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Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Reality of Racism

The following article by a student in one of my Osher Lifelong Learning Institute courses last year at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Benjamin D. Gordon, a retired pediatrician, is reprinted with his permission. It is originally dated December 7, 2013.

I started in the practice of Pediatrics in 1955. In those days, I made house calls as my father and uncle and cousin had done before me. As others have found, sometimes we learn things from the simple directness of children.

On a house call one evening, I’d finished seeing the sick child and was crossing the living room on the way out. A four-year-old sibling was on the floor playing with his toy cars. Looking up, he saw me and said, “Hi, Dr. Gordon. These are my cars. The red ones are better than the blue ones.”

I smiled at the immature remark and thought, ‘He will learn you don’t tell the value of a car by the color on the outside.’ But, the next thought was a startled, ‘some people do that with people.’ The worst red-neck bigot would think you an idiot if you told him that about a car. He knows you judge a car by the efficiency of its electronic system, the effectiveness of its brakes, the smoothness of the ride provided by the shock absorbers, the absence of leaks in a rainstorm, the quiet of the motor, the quality of the tires, the comfort of the upholstery, etc. You judge a person by their trustworthiness, their honor and honesty, their efforts at justice and fairness, and their competence at what they do.

But the child was appropriate. We all learn the simplest thing first, i.e., how to characterize and distinguish things by physical characteristics: size, shape, weight and color, because honor, trust, justice and morality require further maturation of the brain. Judging a person on the basis of skin color, eye shape or any other physical quality is functioning at the level of a 4-year-old child.

There are other reasons for prejudice, of course, based on the fundamental factors of fear (the basis for most irrational behavior) and doubt about self-worth.

In the latter case, a person will search for an unchangeable difference—skin color, religion, ethnic or geographic origin—and give to that difference a meaning it does NOT have, namely “that difference means ‘I’m better! I’m worth more.’” This is why the prejudice (judging before we know) is clung to so fiercely. It is supporting a weak ego. This, also, extends to the wealthy elite, many of whom use that wealth and social power to reassure themselves of their worth. Members of that group who really are worthwhile have found ways to care about others. They don’t need the specious reasons to blame those in need for their own problems. The carpenter, plumber, electrician and mechanic who knows his field and how to do a good job has no problem. He knows what he’s worth as a human being. He’s able to give value and help to others. I’ve alwsys taught the teenagers, a time when we all struggled with this, that the secret of being significant is always how much you can help, never how much you can hurt. Those who create fear in others, thinking that makes them ‘significant’ are really creating those who, at the first opportunity, will pay them back.

I am white. One of my roommates (during) my last semester at college was black. The poem from my collection The Nohnlove was dedicated to him.

ON RACIAL PREJUDICE
(for J.G.)

The judging of one before
His meeting
Is such an obvious idiocy
It gives the mind a pause
In wonder.

The zygote of this seed
Originates with two –
As any other
First, not to doubt a father’s teaching,
Then, to get him—live or dead—
To give approval:

“See. See. See.
I do the same. The same as you.
I hate the same. I love the same.”

The key’s an antithetic one
The Blindness leads to Sight.
A learned achromotopsia

Must lead us out of fright.

Dr. Benjamin D. Gordon's collection of poems can be found at: