Stephen Colbert looks at a black man and declares, “I don’t see race.” Don Quixote catches sight of windmills and sees giants, along with the opportunity for a glorious knight’s errand. The idealism in both instances is both laughable and laudable. The laughable part is the illusion, obvious to everyone except, presumably, the deluded. The laudable part is the desire to live up to our ideals of justice and courage.
In a Tuesday article about Bernie Sanders, The New York Times reported:
‘We have got to look at candidates, you know, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender and not by their age,’ Mr. Sanders said. ‘I think we have got to try to move us toward a nondiscriminatory society which looks at people based on their abilities, based on what they stand for.
Sanders’s notion of a “nondiscriminatory society” has been widely mocked on the political right and left. In part, that’s because of his perceived failure in 2016 to run an inclusive presidential campaign. Beyond that, many of us recognize, with regret, that we can’t help but discriminate. Justice, as the nineteenth century clergyman Theodore Parker wrote, and as Martin Luther King and Barack Obama were to take up, is at the end of the arc of the moral universe. It’s a Platonic ideal to which we rightly aspire even knowing we may never quite get there.
Discrimination is essential to survival. When I get a random call from a salesman representing an outfit I’ve never heard of, I’ll hang up rather than get myself embroiled in a likely fraud. That’s discrimination based on common sense and experience, but often also the manner of the caller. I was reminded of this last point the other evening when someone claiming to be from my alma mater phoned. When the young woman asked me to update my contact information, I grew cautious. However, I felt she was authentic. Although I declined to provide the information, I didn’t hang up and ended up wishing her the same happy experience I had at that college.
What today we normally mean by “discrimination” is the biases we display based on hurtful and damaging prejudices. Because people of good faith are bound to fall short of their desire to treat all people fairly, they not only endure mockery from bigots; they satirize their own inescapable hypocrisy. That’s what Colbert is up to when he pretends not to see race.
Prejudice exists in all of us. A black woman will resist seeing “race” in a white car salesman, but privately she might be recalling a moment when she was walking down a deserted street in a white neighborhood when a tough-looking, skull-decorated white man turned the corner ahead of her. Just writing that, I’m scared for her, whoever she may be. Or we will look at a middle-aged man in a wheelchair and find ourselves treating him like a child. We will immediately wish we hadn’t, but unless we already know the man or have many dealings with paralyzed people, the behavior is instinctive. Even if we catch ourselves in time to treat the person with proper respect, we will feel bad about the moment before, when prejudice tried to have its way with us.
I just did the following search: “How do we overcome prejudice?” Google returned “About 28,200,000 results.” Can there possibly be anything new to say about prejudice and how to fight it? The subject has so saturated discourse that many have become inured to it.
However, I heard something that was new to me in this week’s episode of PBS’s Finding Your Roots, hosted by Henry Louis Gates. One of his guests was the comedian Seth Meyers, who learned in this program that his great-grandfather arrived, penniless and with no English, in America around 1870. He made a living as a peddler, lugging around pots and pans on his back in the countryside around Pittsburgh. Ten years later, in 1880, he was married. By the time he died, in his nineties, he’d built up a business and bought a house in a prosperous part of town. When Gates asked what he thought on learning about his great-grandparents, Meyers replied: “… how nothing they were worried about are the things that I’m probably worried about.”
Right there, in front of the camera, Meyers was finding a connection with an ancestor he’d never met or even known about. By saying their worries must have been different from his, he was seeing them for who they probably were. It was a paradoxical but genuine connection. If there’s one thing human beings have in common, it’s worry.
It occurs to me that one way to address our prejudices could be to ask ourselves on meeting someone: What might this person be worried about?
Viewed from the stratosphere, we all worry about the same things: life and death, love and loneliness, respect and embarrassment. But how we experience these worries is in the details. A black person might dread being snubbed at a job interview. A pretty woman might worry about not being taken seriously. An elderly person with poor hearing might fear being seen as past it.
True, political worries divide us. Right now, conservatives are preoccupied with the “deep state,” while liberals are anxious about the President’s closeness with Russia. But our political views can be determined by more personal, yet widespread, anxieties. Conservative people famously feel that long-held moral values are under attack and that a country into which a person has put their heart and soul is changing beyond recognition. We see a parallel resistance in the reactions of people as they grow older to ever-evolving music. It’s hard to hate someone who feels threatened, so long as we understand what they see as the threat and that we accept that the feeling is real. On the other hand, opposition to laws restricting women’s autonomy and aggressive law enforcement against minorities stems from the conviction that prevailing values and customs clamp down on individual freedom. Americans respect freedom.
Of course, what someone worries about can expose them to exploitation. Spy agencies look for the theoretically blackmailable woman living beyond her means or, in the old days, the man fearing that his homosexuality might be exposed. But this is the danger that comes with all insights into human beings: Psychology can be a weapon as well as a therapy.
Also, understanding can come too late. A homeless guy who uses the five bucks given him to buy alcohol might just be a drunk and what the Soviets used to call a social parasite, but his craving stems from a whole host of agonizing worries developed over a lifetime. That doesn’t determine whether we should or shouldn’t give him the money, but it might help us see beyond the surface. However, when a person’s only worry has become the next fix, it is tragic.
The things we worry about can be genuinely upsetting, such as when we’re diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, or seemingly trivial, such as what our new love interest will think of the restaurant we’ve selected for a date. One person might fear losing their job or not being hired in the first place, while a financially secure person might be preoccupied with the existential question, “What’s the point?” For someone worried about their livelihood, existential angst looks like a luxury.
Still, we don’t imagine worry. We don’t choose to be worried. We don’t make up worries for the sake of having them. Worry is real, and recognizing what might worry the people we encounter could go some way toward taming prejudice.