I live on a block with many restaurants, including a Hot and Crusty (faux-European-style bakery serving croissants and panini), and a McDonald's. The avenues west of this block of restaurants are upper middle-class, and get trendier by the minute. Around the corner is a youth hostel catering to authentic Europeans, and a boutique hotel stylish for being off the beaten tourist path.
The avenues east of this block are filled with low-income housing populated mainly by Hispanics and African-Americans.
I buy coffee and a bagel every morning at Hot & Crusty in the company of wide-eyed German- or French-accented backpackers (from the hostel and hotel), and bored, frazzled suits on their way to work. Sometimes I go to McDonald's at lunchtime for a fairly decent salad and stand on line behind darker-skinned patrons, students from local public schools, families with little kids, or senior citizens who sit for an hour to nurse a cup of tea.
I rarely see black people at Hot & Crusty. I rarely see white people at McDonald's. Prices are comparable at each restaurant, and both have ample seating and good coffee. Micky D's is actually a little shiner and fancier. The food is equally caloric (grease vs. butter). Why, I wonder, have many of their respective clientele self-selected--habit, custom, an expectation that one group is supposed to eat mainstream fast food and the other, a more pretentious version of same? Why doesn't everyone admit that the bad pizza at Hot & Crusty is as satisfying as the fries at McDonald's, and swap seats every once in awhile?
But one group looks through the front window and sees the other sitting at a table, recalls hundreds of years of stereotypes with barely a conscious thought, and assumes they are unwelcome... do not belong... are in danger. I know I am guilty of this as well, if not at my local McDonald's then in unfamiliar neighborhoods, or perhaps on the subway. I try to be aware of how these small choices can profoundly change the way we live with one another, and usually succeed. But sometimes I forget to think about anyone but myself.
As we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. z"l, I pray that his dreams continue to knock some sense into us all.
(More to come about a very interesting MLK Day event I attended on Sunday.)