On Fear of “The Other”

A few years ago, a friend and I were on our way to our daughters’ rowing regatta, and because of my less than NASA-like  sense of direction, (There is a reason I keep a stash of breadcrumbs in my car), we found ourselves in South Jersey rather than in North Princeton.  What I vividly remember is not so much my friend’s anger at my geographic shortcoming, so much as his utter fear at the thought of spending even a few minutes in Camden.

“Quick! Lock the doors!”

I am not the most enlightened guy in the Northern Hemisphere, but unlike my chum, who came of age in a small, fairly homogenous New England town,  I was fortunate enough to have attended an inner city school which had a significant commitment to financial assistance. The result was that the student body looked like Philadelphia, and Philadelphia, as you may already know, looks a lot like Camden, the city just on the other side of the Delaware River.

Like a lot of folks, I’ve been consumed this past week by the fallout from the George Zimmerman trial. What strikes me in all of this is the palpable sense of fear that stalks the streets of America, and I can’t help but think that a primary source of that fear is a result of our inability to comprehend “the other” — whoever that other might be.

If Trayvon Martin had been sporting UCC hoodie, and if George Zimmerman were an Old Boy, might they have shared some Skittles?


6 thoughts on “On Fear of “The Other”

  1. You probably remember that one of our African American classmates (I think Brian Clarke?) was KILLED by a North Philly African American gang member. This hoodlum killed our classmate by stabbing him repeatedly on the neck with a screwdriver.

    I recall this vividly because I was asked as Student Counsel Vice President to attend the funeral as a representative of our alma mater.

    The funeral service was held at a packed black AME Church in North Philly. The Pastor was a fire and brimstone preacher right out of central casting.

    The Pastor attributed the killing to the EVIL of gang violence, the root of which he suggested stemmed from persistent pessimism of young teen black teens and their anger over their perceived
    disenfranchisement from achieving the American dream.

    To the Pastor, your “other” was the perception that certain places and people were EVIL, hence our fear and apprehension. The Pastor challenged the congregation to focus on finding the real EVIL and eradicating the real EVIL that was out there.

    I was told that Brian was killed because he went to a “white boys school” and refused to join his local gang.

    As I have lamented previously, the Prep no longer provides the financial assistance that kept our school’s demographics closer to Philadelphia’s racial and socio-economic mix. That was primarily due to the fact that the “Gino scholarships” so generously donated by the Fisher family just ran out.

    I was awarded a “Gino Scholarship”. Had I not, I would never have matriculated.

    I think I agree with the Pastor. We are scared of and avoid perceived evils (your “other”) and by so doing we avoid the fight to find, fight and eradicate real EVIL.

  2. Jim
    It seems to me that you are conflating and thus confusing some things in your blog. It is true that there are people who have an instinctive fear of the other based on a lack of contact with the other. Such people are probably prone to act irrationally according to their perceived stereotypes of others.

    But what if you are Jesse Jackson and you admit publicly –as he did some years ago — that when he encountered young black males at night, he physically tensed and sometimes crossed the street?

    Or, let’s say that your daughter insisted, when she was younger, that she was going to drive into a part of Philly that was known for high crime and violence? What would you suggest? If you advised her to lock her car door, would that be an irrational fear of the other?

    Part of the problem in the Zimmerman case is to address the problem posed by many young black males who, even as we text, are killing one another in record numbers in Chicago. (And black on white crime exceeds white on black crime by a figure of 85% to 15%.)

    Was it irrational that in a neighborhood that had been plagued by burglaries by young black males that George Zimmerman, operating at his neighbors’ request as the leader of neighborhood watch,would have regarded a hooded young man walking between buildings suspiciously? I do not think so.

    And by the way, what kind of person would have represented the other for George Zimmerman with his African American great grandfather, Hispanic grandparents and mother, and Caucasian father and grandparents. Not an ethnic mix that could be found in your friend.

    it seems to me that your query about two UCC guys reacting differently is apples and oranges. Context and behavior are so important. and please spare us another reference to innocent skittles. trayvon’s phone messages indicate that the skittles were part of the drug recipe that he was discussing with his gangsta friend.

    Now, I don’t mean to say that the fear of the other can lead to injustice. But I think it is absolutely essential to focus like a laser on the elements of this case and not fall into simplistic formulae. I think that the case highlights the immense ongoing crisis in the black community, especially with regards to the breakdown of the family and its pernicious effects in terms of behavior.

    With so many social problems, the left refuses to see things as they are and invents a narrative that obfuscates the root causes of societal breakdown. The recent case and the continuing carnage in big cities such as Chicago could have been catalysts for African American leaders to address these issues, but the allure of victimization and the desire for continued influence by racial frauds such as Sharpton, Jackson, Holder, er. al. repeatedly stymie clear analysis. Skittles represent a lot more (and ominously so) than “can’t we just get along.”

  3. It is sickening, isn’t it? I remember sitting with one of my African American friends at NAIS one day and we were in discussion of this topic of “the other.” She said, “you can never appreciate what it feels like to be on the outside… you are in the majority. Even if you have empathy for me because I am different, you can never understand how it feels.” She then described what it was like to be on a bus going home each day (to a largely white affluent neighborhood) and to be the only person sitting on the bus with no one next to her– with people standing. This happened to her on a daily basis on the bus ride to work and home again. After she told this story, I started noticing on my rides home on the subway, the very same phenomenon. So I made it a point to seek out the African Americans on the trains who had no one next to them, and to sit down there. It doesn’t change the universe, but I hope small steps lead to improvements in how we see each other and how trust builds. Nice post.

  4. Dear Jim,

    Wisdom? One of my favorite quotations, perhaps because it is also one of the few sarcastic lines in the Bible, is Job’s reproof to his comforters: “No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you.” That keeps me from presuming. So, no wisdom, only a recollection.

    The Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case took me back. When I was sixteen, I worked the late-night shift at a Taco Bell. The other employees avoided that shift because they feared hold-ups. One night, right as I was about to lock the doors, two Hell’s Angels pulled up on their choppers. Okay, I thought, here we go. They came in, politely ordered milk, and drank the little cartons as they stood there. Then they thanked me for letting them in and left a tip on the counter.

    Another time, another closing, and Alberto Cepeda, the notorious leader of the local Mexican street gang, swaggered in with three of his vatos. Again I stood at the register, frozen. Alberto had two teardrops tattooed under his right eye. He ordered some food, and as I bagged it up he started talking to me. It turned out a Mexican girl he knew had worked at that Taco Bell and told him about a guy she really liked, named Michael. Alberto laughed, shook my hand, and said, “Good luck, man. That girl, she’s loca. Put a cigarette out on my arm. See the scar?”

    Anyhow, those kind of encounters also keep me from presuming. People don’t always live up to your fears.

    I liked your post very much.

  5. Nicely done Jim, my take- the Zimmerman case is a reflection of our inability , as people, to live in reality- all smoke and mirrors … The fog of war- perception is our reality – regardless of the truth presented… People see what they want or what they are trained/ programmed to see… This problem requires a massive cultural change- unlikely given the current political climate… And our inability to live with reality…

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