From Chicken Soup for the Soul of America

The Ominous Sound:
Racist Assumptions

I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.

Edith Cavell

When you’ve finally turned off the television because you can’t stand any more, when the front door is locked and the cat is fed and the night sky is utterly silent, it’s just you and your thoughts.

Late Tuesday night, I recalled my father, about fifty years ago, telling me for the first time about Pearl Harbor.

He described the clenched jaws he saw that afternoon on the streets of New York, the disbelief on every face, the astonishment at how life can deal from the bottom of the deck.

And then, after about twenty-four hours, he saw resolve. Not just to get mad or get even or both. The resolve to go forward by upholding our country’s best traditions, our very reasons for existing.

On the Red Line yesterday morning, about twenty-four hours after the horrors of September 11, I saw what I had feared I would see.

A man was sitting near the back door of the fourth car. He was wearing a suit and tie. He was reading the Washington Post. He was obviously of Arab extraction.

A woman sat across from him. She was obviously not of Arab extraction.

She stared at the man for about four stops. She was apparently trying to work up the courage to say something to him. Near Cleveland Park, she bolted over and said, accusingly, right in his face, “Why?”

The man was startled. He put down his paper and asked the woman to repeat herself.

“Why? Why did you people do this?”

The man’s face flashed through fear, anger, caution and confusion. He said, very calmly, in perfect, unaccented English, “Ma’am, I am an American citizen. I am just as upset as you are.”

But of course, what he really meant was, “Please don’t blame me or harm me just because I am obviously of Arab extraction.”

I fear that many more such confrontations are coming.

I can’t imagine a repeat of the internment camps of World War II. In an age of Big Media, in an America that’s far more diverse than it was sixty years ago, no broad-brush “security step” could last a day, much less get started.

No, I’m far more worried about the small-scale sort of thing I saw on the subway (and saw aboard a Metrobus in the late 1970s, the day after Iranians kidnapped several dozen employees of the U.S. Embassy).

This isn’t the horrid, vicious racism of lynchings and church bombings. But it is just as profound and just as corrosive.

It damns first and asks questions later.

It is dangerously ignorant of our history and our glory.

It is especially galling in a city as varied and as sophisticated as Washington.

Ask your kids about the reflex I saw in the subway. Ask them whether, when they take the measure of someone, they see skin color first, or a swarthy complexion, or a nose that is or isn’t broad.

If they are smart—and kids are always smart—they will tell you that race is another generation’s hang-up, that it doesn’t take you inside someone’s soul. When it comes to race, they’ll tell you they aren’t their fathers’ Oldsmobiles.

A fifteen-year-old called me Tuesday afternoon.

He is Iranian-American. He said he was scared to death when he first heard the awful news.

He feared retaliation against himself and his family.

However, he began to feel a lot better shortly after he got home from school. One by one, his buddies from West Springfield High School (all of them white) called to dissect the disastrous day with him.

Not one referred to Arabs as a group or tried to lay the events at his or their doorstep. “It made me feel wonderful,” the boy said.

But then, the father of one friend jumped on the line and ordered the conversation terminated right away. The father didn’t explain, “But I think I know why,” this fifteen-year-old said.

I think I know why, too.

It makes my skin crawl.

This boy was born at Inova Fairfax Hospital. He has spent his entire life in northern Virginia. He told me he wears Nike sneakers and a faded University of Virginia sweat shirt, like thousands of other kids.

But now he is being judged by his ethnic origin—before the judge even knows whether Arabs were responsible for the horrors of Tuesday.

You will hear an awful lot over the next weeks about how we Americans must come together.

You will see huge increases in church attendance.

You will read stories about people who donate blood six times.

You will see gas station owners who try to charge $5 a gallon shouted back down to $1.45.

But I hope you’ll hear shouts, too, about the fundamental strength of our country: the pot that melts us all.

If we are going to summon the will to beat terrorism, we need to check our underpinning first. It won’t be very sturdy if we judge books by their covers.

My father made much the same point in that conversation we had fifty years ago.

He told me about an Irish-Catholic fellow who clapped him on the back as they stood on a midtown Manhattan street corner on December 7, 1941.

This man never asked my father if he was Irish, Catholic or Martian. He just said they were all in this together, and they’d all have to stand or fall as one.

True then. True now.

Bob Levey

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