Another Injustice

September 2005


How is it that the same old hatreds pass from generation to generation? Feuds, disagreements, and prejudices seem to be some of the most enduring parts of the human landscape.

How is it that the same old hatreds pass from generation to generation? Feuds, disagreements, and prejudices seem to be some of the most enduring parts of the human landscape. Quite a few years ago, a civil rights organizer I knew told a really good story about the nature of hatred.

"Do you want to know about hatred," he began, "what hatred is and how it feels? Look into the face of a five year old boy who's just been hit in the face by a brick. Look at the anguish on his mother's face as she washes the blood away from his eyes with her tears, his head in her lap, his little limp body on the pavement next to the brick. Look up into a sea of laughing white faces. See the expressions of surprise and delight as their fingers point to the little boy and his mother. Reach down and pick up the brick and feel the weight in your hand."

He paused. His hands shaking, holding an imaginary brick, turning it over and over in his memory.

"Then you'll know what hatred is. I did. I felt that hatred boiling up from deep, deep down inside me. I could feel it filling me fuller and fuller. The hatred was strong and hot. It was my fault the boy was here. I had convinced his mama to come out today and to bring her boy, too. I felt like I could throw that brick a mile."

"But then I looked out past the jeering crowd, past the young man being slapped on the back by his friends for his good aim, past the cops craning to see if we were going to make trouble, and I saw an old woman. She was just standing there, staring at me. I looked at her and something about the sorrow and resignation in her old eyes just took all the fight out of me. My anger evaporated. I felt like I was going to faint. The old woman had turned and walked slowly away up the hill."

"I stood there, looking around like it'd been me hit with the brick. Other people were now helping the boy and his mother. The marchers were moving again. I pressed my way back, against the press of bodies and out the back of the marchers. I walked as quickly as I dared, without drawing too much attention to myself. I worked my way back to the street where the old woman was walking and caught her up."

"'Ma'am,' I said, 'excuse me, but I got to know, what made you look like that on me?'"

"'Young man,' she said, putting down her shopping bag so it rested against her leg, 'I seen that face before, that's all. My papa was born a slave and he had that face on. My husband was a share cropper all his life and he had that face on. My boy come back from the war with that face on. But I been hoping that somehow maybe you younger folk wouldn't get that face on you. Cause while we got that face on, things ain't never gonna be no different. Today that little boy got hurt for no good reason and tomorrow it'll be you, hurting somebody else's child. We're all God's children, maybe, but that face makes us plumb forget it.'"

"She picked up her bag and walked off. I wanted to tell her that she was wrong. I wanted to tell her that I was different. But I'd felt that hatred. Until that very moment, I'd never really understood how anybody could do the kinds of things hateful people did - I figured they had to be different from me, because I believed I was better than that, better than them. I was wrong. I was as wrong as I could be. And you're wrong, if you think you're any different."

This is the central point of our human existence that people have got to understand, if this world has any chance of getting better: there is just one kind of people in the universe and whether you end up as the child throwing the brick or the child hit by it, a white person or a black person, the cop or the looter, a Jew or a Muslim, a lawyer or a prisoner, a rich man or a poor woman, an American or an Iranian, it is just the luck of the draw. We owe everyone respect, consideration, forgiveness, mercy, charity, etc. regardless of their current, temporary circumstances. What happened to poor people in New Orleans (and elsewhere following Katrina) is an injustice precisely because justice demands the equality of treatment for all, irrespective of their economic circumstance.

And why did that injustice happen? Just look at the faces of the men and women in New Orleans who were under orders to shoot people they saw stealing food and water for their children. There's that face. Hatred doesn't just happen, it is made by people over and over again.

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