An open letter to Juan Williams

Dear Mr. Williams,

I’m sorry NPR fired you. While we rarely agree politically, I always find you to be fair-minded. This event shows how some people can put political correctness before humanity. Their decision is also an affront to the spirit of free speech. I wish we weren’t forced to subsidize that kind of intolerance, but that’s an issue for another day. The reason I’m writing is much more personal.

I have a story of my own about fear I’d like to share. I’m writing it as an open letter so that hopefully more people can come to terms with their own demons about ethnicity, stereotypes and our imperfect humanity.

This happened about ten years ago, now. Maybe more. I was home from grad school in my home town — Charlotte, N.C. It was 2 a.m. My friend Jason and I had been out to a dance club. We hadn’t had any luck meeting women. It was late, so we left the sterile beauty of Charlotte’s financial district to head in the direction of the suburbs. I hadn’t been to my favorite late-night diner in years. It was on the way. So we decided to pop in and get some eggs, livermush and coffee before going home.

When we pulled into the parking lot of San Remo, it was immediately clear to me the demographics had changed. What used to be a rag-tag ethnic mix of musicians, truckers and after-party partiers had become an all-black customer-base from the projects. Cars boomed in the parking lot. Pants hung down beneath rear-ends. Rims glistened in the light of the full moon. These were signals, of sorts. Information. In any case, Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling’s self-segregation “tipping point” had been reached. My instincts said “dangerous thugs” but my mind said “confront your prejudices.”

You see, I’d recently been “enlightened” at the university, by which I mean indoctrinated. Indeed, I had been pretty thoroughly inculcated with the idea that, if I felt fear about a group of people who happen to be of a certain ethnicity, I should consider that racism. I had been taught all sorts of other things, too — like that, by virtue of being white and male, I was an “oppressor” by default. I didn’t buy that, not having drunk that much of the Kool-Aid. But I had certainly come to believe that the only way to confront what might be lurking racist sentiments (or the stereotypes that give rise to them) was to go into San Remo with my white friend, sit down, and eat some late-night breakfast.

As we headed toward the door, Jason and I made eye contact. I said, “It’s cool.” As it happens, Jason and I had been in a freshmen class together called “Perceiving Prejudice.” So, at the time, I think he also felt there was something important at stake. But like you on your airplane, Mr. Williams, I have to be honest: We were afraid.

In junior high, I had been roughed up pretty bad by a pack of black guys for no other reason than sport. Sure, I had also had positive experiences with black classmates and buddies growing up, but I had been threatened by kids on a fair number of occasions, too. Picked on. Pushed around. They were almost always black. Let’s just say growing up in Charlotte during the 80s and early 90s wasn’t easy.

But now I was grown. And they were grown. And I had been to college. Sure, I’d seen lots of things on TV about black crime in Charlotte, but wasn’t I above feeling afraid? Wouldn’t it be noble to confront that fear?