A number of years ago I had the opportunity to spend some work-related time in New York City. I'm originally from the country, a dairy farmer's son, but now I love cities and enjoyed every moment in the Big Apple.
One Saturday morning I decided to walk Fifth Avenue as far as I could go. I began in midtown Manhattan, walked all along Central Park, and continued North until I was well into Harlem. At about 120th street - I don't remember where exactly - I realized I was in unfamiliar territory. Words we don't use much anymore, such as "slums" and "the ghetto" came to mind. It seemed as if I was the only white person in sight. I felt uncomfortable, turned around, and quickly scurried back.
Psychiatrists say that feelings are neither good nor bad - they are simply an expression of our emotional state at the moment we have them. Were my feelings of discomfort in Harlem justified? Probably not. Do they indicate that I am a racist? I hope not. Would I have those same feelings if I walked those streets today? I doubt it.
Apparently it is not safe in America anymore to publicly express personal feelings. When NPR veteran reporter Juan Williams said in October that he felt uncomfortable in an airport when he saw Muslims dressed in traditional garb, it cost him his job. Last week NPR senior vice-president Ellen Weiss was forced to resign for the clumsy way in which she handled his firing.
Here's what I find interesting. Juan Willians was raised in Brooklyn's rough-and-tumble Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. He probably would not have felt the discomfort I felt walking Fifth Avenue through Harlem. I, on the other hand, lived in the Middle East for years and never felt uncomfortable on an aircraft surrounded by Muslim men wearing traditional clothing. If it happened to me here in the States, rather than being afraid I'd probably engage them in conversation.
The discomfort we both felt was, I would guess, at least partly due to the fact that we were in an unfamiliar situation, a little out of our comfort zone. I would hope that no one would interpret my feelings to assume that I was racist, and I think it is very unfortunate that Juan Willians lost his job after expressing his.
NPR Vice President Ellen Weiss took the fall recently for firing Williams over the telephone. She handled it clumsily, the top brass said, not professionally, so she had to go as well. The real tragedy is not that Williams said what he felt, or whether he was fired in person or over the telephone, or that Weiss also took the blame. It is that all CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, had to do was call NPR as soon as they heard Juan Williams' comments on FOX and express their "deep concern" that he might be "Islamophobic" (in quotes because it is only a cleverly-invented word intended for occasions such as this), and his comments could be "fear-mongering". That NPR would be so fearful of CAIR's bluster that it would immediately call Juan Williams to inform him he was history is the real tragedy.