AS my pickup slammed into the left-turning vehicle in the intersection, I didn't imagine this minor accident would claim such a major casualty: my false sense of America's progress in race relations.
It was around 9 p.m. I was hurrying home, as was the other driver, a young military man, when our fender-bender briefly conjoined our lives. We ascertained there were no injuries and asked a woman who'd stepped out on her porch to call the police.
When the neighborhood gawkers had gone back into their homes, it became apparent the police would take a while longer. ''Come on,'' I said, ''I'm going to give my wife a call and let her know where I am. Do you need to call anyone?'' He decided that was a good idea, so we walked up together and knocked on the door of the woman who had called the police.
I was standing in front of the young man, and when she opened the door, she saw only me. I said, ''Ma'am, we're the ones that had the accident out front, and I was wondering if I could make a quick local call to my wife.'' She hesitated and then said, ''OK, come on in.'' As the other man started to walk in behind me, the woman saw him for the first time. She stepped in front of him. ''What do you want?'' she asked. ''I was involved in the accident, also,'' he offered politely, ''and I wanted to make a call too.'' The woman's countenance changed, she stuttered for a moment, and then said, ''Uh, my husband's out back and you'll have to wait outside until he comes back in.'' The young man stepped back outside, and when I returned from making my call, the woman closed the door.
Oh. I think I forgot to mention that I am white and my young friend is black.
I didn't want to believe what I had witnessed. ''You know, I'll bet she just forgot you were out here or something; why don't you knock and ask her again if you can call?'' I said lamely. He looked at me with a politely forced smile. Shaking his downturned head, he said, ''No that's OK, I'll just wait.'' The look in his eyes, however, said much more. It cried out, ''Mister, she didn't just forget I was out here; this is not nearly the first time I've experienced things like this.''
The police soon came, handled the necessary paperwork regarding the accident, and we drove our separate ways.
I argued with myself that maybe it was just a matter of someone not wanting to allow a stranger to use the phone, but the woman who refused him didn't know either one of us. Maybe it was just a case of one person looking more reputable, but we were both dressed casually. I finally, and sadly, had to conclude that it was unquestionably a valid snapshot of a nation that has still not found a way to live the principles of brotherhood on which it was founded.
Returning home, I told my wife the story and shared my dismay over the unequal treatment I'd witnessed. Still I had no peace. So I pulled out the police officer's report, got the young man's phone number and called his home. But when I was asked to leave a message, all I was able to say was I didn't get a chance to say goodbye, and that I was glad he wasn't hurt.
I would like to tell him, and anyone who is on the receiving end of racial prejudice, what I really feel.
I am so terribly ashamed that there is still anywhere left in our ''land of the free'' where skin color determines the amount of human kindness that we receive. I so deeply regret that the recognition of the inherent sonship of all God's children was momentarily pushed aside by fear and distrust.
So I have renewed my commitment and redoubled my own efforts to judge and respond to all individually ... just as I want them to judge and respond to me.