Shaken liberal syndrome

I (think) I try really hard not to judge people based on appearances. Something happened this morning that shook me a little. I went out early to walk the dog, and noticed as I was leaving the house, my Wall Street Journal was on the sidewalk just outside my walkway (it’s supposed to be placed on my side porch, but that’s a whole different story.) I should have bent down, picked it up, and threw it inside my fence, on to my property, but I was just walking the dog, and would be back in minutes, and could pick it up on my way back. This is at about 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday, a generally quiet time here on the mean streets of Dorchester.

Ten minutes later, Charlie and I were walking back toward the house, about three doors down, walking toward us was a kid, maybe 16, black, wearing all the stereotypical accoutrements of the urban youth – baggy pants, oversized t-shirt, headphones blaring beat-heavy music. I look at him, because I kind of make it a point to say hi to everyone I pass on my street. As he approaches, I notice he’s kind of wrestling with a newspaper, and I see that it’s the Wall Street Journal. In a split second, I make the assumption that it’s not his paper, it’s mine.  I didn’t see him stoop down by my house or anything, but I just assume the paper is mine. 

When he gets close, I look at him and say hi.  He takes one headphone off, and I say, “you didn’t pick that up from in front of my house, did you?” He says “where’s your house,” and I say “about three doors down.” He says, “Yeah, I did pick it up there.” I say, “Can I have it?” He hands it to me and I say thanks and continue walking home. 

Now I feel guilty that I assumed that this particular kid would not be carrying a Wall Street Journal. Okay, I was right - he did pick it up, but does that excuse the fact that I jumped to a conclusion based solely on his appearance? I mean, when I see a young Irish construction worker come out of a bar, I assume to know what he was doing inside. I am an equal opportunity assumer. But is that a more valid assumption with less racial/ethnic baggage attached to it? Then again, if I said nothing, despite the fact that I just knew that it was my paper, then I am just allowing someone to walk right over me? But isn’t people’s response to those perceived slights the very thing that often escalates tensions?

And I feel guilty that I embarrassed him by catching him red-handed.  How messed up is that? And a lot of things crossed my mind. Did he only give it back so readily because I was walking my pit bull? Or was he genuinely embarrassed that I caught him? Would I have jumped to the same conclusion if it had happened to be my Boston Herald that he had picked up, since he fits the demo for that paper a little bit better? It also crossed my mind (and how unbelievably patronizing is this in my white, middle class, liberal perspective) that the kid, not having gotten the same breaks I got growing up in this neighborhood, may not have known that newspapers left on the sidewalk by the walkway at houses are generally meant for the occupant of the house? For all I know, he was on his way to his Saturday morning summer-at-Harvard prep class for college, or on his way to help Habitat for Humanity build a house somewhere. One might assume (if it’s okay to assume), if he’s headed toward the subway station at 7:30 on the Saturday morning of a holiday weekend that his intentions for the morning will be less than nefarious. So then why am I unable to shake the feeling that he might feel like defacing my property a little bit when he’s on his way home from wherever he was headed this morning?