Jack Zaleski: Racism? Fear? I still can't be sure
The protests and violence in Ferguson, Mo., and a similar situation in New York City confirm the nation's racial divide is deep and wide. If the national focus is not enough to convince, listening to Fargo-Moorhead talk radio will do it. The raci...
The protests and violence in Ferguson, Mo., and a similar situation in New York City confirm the nation’s racial divide is deep and wide. If the national focus is not enough to convince, listening to Fargo-Moorhead talk radio will do it. The racists have had a local megaphone to spew their bile, often abetted by hosts who either haven’t got the courage or the intelligence to challenge the callers. (One exception is KFGO’s Mike McFeely, who doesn’t let them get away with it on his afternoon show.)
But all that noise aside, the drumbeat from Ferguson is an opportunity – even here in white-as-white-can-be North Dakota and northwest Minnesota – to examine our biases and judgments about race. None of us is pure on that subject. None of us can deny that we harbor racial stereotypes no matter how hard we strive to excise them from our thoughts and from the way we live.
And yet …
When my mother died 20 years ago, family gathered at her New Britain, Conn., home to make plans to sell the house and disperse her possessions. It was where we grew up – a comfortable working class neighborhood. A good place.
One night we called in an order for pizzas from a nearby coffee shop/diner that had been a fixture there since we were kids. I assumed it was the same as it was when my dad, uncle and I would stop for coffee, Cokes and hotdogs. I remember the white porcelain-like cups and saucers with their distinctive green rings. The old man cooled coffee by pouring it into the saucer, swishing it around and dumping it back into the cup. I still do that sometimes.
As I pulled up to the diner to pick up the pizzas, I noticed that the hangers-on in the small parking area were not of the neighborhood I once knew. They leaned menacingly (my take) against their cars. They were young Puerto Rican men, newcomers to town, my relatives had said with undisguised disdain.
I was nervous. I locked the car and went into the diner where more of “them” were seated. For no logical reason, my nervous level rose. It was silly. I was subjected to the routine glances anyone walking in would get. No one threatened me in any way. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
Was my reaction racist? Was it fear borne of comments my relatives had made? Was it from-the-gut racism fueled by irrational fear? Or was it simply visceral disappointment that the neighborhood restaurant I loved as a kid had changed so much – that it no longer was my place?
The pizzas were good. I can still smell them. I also can’t shake the memory of my behavior that night. And I suspect I am not alone in having had an experience that tests one’s better angels. Tested and found wanting, I’ve concluded in the ensuing years.
In light of what’s happened in Ferguson, New York City and other places, all of us – no matter how pure of heart we think we are – could do with a little introspection.
Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at firstname.lastname@example.org or (701) 241-5521