accommodations that will eliminate this issue a priori.
Because of my brother’s membership, I have been a guest at the ULC on several occasions during the past 20 years. On this or that business-related trip, I have also enjoyed other top hotels near Millennial Park and elsewhere in Chicago. But the ULC is my hands-down favorite. The art collection alone is worth the mild inconvenience of the club’s dress code. The staff has always been exceptionally courteous and kind. And it feels good to know I’m able to experience the club’s old-world charm because of my brother’s charitable work and professional success. Membership has its privileges, as the saying goes, and it is my privilege to belong to a family that derives its current success from segregation-era parents who did the hard work of educating their children and laying the groundwork for largesse that now includes organizations like ULC.
THE REGRETTABLE RACIAL INCIDENT
But during the holiday season at the end of 2016, a strangely uncharacteristic incident occurred under the venerable club’s roof. My sister and her husband, who were visiting from North Carolina as part of our family’s New Year’s celebration, were accused of smoking pot in their room. The security team entered the suite while they were having breakfast in the club’s dining room, determined that marijuana could be identified within its confines, and initiated a fine of $250 for violating the club’s no-smoking policy.
My sister does not smoke pot. Neither does her husband. A psychologist, she is Assistant Head of School at a private academy in North Carolina’s Research Triangle. My brother-in-law has a Ph.D. in education and, in addition to a lucrative consulting practice, teaches at the college level. Married for thirty-five years, they have raised two admirable children whom they educated at UNC, Guilford College, and Vanderbilt Law School. The ULC security team checked only my sister’s room, the door to which was open while they were at breakfast because housekeeping was setting it right. The security people claimed that marijuana could be smelled up and down the hallway and determined that my sister and brother-in-law’s room was the source of the offensive odor. However, they did not find marijuana there. Nor did they use any of the currently available digital technologies to measure the presence of smoke. Also, management could provide no answer as to why security had not checked elsewhere before accusing my sister and her husband of the crime.
If you are a white American, you would be puzzled by this situation. The investigative procedures were so faulty and the behavior so biased you would be forced to wonder how guests at a prestigious institution could be subjected to such a humiliation. However, if you are African-American, even though you do not want to think it is so, you realize eventually that this is happening because you are black—as both my sister and brother-in-law happen to be. You notice that the housekeeping manager who instigated the marijuana complaint is white, and it becomes clear to you that she is emblematic ofthe peculiar nexus where things begin to break down in America, the snagged thread in our nation’s social fabric that threatens to pull the whole tapestry apart.
The Union League Club is like the country we live in. It has a set of values it tries to live by, but its reality is determined by individuals who make up the life within its walls. One is tempted to shrug off the biases of a mid-level housekeeping manager for embarrassing guests of color. But what If she had been a cop on the streets of any major city in America? How long would it be before she pulled a gun and sent one of us to an early grave because her inability to see beyond race led to a false and wholly improbable conclusion?
Eventually, a higher level of management was called in to investigate the situation, and the true source of the marijuana violation was found in a room down the hall from my sister and brother-in-law’s. The club later apologized for the incident, offered to adjust their bill, and provided complimentary champagne when we returned from the movie we almost missed because of the incident—a screening, believe it or not, of Hidden Figures.
WITNESSING MY MOTHER’S STRUGGLE VIA THE MOVIE
If you haven’t seen the film, I urge you to do so. It’s about the African-American women whose mathematical, computational, and engineering prowess contributed to NASA’s space program during a time when they could not even use the same bathrooms as whites. Performances by Octavia Spencer, Tarji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst are credible and deeply moving. We didn’t select Hidden Figures because of what happened at ULC. It was part of the day’s prearranged itinerary, which in retrospect now seems to have been orchestrated by Jungian synchronicity. But after what can only be described as a racial incident in one of the top five private clubs in Chicago, the movie took on additional layers of meaning for us—making it not only a historical film about a bygone era but a cautionary tale for post-Election 2016 America.
My siblings and I noticed a striking similarity between our mother’s struggle to become the first African-American supervisor at Macy’s Department Store in the 1960’s and Octavia Spencer’s portrayal of Dorothy Vaughan’s effort to achieve a comparable promotion at NASA. Like Spencer’s character, my Mom led a department of mostly African-American women whom she inspired to attend college and apply for other opportunities within the organization. She adjusted their schedules so they could attend classes and inspired them to represent their African-American heritage in the most progressive and forward-looking manner possible, reminding them as members of her generation often felt compelled to do, that all eyes would be on them because of their race. And it was up to them to represent our people in the best possible light.
THE RATIONALE THAT PREVENTS PEOPLE FROM SEEING THE TRUTH
Years after my mother’s retirement, when I drove her to the supermarket or the dollar store, or to Home Depot for the annuals she planted every Spring, I was amazed to find her one-time clericals stopping to thank her for what she contributed to their lives when they were fresh out of high school and uncertain about what to do with themselves. My mother would not be able to invoke racial pride as a motivational tool in today’s corporate world. But there was one aspect of Hidden Figures that rings as true today as it was in 1962. That’s the moment when, after repeatedly side-stepping or rebuffing Spencer’s requests for a deserved promotion, the blonde manager played by Kirsten Dunst claims that she has nothing against Spencer.
“Yes ma’am,” Spencer says. “I’m sure you believe that’s true.”
The same could be said of voters who helped put Trump in the White House. It was because of his tax plan, they will tell you. Or because he’ll restore manufacturing jobs and rebuild the country’s infrastructure. Never mind that his statements about race made him the candidate of the Ku Klux Klan. Or that he claimed a Hispanic judge was not competent to hear a case because of his race. Or that everything about the man’s candidacy seemed to fly in the face of America’s core values. That’s not why I voted for him, these people will tell you. It’s because of his straightforward talk and economic policies.
“Yes ma’am. I’m sure you believe that’s true.”
When we returned to the Union League Club after the movie, everything was hunky dory. The champagne was delicious, and whenever we were at table, we felt reassured at every turn by the staff’s understated but ramped-up attention that the organization wanted to redress the earlier incident and lay it to rest. I should mention that my family’s core values do not include looking for reasons to feel aggrieved by perceived racial injustice. But when racism does occur, we are willing to look it in the eye and call it what it is. In place of the ramped-up attention, we would have preferred to move forward with our holiday without incident. Each of us is an established professional. We don’t invent or invite racial difficulties in order to validate our existence. We’re far too busy living our lives and doing the work that’s helped make us secure.
The intent of the Union League Club as an organization was clear. When it recognized that a mistake had been made, it moved to rectify the situation. What I say here is not meant to cast aspersions on ULC. But here’s the thing: if a humiliating racial incident set in motion by staff with insufficient diversity training could occur at a club known for its record on racial and gender equality, what is happening elsewhere in the country where once-closeted racists may now feel empowered by the ascent of a candidate who catered to them?
There are people of color in this country who do not think this situation applies to them. They seek to “transcend race,” presuming that wealth and membership in exclusive private clubs will inoculate them from racism. To these folks I can only say, “Yes ma’am. I’m sure you believe that’s true.”
WHY DO THESE INCIDENTS SEEM TO OCCUR MORE OFTEN NOW?
We have already seen random news reports of what appears to be an increase in racially motivated bullying since the presidential election. As NPR reported, Hispanic children in North Carolina have been taunted by white classmates who accused them of being undocumented aliens, claiming they would soon be deported. There is also the widely publicized case of African-American TV commentator Angela Rye, who was aggressively frisked by a white TSA agent of the same gender, which was captured on cell-phone video at Rye’s request and posted on social media. Would these things have happened if the election had turned out differently? Are they receiving increased attention now because the “liberal media” is trying to make a point at the expense of the president-elect? Or has he given tacit permission through his rhetoric and tone that these things are okay?
One of the many anonymous trolls that appear when incidents like Rye’s go viral commented that it occurred because Rye regards herself as a “victim,” adding that this was why she wanted the incident to be captured on video – to prove and document her victimhood. The taunt raises an interesting question. To what degree does unconscious intent influence what happens to us in the lived-out world? Did Donald Trump become president of the United States because he internalized the lessons of his one-time pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, and strongly believed he would win the election no matter what? Does Angela Rye harbor feelings of victimhood that subvert her outward success? Does she feel guilty about her achievements and secretly wish for opportunities to be more like the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement?
I do not know these people, and I do not know the answers to these deeply personal questions. But I do believe that we must remain vigilant in our thought lives. That we must not allow ourselves to fall in love with and internalize the negative. We must be able to look at it when it arises, but we must not entertain it or hold onto it in our hearts. This is our daily, if not hourly task. To remember that we are co-creators of our realities and must do the necessary internal and external work to bring about lives that reflect our inner values. To create the interior math that will establish the go/no-go point in the trajectory of our lives. To borrow once again from Hidden Figures, this is how each of us can put a man on the moon.
It is a question of intent.