The sense's ability to discriminate differences serves us daily; it saves lives. When approaching an intersection, the color of the traffic light lets you know whether to stop or continue. Whether you admit it or not, your ability to discriminate differences between people you encounter can also serve you well. In its extreme, discrimination of difference has also resulted in bigotry and the holocaust that killed millions.
That's why Mark Cuban's candid comments on racial discrimination in an Inc magazine interview are both courageous and important in this time of division and rampant political correctness. In measured tones, he observed: "In this day and age, this country has really come a long way putting any type of bigotry behind us, regardless of who it's toward. We've come a long way, and with that progress comes a price. We're a lot more vigilant, and we're a lot less tolerant of different views... We're all prejudiced in one way or another. If I see a black kid in a hoodie and it's late at night, I'm walking to the other side of the street. And if on that side of the street, there's a guy that has tattoos all over his face -- white guy, bald head, tattoos everywhere -- I'm walking back to the other side of the street. And the list goes on of stereotypes that we all live up to and are fearful of."
Even Jesse Jackson said a few years ago, “There is nothing more painful to me … than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”
Red light or green light? Go toward or move away? With strangers in unfamiliar areas, what they wear and how they act contributes to a first impression and our initial reaction. That's why we tell youths to dress appropriately and put on their best behavior when they want to impress. That's why we tell teens that you're known by the people you're with. First impressions matter, but not all can accept that when race is involved.
When the black, ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith took a stand in support of Mark Cuban's comments, many attacked him. People wrote: "Stephen A. Smith ain't black" and "You ain't one of us." Smith fired back, "I do understand that to some degree there is a little of racism we all have to overcome. I get all of that. But it doesn't mean that every single issue is race related. Sometimes it is about how you represent yourself."
When two people initially come together who are obviously different, the differences are likely to dominate whether they acknowledge it or not. Once they come to know each other, those same differences become the background and the similarities take the foreground. There are some people of a different race or ethnicity that you no longer even notice the differences because you know them. As Mark Cuban acknowledged, familiarity helps us get beyond our differences.
But there are some in every race who hurt others. The news and movies frequently reinforce negative stereotypes for ratings--if it bleeds, it leads! So if a group of blacks in an unfamiliar neighborhood are approaching me at night, I'd join Mark Cuban. It's a safety issue; better safe than sorry. But if a group of young blacks approached singing "Amazing Grace," I might cross the street to join in. Discrimination can create distance or attraction.
If I hear a shot ringing out down the hall and someone yelling Allahu Akbar, I'm thinking Islamic extremist. If a woman wearing an open-faced Al-Almira scarf helped me at a retail store, I'd gladly thank her for her service. As the holocaust survivor Victor Frankl once observed, “There are two races of men in this world but only these two: the race of the decent man and the race of the indecent man."
The point Mark Cuban attempted to make during his videotaped interview was the importance of helping people get beyond their prejudices and bigotries:
"I'll try to give them a chance to improve themselves, because I think that helping people improve their lives, helping people engage with people they may fear or may not understand, and helping people realize that while we all may have our prejudices and bigotries we have to learn that it's an issue that we have to control, that it's part of my responsibility as an entrepreneur to try to solve it, not just to kick the problem down the road. Because it does my company no good, it does my customers no good, it does society no good."
That's not just Mark Cuban's job. That's all our jobs. Discrimination can save or enslave. Let's keep working to get beyond first impressions and establish more mutual respect.