NOTE: I originally wrote this piece on July 25, 2010. I read it on my show as the opening commentary. You can here it here:
(ThinkWing Radio with Mike Honig, 7-26-2010, Segments 1 2 3 4 GUEST:Terri Burke, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas (ACLU/TX) Topic: Why Conservatives, especially self-avowed Constitutionalists, should be supporting the ACLU) or you can go to the Archive tab and scroll down.)
Unbeknownst to me, it never got uploaded into my blog for the simple reason that my blog didn’t actually go online until September, 2010. And that’s a shame, because having written this piece and experienced this story myself, it means a lot to me. Maybe somewhere, it will help a future George Zimmerman or a future Trayvon Martin to see the bigger picture. ~ Mike
LESSONS OF PREJUDICE [Read Time 4m34s]
The Shirley Sherrod episode has made me reflect again on prejudice.
Long ago, I learned that prejudice is not the same as racism.
Racism is clearly a negative feeling – hate, resentment, distrust – against a particular group because they come from a different racial background. In common usage, its meaning has grown to include people of other ethnic and religious groups who are not necessarily of different races.
Prejudice is much broader than that. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines prejudice, in part, as:
A preconceived judgment or opinion, or an irrational attitude of hostility…
So prejudices can be assumptions made about people because of the way they dress, the neighborhoods they live in, or how they talk.
The story which Shirley Sherrod told about her experience 24 years ago with the white farmer was, I think, more about prejudice. She compared the white farmer’s financial crisis with that of black farmers she had known, and the relative treatment they had received.
And admirably, she examined those initial feelings of prejudice and used the experience as an opportunity for personal growth. An understanding that poor was poor. It wasn’t black or white.
I believe we all have those moments, and we all have opportunities to learn from them.
I would like to relate one of mine.
I was brought up in a home where racism was something we learned was bad. But that doesn’t mean I was without pre-judgments … without prejudices.
When I was about 25 years old, I lived in a part of southeast Brooklyn called Canarsie. At the time, I had an office job in Long Island City in northwest Queens.
Because it was an office job, I wore slacks, shirt and tie, and leather-soled dress shoes to work.
You’ll understand shortly why this matters.
Every day, in order to get to work, I had to take a bus and two trains.
If you’ve ever taken mass transit, you know that it’s a learning experience. Everything is on a schedule, and you learn how fast you have to walk or run to make the next connection.
So it was in the New York subway system. To make it from that first train to the next one, I learned that I had to ride in the first car, run out and take the end staircase, going two steps at a time, and then run at full tilt down the passenger tunnel to the first car of my next train. If it all went right, I could leap into that subway car and catch that train with just seconds to spare.
Otherwise I’d wait at least 10 more minutes for the next train.
On this particular day, I was running like usual. I was running against the right hand wall, while the crowd coming off the train was going the other way on my left. I was within sight of the platform and the train.
Suddenly, a young girl veered out of the crowd and was in front of me. I tried to stop, but my leather-soled shoes slid out from under me and I went down hard, feet first.
I actually sort of remember the little girl flying over me as I scooped her up like a cow-catcher. I landed flat on my back with my right foot caught under my left leg.
The little girl got up and kept running without looking back.
I had twisted my right ankle badly when I had landed on it, and was in excruciating pain. I was literally gasping for breath, it hurt so badly.
I remember laying there, a reasonably well-dressed white guy, gasping in obvious pain, while the largely white crowd just kept walking. None of them stopped to help me. Not even the people that saw it happen.
The thought I had afterward was that those people paid me no more attention than they would a discarded gum wrapper on the ground.
Finally the crowd was gone, the train platform was empty, and I was left lying there alone, unable to get up.
After what seemed a few minutes, but was probably seconds, a couple of young black men walked over from ahead of me and just looked down at me. These guys were dressed in a sort of modified 70’s Superfly style.
I remember the thought clearly going through my mind, “So after maybe breaking my ankle, now I’m going to be mugged.”
After we looked at each other for several seconds, I reached up my hand for help. Without hesitation, both of these young black men grabbed me under my arms and helped me to my feet. They helped me walk to a rail where I could support myself, and asked if there was anything else they could do for me.
Probably I should have asked them to find a transit cop to get me further assistance, but I was young and stupid, so I just told them I was okay and thanked them for their assistance.
Now here’s the moral of this story: The people that I assumed would help me because of the way they looked … didn’t.
The people that scared me because of the way they looked … They were the only ones to render me any aid at all.
And this was perhaps my first important lesson in prejudice. Don’t judge people by how they look. Don’t assume how they’ll act toward you just because of how they’re dressed.
Today, I might call this my Shirley Sherrod moment.
What’s your moment? Email it to me. I might read it on the air.