The Hidden Root of Prejudice

As many of you know, my house was burglarized a month ago – don’t worry, my family is safe and sound, and only a few things of absolutely no eternal worth were stolen.  In fact, I had a weird feeling that morning and hid both my and my wife’s laptop before we left, which ended up being extremely providential given that there were irreplaceable photos, videos and documents on our computers.

But I wanted to relate a story from that situation that has made me think, a lot.  Now, I know that it might be a little unwise to publicly blog about a crime that is so recent and unsolved, but the chances that the burglary will be solved or that the robbers will read my blog (or read at all) are both so remote that I don’t think it’s all that big of a deal:

(Just for clarification, all the people that I mention in this post are African-American, except for me.)

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The burglars who burgled my house were not the most subtle of individuals.  They robbed us in broad daylight, took a few valuables including my wife’s engagement ring and wedding band, and did it in full view of half a dozen people in our neighborhood.  In fact, their attitude was so blatant and nonchalant that all of my neighbors just assumed that they were supposed to be there, doing work on the house…you know, the kind of house work that requires you to bash down someone’s kitchen door.  But I don’t really blame my neighbors.  I honestly might have made the same assumption, and turning to the police for help is not exactly part of the culture in this part of the city.

Anyway, after the burglary, my neighbors gave the police a fairly solid description of at least one of the men who was involved – a young African-American male, 5’10” or so, with dreadlocks down past his shoulders.  None of them recognized him, but one of my neighbors said he had seen him hanging around my house the weekend before, presumably casing our place and figuring out our patterns.  This description was better than nothing, but I knew that it was not much to go on, and the chances of the perpetrator returning again to my house were slim…unless he was extremely stupid, or greedy, or both.

But a few days later, a neighbor urgently knocked on  my door, peering through the glass pane of my front door.  I opened the door and before I could say hello, he said, “That guy is back, the guy who was hanging around outside and robbed your house – he just walked around the corner into the chicken store.”

Whaaat?  Why would he come back so soon??  I asked him how sure he was that it was the same guy, and he said, “100% – no doubt.”

My blood froze and boiled at the same time.  I grabbed my phone to call the police so that they could pick him up right away, and I would have the immense pleasure of seeing him hauled away in front of my very eyes.  And maybe I could finally get my Xbox back and finish Mass Effect 3.  I started dialing, but then a troublesome thought came to me:

“What if I’m wrong?”

What if this wasn’t the guy at all?  What if, despite my neighbor’s certainty, this guy had nothing to do with the crime, and just happened to be a 5’10” African American gentleman with dreadlocks who had made the unfortunate choice of strolling down my house at exactly the wrong time?  But then again, what if it was him, and I didn’t call?  He would just get away with the crime, and worse, would continue to hang around my house and my children, a deeply frightening thought to me as a husband and father.

I vacillated for a moment, and decided to have my phone at the ready, but not to complete the call.  Not until I got a chance to see him myself.  I peered through the blinds, trying to catch a glimpse of the man, my finger hovering over the 9 and 1 buttons of my cell phone.  He finally emerged from the chicken store, and generally fit the description: 5’10”, dreadlocks.  But as he came closer, I realized that I knew him – it was Andre (not his real name), and he lived only a couple of blocks away!  I thought to myself, “Had one of my own neighbors robbed me??”  I mulled the thought over.  While not an impossibility, it seemed highly unlikely that he would have the audacity to rob a neighbor’s house in broad daylight, right in front of a bunch of other neighbors who could easily identify him.

And so even though part of me still wanted to call the police, I put my phone in my pocket and let him pass by.  Something just didn’t seem right.  The neighbor who had knocked on my door earlier stared at me in disbelief from his front porch, aghast that I was just going to let him go.  I crossed the street to talk to him and explain the situation, that I was nearly positive that Andre had nothing to do with the break in.  He shook his head and asserted again that it was this exact same person who had been hanging outside my house in the days before the burglary.

“How could this be?”, I wondered.  I asked my neighbor if he knew that Andre lived in this area and hung out around here a lot, and he said no, that he didn’t recognize him.  And with that, everything became a little clearer.  What had probably happened was that Andre had been hanging outside my house the weekend before the robbery, but that wasn’t uncommon.  The problem was that my other neighbor didn’t know Andre and that he lived here, and so assumed that he was some random person with dreadlocks hanging outside my house, up to no good.  And then a few days later, my house is burglarized and everyone says a person with dreadlocks did it.  It would be easy, even logical, to assume that it was the same person with dreadlocks who was involved.

Just to double check my hunch, I went and knocked on another neighbor’s door who had also seen the robber’s face.  I asked her for a description of the man who had broken in, and she repeated that he was 5’10” with dreadlocks.  I pointed out that Andre from down the block fit that description pretty well, but she was adamant, “Andre?  No, if it was Andre, I would have recognized him in a second.  I’ve lived next to Andre forever.  Definitely wasn’t him.”  I breathed a huge sigh of relief.  No, I didn’t get to catch the guy who was guilty, but I also didn’t make the mistake of blaming someone who was innocent.

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Now, no one in the situation above was acting or thinking with malicious intentions, not me, nor my neighbor who came to knock on my door.  He was trying to help me catch a crook, and I was simply responding to the testimony of a reliable eye witness who said he positively identified the suspect with 100% certainty.  I probably had every right to make that call to 911 in that situation.

But imagine if I had made that call, and the police had come to question or even arrest Andre, imagine what he would have thought.  You could easily understand how that would reinforce many of the stereotypes under which African-American men labor: that being a young black male is enough to form probable cause.  That the police are a foe rather than a friend.  And that Koreans don’t trust blacks, and are racist against them, a dynamic I talk about in this post.  Despite my complete lack of malice, he would have had every right to walk away from that situation feeling persecuted and unfairly treated, and to tell everyone he knew about it as well.

I really thank God that he gave me the presence of mind not to make that call, and to instead think the situation through a bit more than I would have otherwise.

This whole situation has helped me realize that hatred and fear of the “other” are not the only way that biases are created and perpetuated.  One of the most overlooked causes of prejudice in America is not malice, but careless thinking.  Too often, people who have been victimized in some way allow themselves too easily to jump to conclusions or entertain suspicions that are based on fears rather than reality.  This is understandable and completely natural, believe me.  But the problem is that when we do this, we unwittingly perpetuate fear and prejudice and hatred in others just as surely as if we had done so with less noble intentions.

Even in moments where it is exceedingly difficult, it is important that we do not abandon good judgment, critical thinking, and fairness in how we approach and treat one another.  Abandoning such ideals may help us catch a crook, but also make it far more likely that we will make snap judgments or falsely accuse someone who is completely innocent, but will forever be negatively affected by the experience.  If we want to move anywhere as a nation in regards to race, we must learn that careless thinking digs the pit of prejudice just as deeply as intentional hatred does.

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2 thoughts on “The Hidden Root of Prejudice

  1. I never considered this side of prejudice…Thought-provoking and well said.

    Also, Mass Effect 3 is the best game with the WORST ending in the history of ever, so I wouldn’t be in too much hurry to finish.

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