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?
When we walked into the diner, I noticed something new. San Remo had hired a security guard. This didn’t quell my fears any. It probably heightened them. The guard reminded me of Asa on Andy Griffith (see about 4:29 in) — older, outnumbered, and for all I knew — outgunned. In any case, they hadn’t needed security before. But this day they did. Why? Maybe the owners (Greeks) were just racists.
Jason and I were finally seated. We ordered our food from a cagey waitress and began our debrief from the dance club. No sooner than Jason had taken a sip of his coffee we heard a ruckus. I was facing the action, so I could see everything.
Right at the front entrance there was already a group surrounding two guys fighting. I could see the usual pushing and shoving. Then wham. Guy “B” pushed the other guy “A” so hard against the transparent wall of the entrance foyer that it left a break in the plate glass. You could hear all kinds of yelling and cussing.
The security guard tried to break it up, but was having trouble at first. He warned the guys he was going to call the cops. The guys threw a couple more punches, but the threat of police seemed to settle them down. One of the scrappers — A — left the place, still swearing. B stood there cockily as if to say, “Come on back and get some more.”
Jason and I looked at each other and sighed into our coffees. But we dared not shake our heads. Maybe this had been a bad idea.
Well, only about a minute later, A did come back. “How do you like me now, mu___ fu___?” he hollered, brandishing a handgun. B turned around and held up his hands as if to block a bright light from behind him. A took two steps back, aimed and fired his gun into B’s back. Pop. Pop.
B slouched onto the floor against the wall. He just sat there, bleeding. A had turned and darted from the diner. Away into the night.
“Let’s go,” Jason said with an eerie calm. “No sense in waiting on our food.”
It had all happened so quickly that I remember it being like slow motion. Sounds cliché, but that’s exactly what it was like. Hi definition. Slow motion. Once I fully appreciated what had just happened, I felt a kind of clarifying rage — a slow burn. But I did not feel fear anymore. I just wanted out of the diner.
So we got up and walked out — only a minute or two after the shooting. We had to walk right past the young man bleeding. He now had his head in his hands as if he’d just lost a big game. He didn’t look up at us.
As we approached my car, I realized why I was angry. My instincts had been correct. Even if the probability of this happening had been exceedingly low, my “Perceiving Prejudice” professor had been wrong. Stereotypes exist for a reason — a lot of reasons, in fact. Evolutionary biology. Experience. Internal probability calculations of risk and reward … some rational, some not. I could no more extract these instincts from myself than Michael Jackson could erase his race. And I had let political correctness turn me both into a fool and an eye-witness to a murder. I wish I could say that moment somehow made me learn something deeper about race relations, violence or humanity. But it didn’t. At least not right then. I just felt bitter and weird.
I cranked the car, but couldn’t drive yet. New emotions and images came up from deep within. I cried — wept hard in fact. Jason held his composure. I don’t know if he understood what I was feeling. Maybe he thought I was upset at seeing a man shot. That’s troubling to be sure. And that could have easily been one of us sitting there in a pool of blood. But there was more going on in my head — a flood of memories followed by a kind of self-chastening…
Flash. The memories from junior high. Flash. Boyz in the Hood. Flash. Vitriol from a girl in high school — I’d grazed her arm passing in the hallway. Flash. Reginald Denny being dragged from his truck and beaten senseless. Cheers from my black classmates as we watched it on the news. Flash. A young girl killed by a drug dealer’s errant bullet. Flash. First grade: “Move cracker” from one kid. Flash. “Move Honky” from another. Flash, flash, flash. The slide show passed like the cranking of an old Gatling gun.
Jason waited patiently. Once I’d collected myself, I drove home. Just down the road from San Remo, we saw that the police had already pulled over the gunman. The blue lights still linger in my memories of that night. “Looks like they got him,” Jason had said as we passed.
How had I let common sense be swallowed up by idealism? How had I allowed myself to be “instructed” by a bunch of dilettantes who had probably never spent a minute outside the cottony confines of the academy? Their doctrine was purely theoretical — even while it was bad theory. And what I had just confronted, or reconnected with, was hard reality.
Did this mean I was now officially a racist? At the time, I didn’t know. What I did know was that I would never again let some sanctimonious academic talk me out of listening to my instincts. So when I get on an airplane with a bearded, skull-capped Muslim, I keep an eye on him — especially if he is dressed in a jumpsuit. And when I go into a redneck bar, I make sure I dress less metrosexual — that is, if I go in at all. I will never again confuse tolerance for stupidity.
Since that night, I’ve learned that human beings are just imperfect calculators of risk. They use repeated experiences, stats, information from the media, stereotypes and other muddled-up mechanisms to stay safe — just like we did when we were running about on the Paleolithic steppe. (If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here.) We are also coalitional beings. And we use signals about groups in ways that challenge our more aspirational mores. Even as we try to overcome the legacies of slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow and gang violence, we have to deal with our unique perceptions of reality. And our baggage.
If I get a sixth sense because someone is wearing corn rows, sports a jersey and hanging britches, I hope that doesn’t make me a racist. I think it makes me a human being. My first priority is to keep my family and myself safe. So if I must occasionally use associations and stereotypes to navigate my way through this imperfect world, so be it. I will use the same kind of hunch my mother used when she pulled me out of that junior high after I got roughed up and threatened one too many times. White liberals feel the same to a large degree. If they didn’t, we’d see more of them living in the ghetto. Schelling’s cold calculation would finally be overcome. But it isn’t.
These are the same kind of instincts one might use to make a critical decision when traveling on a dirt road in rural Appalachia. (I might not stop to ask directions, even if I’m lost.) It’s the same signals the Huxtables might decide to act upon if they were trying to decide whether to wander into a country bar in Mississippi. It’s the same unsettling feeling a young black man feels when he drives past a police cruiser; or what a policeman must feel when he walks the beat in the barrio a week after his partner is killed. Stereotypes exist for a reason. They are seldom exactly wrong or exactly right, but they are a necessary evil.
In case you were wondering, that young man died later that night. I read it in the paper the next day from a comfortable distance, almost as if I hadn’t been there. I had done all my crying the night before. But still I was sad — for him, for his family. I was sadder still about the circumstances that gave rise to the event. It’s a cultural condition that would eventually result in his death and that of thousands of other young black men. Incentive systems that seem to offer the choice between a perpetual welfare check or the drug trade. To accept either lifestyle requires a perverse pride that runs so deep it can turn you into a stone cold killer. “Thug life” and all. Much of it flows from a vicious cycle you have written about before, Mr. Williams. There are many factors that go into creating this condition for young blacks. But I dare say the least of them is white racism — anymore, that is.
So we go on. To hell with NPR. To hell with Perceiving Prejudice. Let’s admit to ourselves that, as human beings, we carry baggage. We carry flaws and we carry fears — some rational, some not. Parsing these is never easy.
There are millions of good-hearted Muslims out there who just want to travel from point to point. There are plenty of young men with baggy pants and corn rows who want nothing more than to have friends, play XBox, and go to college. There are plenty of rednecks in Mississippi who would buy Bill Huxtable a beer and give him the shirt off their backs if he needed it. As long as we keep our eyes on the prize, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to overcome our fears. And there will be circumstances in which we really can judge the content of one’s character — maybe even sitting next to someone on a 747, maybe even sitting at a diner. But sometimes we’ll be afraid. Sometimes our common sense will say otherwise. If you’re okay with that, I am too. And as we work on practicing the virtue of toleration, we should never ignore those inner voices that make us human beings, whatever NPR and academia have to say about it.
Max Borders is a writer living in Texas. He blogs at Ideas Matter.