On our knees, begging forgiveness

Staff WriterFebruary 22, 2004 

I don't know if it was by mere coincidence or planning that during Black History Month I happened on that particular rerun of "All in the Family" in which Archie Bunker, America's all-time racist and all-around bigot, had accidentally locked himself in the basement while other family members were away.

Regardless, the episode provided a meaningful message on race relations.

Scrounging through the family's basement discards, Archie found an unopened bottle of whiskey. One swig led to another and soon Archie was in his cups, feeling sorry for himself and convinced he was dying.

Turning on a discarded tape recorder, Archie sat down on a cot and after dictating his last will and testament -- a true classic -- he drifted off to sleep. His stupor was interrupted by a loud voice from the top of the stairs, "Archie Bunker, are you down there?"

Thinking it was the voice of the Almighty, Archie replied in a quavering voice, "Yes, Lord, I'm here. I'm here, Lord."

"I'm coming for you," the voice boomed from above.

"I'm ready, Lord. I'm ready," Archie replied meekly, resigned.

When, seconds later, he looked up into the face of Mr. Jefferson, his African-American neighbor who had come to his rescue, the astonished Archie rolled off the cot and fell upon his knees, pleading piteously, "I'm sorry, Lord. Forgive me, Lord!"

There are not many of us who should not be on our knees begging forgiveness for the times we have slighted our fellow persons because of race, religion or sex or simply because their convictions did not jibe with our own.

I don't completely agree with the song from "South Pacific": "They have to be carefully taught to hate all the people their relatives hate." Prejudice can easily be absorbed from example.

I never once heard my father make a racist remark. He just didn't instruct us in that area as diligently as he did that God's chosen people were Republican and Baptist and that idleness is the devil's workshop.

Nevertheless, I couldn't help but notice, even as a kid, that while I rode the bus three miles to my school, the black children who lived in the little house at the end of our road walked the three miles to theirs in all kinds of weather. Later, I felt uncomfortable but did nothing when on public transportation the black passengers, some elderly and infirm, were relegated to the back row of seats or forced to stand, although empty seats abounded elsewhere.

The struggle for equality is by no means over, although it sometimes seems that we're more concerned with the subtleties of prejudice rather than the ugly, hard-core stuff of the past.

Example: Southwest Airlines flight attendant Jennifer Cundiff, on a flight between Kansas City and Las Vegas was urging passengers to quickly find their seats by chanting over the income: "Eeenie, meenie, minie, moe; pick a seat, we gotta go!"

Little did she imagine that she and her employer would be smacked with a suit by two African-American sisters, who charged the ditty caused them great pain and suffering.

When the case finally came to trial in January, the jury took only a few minutes to toss it on the grounds that Cundiff, now 25, grew up with "catch a tiger by the toe" as the ditty's last line. She'd never heard the hateful version -- using the n-word -- that the sisters and many of us remember from childhood.

Example: Ten days or so ago, N.C. State University officials apologized for basketball player Scooter Sherrill's reference to Duke opponent J.J. Redick's post-three pointer posturing as making him look like "he's a gay or something."

Example: The same day, Duke University's campus newspaper, The Chronicle, apologized profusely and generously for describing Duke player Luol Deng of Sudan as going "up strong with his orangutan arms" in Duke's win over Virginia.

It is not inconceivable that, ere long, some Eastern North Carolina tobacco farmer will bring suit for having been referred to as a "redneck."

In our commendable zeal to to stamp out prejudice of any kind, let's never forget the history of hatred once so intense that we might well spend an eternity on our knees with Archie Bunker, begging forgiveness for the enslavement of a whole race of people or the march of 6 million Jews into Adolf Hitler's crematoriums.

Columnist A.C. Snow can be reached at 881-8254 or asnow@newsobserver.com.

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