People are either prejudiced or they’re not, right? I say, “Wrong.” Human beings aren’t that easily categorized. It’s more complicated than that. Whether a person is biased or not is not a binary choice. We’re creatures of our life experience. We all carry within us the taint of prejudice. We’re subject to all kinds of prejudice, of which racial prejudice is the most toxic. Racial prejudice is seductive. It’s easy to make judgments based on skin color. At its heart, racial prejudice is mental laziness. No need to use our mind to decide the worth of a person: just use our eyes. A mere glimpse of skin color is all we need to confirm our biased beliefs.
You know what makes it more difficult to succumb to the moral laziness of racial prejudice? Familiarity. Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. Sometimes if we allow it, familiarity can lead to understanding. Prejudice means pre-judgment. Judgment without facts or observation. The more knowledge we have about a person, the more our assessment of him or her is based on facts. That’s why even the most hardened racist can recall a person of color they like. To a racist, that one person of color is an exception. One of the “good ones.”
It follows then that the more we’re exposed to folks different from us, the more we’re forced to see them as individuals. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to like all of these “different” folks. But it does mean that we’ll be much more likely to make judgments on them as individuals and not as members of a group. Racial prejudice doesn’t automatically disappear when we’re exposed to people of other races, but it is more difficult to sustain.
If you’re white, I challenge you to think about your life experience without recalling some person of color that you really liked. If you’re black, try to recall a white person who pleasantly surprised you, who dealt with you as a person — and not as a stereotype. Imagine that this person of color or this white person represented not the exception, but the rule. I was lucky that my life experience led me to see things that way.
As a white person born and raised in South Philly, I came from a background much like yours. During my very early years, I must have unknowingly internalized some beliefs about race. By some kind of happy coincidence, I was raised as a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, not the Phillies or A’s (another story for another day). I went to my first game in 1947, the year Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball.
Even the most bigoted sports fan makes exceptions for persons of color on their team. Corny as it may sound, sports is often the great equalizer. Performance eclipses skin color. I couldn’t love the Dodgers without loving Jackie Robinson. And then Jackie was followed by other persons of color — Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Jim Gilliam and others. I loved them all. When a fan falls in love with a team, especially when a kid, he or she loves them all.
At Furness Junior High, I got lucky again. My core teacher was Mrs. Young, a wonderful feisty white lady who taught brotherhood as passionately as she taught history. For the first time, I became friendly with students who were not white. Played fist ball in the schoolyard with Melvin Ellis. Exchanged ideas with Lillian Gardner. Maybe they’re surprised today that I remember them. I not only remember them, but I see them vividly when anyone tries to sell me on the idea that black people are less worthy than the rest of us. Thank you, Melvin. Thank you, Lillian.
At Temple, I met a couple of white guys, Chuck Sherman and Joel Dornblum, who taught me about jazz and the blues. And when you first learn to love jazz and the blues, you understand better the noble struggle people of color endure. A jazz fan doesn’t judge a musician or singer by skin color, but by the way they play the horn or the quality of their pipes.
I got lucky again. Sherman got me a job after college at WHAT-FM, then the nation’s only 24-hour jazz station. Met Sid Mark, who mentored me, not only on the music, but on how you live your life free of prejudice. Sid took me to Pep’s Musical Bar on South Street — a jazz joint where the races met to appreciate music — where he introduced me to jazz greats such as “Cannonball”Adderly and brother Nate.
And then came the military.
Stationed in Montgomery, Alabama — a place the locals call the “Cradle of the Confederacy” — I saw firsthand where race bigotry inevitably leads. Saw the signs in the bus terminal that labeled the restroom and water fountains “For Whites Only.” Rode down a street at night when Dr. Martin Luther King was barricaded inside a church under racist assault.
I’m reminded of a strange phenomenon that exists. The same white person who won’t tolerate a black family moving next door in his all-white city neighborhood will later move into an integrated community in South Jersey and not have a problem with black neighbors. That same guy in South Philly who fears black neighbors will lend a garden hose to his black neighbor in South Jersey.
In those scenarios, I find hope for redemption.
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