With all the drama and outrage about the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, we need to ask ourselves this question: Why do we stereotype minorities? Especially when we take pride in being a great "melting pot," what is it in the American DNA that pre-disposes us to bigotry?
When I was working as a consultant to Native American Indian tribes in the '80s, I saw profiling in Montana when people spoke about the "white" people vs. the Indians. In the '90s, when I worked with teens and teachers in L.A., I saw it when people spoke negatively about Latinos. More recently, when Arizona passed rigid legislation against "illegals," we all saw it when law enforcement officers profiled anyone who "looked" illegal. And whenever my friend, a turban-wearing Indian Sikh, travels, he encounters it at airports and on airplanes.
In 1970, as a teenager in Shaker Heights, Ohio, my father told me he couldn't buy a lot he had picked out because the deed restricted the owners from "selling to blacks or Jews." I knew then that sometimes I, too, would be branded, stereotyped and profiled because I'm Jewish. My son experienced what it feels like to be stereotyped in high school, when he went to pick up a dime that had fallen to the floor and was told by his friends that he was acting "just like a Jew" going after the money.
A political science professor at Kent State University once told me that the history of our democracy is as much defined by who has been excluded as it is by who is included. Why do we exclude?
I'm not going to delve into the sociological or psychological reasons; there are many. I prefer dealing with the factors that have made me a racial profiler instead. I don't need to travel far in my history to see the bigot in me.
When I was a teenager just learning to drive, my parents instructed me to lock the car doors while driving through the black ghettos of Cleveland. This was soon after the Hough Riots, civil rights unrest and assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in 1968. They explained to me that there had been stories of black people breaking into cars while white people were stopped at a red light. They were afraid.
It's amazing to me that they were not able to see the parallel with the Jews of Eastern Europe. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, a "story" circulated that a Gentile boy had disappeared at the hands of Jews who had to use the boy's blood to make Passover matzos. The boy would ultimately show up but not before thousands of Jewish men, women and children were massacred. Whenever my grandmother had Passover Seder in Poland, she included a Gentile family to create understanding about what Passover is really about.
My parents came from a tradition of fear. Fear is an insidious emotion. It spreads easily, fueled by rumors that are embellished by word of mouth. In my family, fear was always a factor because both my parents and my grandmother who lived with us were Holocaust survivors. They didn't leave their memories at Ellis Island. Their memories lived on, my brothers and I knew, as we witnessed my grandmother's nighttime screams. So when my parents warned me to beware of the black ghetto, despite my positive experiences in a diverse high school and friendship with many black teenagers, I listened.
It was not until I got into my 30's, when I had my own children, that I realized that just by the simple act of locking my car doors on my twice-daily drives, I was violating my own value system. I was profiling poor, black people.
My parents were good people and good Americans. They provided for their children and gave back to community. But their fear was so dominant that they were able to justify and compartmentalize their actions despite the fact that, in work and other areas of life, they were friends with and worked harmoniously with black people.
I do believe that fear is a necessary protector. My wife and I told our kids when they were little not to cross the street because they could get hit by a car -- and not to go anywhere with a stranger. We told them people should not drink and drive. I still remember how panicked my little daughter was the first time she saw me drinking a Coke while driving. She thought for sure I was destined to crash.
But history shows that when an entire community sanctions generalized negative beliefs about a specific group, the only way to stop the stereotyping is for individuals to realize that those beliefs are incompatible with their own values system. That's the reason why Fyedka, Tevye's Gentile son-in-law in Fiddler on the Roof, decided to leave his native village of Anatevka after the Jews were expelled. He realized that the toxic environment that he had accepted for years was no longer tolerable.
That's the epiphany I had on one of my morning drives many years ago, converting me from being a racial profiler. Finally, my values kicked in and became my "circuit-breaker" -- overriding family and societal programming.
While our instincts protect us, our values will correct us if we are willing to allow them to lead the way. As the Trayvon Martin case continues to unfold in the courts and the media, and as Trayvon's mother calls for us to have an honest conversation about race, maybe it's worthwhile for America to have a conversation about values, as well.
To learn more about America's values go to www.Purpleamerica.us.
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