I arrived at the Avondale Fourth of July parade early this year, so I grabbed my phone to read the news.
One of the stories circulating was that the City Council in Charlottesville, Va. — Thomas Jefferson’s historical stomping ground — had voted to stop recognizing his birthday as an official holiday.
“Rut roh,” I thought as I sat in my minivan, peering in my rearview mirror, affixing an unpowdered wig. Once again, I was set to march in Avondale’s parade in a borrowed Colonial getup. Each year, a poor excuse for Jefferson (me) marches alongside a better version of George Washington, along with my son’s flag-toting Boy Scout troop.
We come right after the firetruck and set the pace for what is quintessentially a small-town holiday celebration marked by smiling toddlers on the curb and Bloody-Mary-sipping adults. (The Santa float this year carried a large Trump campaign banner, irking many in the Dem-leaning town.)
In the back of my mind, I wondered if maybe old TJ is out of step. The conundrum about the Founding Father having owned slaves has been there for generations. The prevailing theory has been, yes, it is very problematic that Jefferson owned people, but he was still relatively woke for an 18th-century white guy.
But now, has time — and public outrage — caught up with Jefferson, making him an outcast like the traitorous trio on the Stone Mountain carving?
Coinciding with the latest smack at Jefferson was the revelation that the Betsy Ross flag is racist.
I, like much of America, learned this when Nike pulled the release of a line of shoes with the flag because Colin Kaepernick told the company so. Reportedly, the former NFL quarterback who’s now a Nike-brand ambassador told the shoemakers that the 13-star flag represented oppression and slavery, not some plucky Colonies severing the bonds of tyranny.
The outrage against the Colonial flag, and those godawful ugly Colonial shoes, was met by a larger round of outrage because that’s how the outrage business rolls — the backlash is often more fierce than the front lash.
Kaepernick, a biracial man who was adopted and is tatted up with a bevy of Bible verses, has become the perfect symbol of America, the Land of Outrage.
There are those on the right who won’t watch grown men concussing each other because of Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality. Then there are those on the left, especially African Americans, who backed away from watching NFL games after Kaepernick got blacklisted for his stand.
In any case, outrage has worked well for Kaepernick. Nike signed him to a lucrative contract, and he no longer must subject his brain to scrambling.
Some form of outrage is served up weekly in America. Atlanta’s own Home Depot is in the boycott crosshairs after its co-founder, billionaire Bernie Marcus, said he will donate most of his fortune to charities and will spend freely to back Trump in 2020.
The anti-Marcus outrage outraged Trump himself, who then Twitter-raged against the “Radical Left” for trying to hurt a business. Outrage, naturally, is selective. So I’m sure The Donald forgot that last month he urged a boycott of AT&T because it owns the #FakeNews-generating CNN.
Also, Georgia’s Democrats had to tamp down the outrage from their base because they realized a boycott of Home Depot could hurt a hometown team — and because the company’s other co-owner, Arthur Blank, has donated freely to their side. They’d hate for him to become less generous.
Starbucks, too, was caught in the outrage vortex last week when some barista in Arizona got triggered by the presence of cops enjoying overpriced coffee and asked the officers to leave. The lone employee’s harebrained move brought about calls from the right to boycott the chain.
Surely, those calling for retribution on the officers’ behalf had forgotten the boycott calls from the left last year when two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks for sitting there and not ordering.
You almost need a scorecard to keep track of your targets of antagonism. At least the Starbucks events, like the Kaepernick/NFL battles, provide unifying moments in which Americans can hate the same thing.
Now, who doesn’t like getting mad? And it doesn’t even need to be about anything logical.
There was some outrage when Disney decided “The Little Mermaid” will be black next time around. But the clapback has been tenfold from those saying, YES, a black teen can slip on a fish tail and bra, and swish around under the sea just as swimmingly as any white girl playing a mermaid.
Meanwhile, Disney smiles all the way to the bank.
Last week, while paging through Facebook, I came across a post by my old friend George Chidi, a former AJC colleague-turned-activist who has for years served as a liaison between the business community and the unfortunate.
“Outrage culture is making me dumb,” he wrote. “That’s not some abstract criticism. That’s an observed phenomenon.”
Earlier, he had shared a post about Quarry Yard, a west side development that released marketing renderings showing all sorts of hip people living/working/playing in this future urban Nirvana, as these campaigns will do.
Only there weren’t many black people in these slides, even though the development is in an area whose population is very black.
The marketing was clueless and the Internet pounced, calling the developers everything from gentrifying opportunists to out-and-out racists. Chidi admitted he was among them, until he determined the development had a pretty good affordable housing component.
“We are all armed like Ruby Ridge and stalking the web like grizzly bears on bath salts, raging from one foul deed to another,” Chidi wrote. “Somewhere along the way, discernment falters, and that makes us weak.”
I called Chidi, who usually revels in a good argument. “I’m trying to be kinder and gentler,” he chuckled.
“We have a society where people are afraid of really saying what they think,” he said. “It’s hard to build coalitions or solve problems when you’re all afraid.”