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Right Opinion

The Gordian Knot of Racism and a Spilled Bag of Apples

Guest Commentary · Jun. 3, 2020

By Mark W. Fowler, J.D., M.D

Lend a helping hand instead of doubt
And the kindness that you show every day
Will help someone along the way.

“Try a Little Kindness,” Glen Campbell, 1970

I worked for a time in Memphis, which reminded me why I returned from medical school and law school to live in Union City. I find big-city traffic frustrating, and it seemed to me that the Memphis climate was always just the other side of intolerable during July, when the episode I am about to relate occurred.

I believe it was July. In any event, it was unbearably hot and humid, which I find hard to endure in my seventh decade. I was in a hurry, as I often am, and traffic being what it always is in mid-day Memphis, I was late for something. Whatever I was late for as well as my frustration in being late paled in the light of the impact of what happened in the grocery store. Medical school taught me the importance of moving briskly — there is usually too much to do and too little time to do it. Moving briskly has its merits, and I learned how much more I could do if I pushed. Unfortunately, not everyone feels the same about moving briskly.

And so, I was standing in line with more in my hands than I could comfortably hold and too far from the belt on which I could lay my groceries. Luck does not smile on a man in a hurry, at least not on me. I had six apples in one of those ethereal containers supermarkets call a produce bag. It gave way, spilling its contents under the candy and magazine racks, and beneath the feet of several shoppers. I had no extra hands at the moment, and little good humor, which must have been obvious to the lady behind me. She laughed and smiled and said, “I hate it when that happens.” She proceeded to pick up the apples and placed them on the belt, even going so far as to retrieve the apples under the rack.

This small act of kindness parted the dark cloud of frustration I was experiencing. It was just a little thing, took only seconds, but it was done with grace and humor and spared me embarrassment and aggravation.

She was African American.

I was so moved, not by my own benevolence but by her kindness, that I paid for her groceries. This brought more smiles, as she related that she needed her modest groceries for her children, and this expense would leave her with just pennies remaining.

African Americans have had a dreadful time in the United States. Slavery, Jim Crow, and millions of acts of discrimination over centuries resonate in their culture and memories. I cannot pretend to understand their frustration over any of this, or their frustration over the frequency of police abuse. The plight of African Americans is the Gordian knot of our time. Poverty, income inequality, illegitimacy, health disparities, educational disparities — all conspire against them.

Notwithstanding government assistance, affirmative action, and the fact that now there are many African Americans in government, media, entertainment, business, law, and medicine, there is still a perception held by African Americans that the deck is stacked against them.

There is no excuse for the rioting and destruction we see on television. And decades after the introduction of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, it is clear that massive government expenditures have not and probably cannot solve the problem.

In Greek mythology, Gordius’ knot was so complex that only someone wise enough to rule Asia could untie it. Alexander the Great cut it in half with his sword, turning the myth from one of wisdom to one of power. Maybe what is needed is not another Alexander but more bags of spilled apples, and people willing to try a little kindness.

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